‘Time for change’: NFU and AHDB announce review of farm assurance

The NFU and AHDB will carry out a review of farm assurance schemes as a whole, following the recent controversy over Red Tractor’s Greener Farms Commitment.

The NFU and AHDB will carry out a review of farm assurance schemes as a whole, following the recent controversy over Red Tractor’s Greener Farms Commitment.

NFU and AHDB have announced that it is “the right time” to conduct a robust and transparent review to ensure assurance schemes are fit for purpose in the modern farming environment, for both their members and for home and international markets.  

The review, which will seek to capture views from across the whole industry, including farmers, growers, merchants and processors, will examine, among other things, how farm assurance can deliver value back to scheme members and how standards are developed to meet the evolving needs of members, the markets they serve, sector diversity, and in appreciation of the global marketplace.  

The reviewers will also check how assurance members are engaged with, including the development of standards, inspections and how technology is used in assurance now and in the future. They will furthermore look at how assurance schemes can and should fit with regulations and government schemes to best serve members.  

NFU and AHDB said that inevitably Red Tractor will be considered as part of this process as it is the dominant assurance scheme in many key sectors, but this is only a part of the purpose of the review, which is focused on all areas of farm assurance.     

The organisations added that, as it has been almost 25 years since the creation of Red Tractor, there is a need to “step back and ask some fundamental questions about all farm assurance schemes to ensure the needs of farmers are met”.    

The next steps include the appointment of an independent commission to oversee the review and ensure full transparency, and the opportunity for farmers and industry to have their say. Further details will be announced in due course.    

Time for change 

NFU president Minette Batters, photo by NFU.

NFU president Minette Batters said: “The world is very different to the way it was when farm assurance schemes started in the UK some 25 years ago, not least thanks to huge changes in the way food is produced, coupled with increased interest from consumers about where their food comes from.  

“It’s time for change. Farmers and growers don’t feel that many schemes currently work for them. This review will see us go back to basics to look at the future of assurance, and I would encourage the entire industry to positively engage with it.  

AHDB chair Nicholas Saphir, photo by AHDB.

“Food safety, branding, provenance, differing sector needs, and sustainability are just some areas that farm assurance is trying to address. It is right to ask how these areas can be delivered without giving away value from the farm gate.”  

AHDB chair Nicholas Saphir added: “We are consistent in stating that it is vital that the reputation of levy payers’ produce is maintained by assurance and, where relevant, audits, to underpin the work we do on behalf of the industry in regard to promotion in the home and export markets.  

“This independent evidence-based review will allow us all to understand and address the future needs and opportunities that assurance has to play for the successful future of our industry.” 

Backlash among farming communities

The move by NFU and AHDB comes after Red Tractor issued its voluntary environment module last year, which was set to be available from April 2024. While the news was welcomed by retailers, farmers fiercely criticised the move.   

According to Red Tractor, the module would offer farmers, processors and packers one set of common criteria, and would set to operate very differently from the typical core standards. The aim, Red Tractor said, was to tackle the potential increase in audit demands on farmers as retailers, out-of-home operators, and brands face pressure to source produce more sustainable.  

The Greener Farms Commitment was set to focus on carbon foot printing, soil management, nutrient management, waste management and biodiversity.  

However, a backlash on social media and forums saw farmers raise serious concerns that the module could become compulsory, forcing farm businesses to spend more on higher environmental standards, without being paid for it.  

Awaited review 

Red Tractor then confirmed it would not progress with the implementation of any new standards or additional modules until the first NFU review, which focuses on governance, had been completed. A separate, wider look at food chain assurance and its role within the supply chain will also be carried out.

At the end of November last year, the NFU appointed consultants Campbell Tickell to complete the independent review of Red Tractor’s governance. The review aimed to look at Red Tractor’s decision-making procedures and transparency; who the organisation consults in the development of standards; and how it engages with stakeholders.

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