12 May 2001

Marques of greenness

A new scheme is on the cards that will make you glad to be green. Tom Allen-Stevens reports

WHICH potatoes would you like? The cheap ones, the organic ones or the ones grown by farmers who are proactively helping to preserve the environment? This is a choice your local supermarket has never been able to offer – until now.

A new scheme is being put together that, it is hoped, will reward those growers who do take a proactive stance in improving standards. LEAF is behind it. For years the organisation has striven to raise environmental standards on farm and awareness of them to the world in general. With the new LEAF Marque scheme it hopes to reward those growers who have responded.

"We want to give recognition to growers who have achieved far more than just the base standards, and to consumers the chance to be able to buy food produced by farmers who have implemented integrated farm management (IFM)," says Jeremy Boxall, LEAFs commercial officer.

And this is no pie in the sky idea, insists Mr Boxall. Waitrose has thrown its support behind the scheme. Fruit and vegetable manager, John Foley, is also keen that proactive environmental growers are given the recognition they deserve: "LEAF is made up of people who, of their own volition, have positioned themselves at the forefront of sustainable farming. It seems only natural we should support an initiative that enables us to source directly from them."

Forward

The plan at this stage is to take the scheme forward with Assured Produce (APS) growers who are also members of LEAF. This could include other producer groups – regional marketing initiatives, for example.

If all goes well, the recently announced Agrivision event this winter could be the platform for the launch, with roll-out expected next spring. The next stage would then be to take the scheme into cereal crops. "We sell bread grown with Canadian wheat, why not have a loaf grown with LEAF wheat?" says Mr Foley.

But would Waitrose customers actually be interested? "We did some research for APS looking at the wish list of environmental standards our customers would like to see. These went way beyond the standards of the current scheme. In environmental terms, APS is lightweight."

The next stage will be to see whether this will be carried through to buyer habits. Once the scheme goes ahead, there will be in-store promotion to inform buyers what it is all about. Purchases made under the scheme will be closely monitored to see whether buyer attitudes tally with actual purchasing decisions.

"Its about empowering the customer by their purchases to respond. If they wish to support the scheme then we will buy more from those suppliers. Well initially ask no extra from our customers. Whether a premium develops depends on progress."

This goes against the hopes LEAF has for the scheme. "We would like to think that a premium will be paid for this produce as the consumer will not value its attributes unless there is a price differential," says LEAF. But it is very early days, points out Mr Foley, and there are still a great many issues that have to be resolved.

One fundamental on-farm requirement that has been resolved is that the grower is to be independently audited. "The scheme must be auditable to give it substance. But we dont want to see LEAF impose any more bureaucracy on growers, so it has to work with APS as a bolt on module," says Mr Foley.

Building an audit for the scheme is no problem, says APS scheme manager Adrian Wallbridge: "LEAF already has a standard and a checklist. All well be doing is replacing the internal self-audit with an external one. It will be carried out at the same time as the APS and ACCS audit."

He does not feel this will put too much more of a burden on growers, whom he feels will be keen to join: "This is a truly voluntary scheme and growers will only be joining it because they believe in the values LEAF stands for."

A trial has been the first step of testing the audit process. It has now been put on hold, due to the foot-and-mouth crisis, but not before Russell Smith Farms in Cambridgeshire was given a trial run.

"It wasnt an awful lot of extra work for me," says manager Andrew Nottage. "The audits for all three schemes – ACCS, APS and LEAF – were carried out on the same day, so I had all the paperwork out ready. If youre not careful you have half a dozen different audits, and that takes time."

Generally the LEAF audit stood an external scrutiny well, although there were one or two points where Mr Nottage feels there may be a danger of more needless paperwork creeping in.

"The audit asks for an integrated production and marketing plan. Generally we do integrate the two, but a lot is done on verbal agreements. The external audit requires written proof of many of the sort of things you just dont write down. It can be quite a time-consuming exercise to do so."

How it will be received in the supermarket also worries him: "A lot of purchases are very price-driven, although Waitrose is at the forefront in this area and is the right supermarket to take it forward."

The plan is to use a logo on the produce, but this is where some real differences of opinion come in. Mr Foley feels that it would be very difficult to ratchet up standards of existing assurance schemes to the level required by Waitrose. Chris Barnes, chairman of Assured British Foods, responsible for the Little Red Tractor logo, believes it is important to identify first where standards should be raised and whether the basic requirements are appropriate.

But he accepts that the environment is a very sensitive and personal issue. "I dont think it would be sensible to push standards so high that it turns people off. But there is a demand for environmental produce and people may be prepared to pay for it. We shouldnt deny ourselves that opportunity and a bolt-on standard may be necessary, but Im not sure how we would designate it."

Ideas include a green tractor logo, or red tractor on a green background, or even a red tractor towing a trailer made of the LEAF symbol.

Mistake

But there is a very strong feeling that another logo would be a mistake. Mr Barnes feels it is important that the Little Red Tractor is not debased by a new logo. "You would have to be careful to ensure the customer knows theyre not only buying safe, wholesome food, but food produced by a grower who is proactively preserving the environment."

Customers themselves may also be confused. Research carried out before the Little Red Tractor was launched revealed that consumers were indeed baffled by the 17 logos used on produce to denote quality or country of origin.

"The whole point of the tractor was to consolidate the logos and give the consumer just one to look for," says Helen Lo, who has co-ordinated the NFU effort to promote the tractor.

Overall the LEAF Marque scheme has been welcomed as a big step forward for growers. Mr Foley accepts there are plenty of issues to resolve before Waitrose can take it forward, but urges all involved not to throw the baby out with the bath water. "It could be and I believe will be a great benefit to growers."