Calls for Red Tractor review after recent controversies
20th October 2023
Following the recent introduction of a voluntary environment, Red Tractor has come under significant criticism from farmers and farming groups for “taking a step too far”. NSA is calling for a review of its governance and future direction, while the AHDB said it supports discussion on the future of farm assurance.
It was widely criticised by farmers on social media, with many concerned that the module would not remain voluntary, and risked imposing significant additional costs on farmers, whilst gaining nothing in return.
Farmer and agronomist Russell McKenzie said on X: ’It’s an absolute shocker, at a point when farmers are fed up with a lot of aspects of Red Tractor as it is, this is the final straw & it has to change.’
Responding to the criticism, Red Tractor defended the GFC, saying it aims to protect farmers from from future audit demands, costs and complexity.
GFC “sideswipes” sheep farmers
The National Sheep Association has said the latest announcement from Red Tractor “sideswipes” the sheep farming sector.
The group is “deeply concerned” that none of the details of the GFC were discussed with those directly impacted. Following an extraordinary meeting of the NSA English Committee, it is calling for a ‘root and branch’ review of the assurance scheme and its governance.
NSA chief executive Phil Stocker said the organisation continues to support the concept of farm assurance, but has “long been frustrated that the scheme is losing its way and has become less relevant to sheep farmers, with little acceptance of the unique nature of our sector”.
With most of the nation’s sheep farmers being family farms and single operators, he said “becoming Red Tractor Assured presents a huge hurdle for many sheep farms, and for most of the sector’s routes to market it adds no value.”
Chair of the NSA English Committee Kevin Harrison added: “It is quite telling that those responsible for the governance of the assurance scheme felt the need to work on this behind closed doors without even consulting their boards or technical advisory committees.”
Mr Stocker went on to say that the new GFC is “a step too far” and does not accept that it will remain a voluntary scheme.
Whilst NSA is fully prepared to continue to work with the Red Tractor scheme in a constructive way, Mr Stocker wants to see a review of its governance and direction, and said the NSA would not be part of any Development Advisory Panel for the GFC, as it needs to go “back to the drawing board” with full debate and discussion within the farming community.
“An imposition without a reward”
AHDB has also said it is ready to support discussions on the future of farm assurance, following the backlash.
Whilst noting the need to prove our high standards of food production, and to respond to the changing needs of consumers, AHDB chair Nicholas Saphir said:
“The reaction to Red Tractor’s Greener Farm Commitment module proposal, whatever its merits, and ongoing discussions in the cereals and oilseeds sector and amongst beef and lamb producers is evidence that many farmers are beginning to consider that assurance is becoming an imposition without a reward and that there is a lack of buy-in to the case for, and potential benefits of, effective farm assurance.”
He added: “AHDB will contribute with independent evidence that helps provide a view on the value of assurance in supporting British farmers. We are already working on an independent international comparison study of competitor beef and lamb standards and today we have announced a similar study within the cereal and oilseeds sector.”
Lack of involvement
Responding to the backlash, NFU deputy vice president Tom Bradshaw said he was “alarmed” that the Red Tractor Board had previously decided that all of the technical committees and sector boards where NFU members sit would be bypassed.
“We have never said that as one of the 18 members of the Red Tractor board we didn’t have knowledge of the module, but at no point have expert NFU members and advisors been involved with the development of the crucial details within it.”
He said the NFU had spent the past 18 months “robustly challenging” the governance behind the development of the GFC and had achieved a number of concessions at the Red Tractor board meeting in September.
Defending the GFC on BBC 4’s Farming Today programme, Red Tractor CEO Jim Moseley said: “We know that almost all retailers are looking to demonstrate their environmental commitment. Our concern is that could potentially lead to a multitude of demands on farmers and that those farms are going to be inundated with requests for different carbon footprints, different approaches on biodiversity etc etc.
“So where we started from is trying to develop a common industry approach that would reduce the number of programmes, audits or things farmers would have to do by having one simple module that meets the needs of all of those retailers and brands and OOH operators.”