Red Tractor’s new environmental ‘bolt-on’ plan criticised

Plans by Red Tractor to introduce a new environmental “bolt-on” to its existing farm assurance schemes have been heavily criticised by farmers and their representatives, who fear the organisation is overstepping its remit and object to the way it has been developed.

The Greener Farms Commitment (GFC) will launch in April 2024 and is designed to help farmers demonstrate that they are caring for the environment – by delivering improvements in their carbon footprint, biodiversity, nutrient management, soils and waste control.

See also: Red Tractor’s new Greener Farms Commitment scheme stirs debate

It has been developed by Red Tractor in close collaboration with the supermarket lobby group the British Retail Consortium and is intended to avoid the need for multiple audits, as retailers and processors seek assurances that their supplies are being produced sustainably.

The GFC will come with its own green logo to go on food packs, and will align with other schemes, such as Defra’s Sustainable Farming Incentive in England.

Red Tractor insists the module is voluntary, and says it will help Red Tractor farmers differentiate their product.

NFU dismay

But the NFU is angered by the way the module has been developed.

NFU deputy president Tom Bradshaw said: “The NFU has long supported Red Tractor Assurance as vital to allow our members to compete in the marketplaces in which they operate.

“Nonetheless, for the past 18 months we have been robustly challenging the governance behind the development of this environment module.

“I was alarmed that it had been previously decided by the Red Tractor board that all of the technical committees and sector boards where NFU members sit would be bypassed. 

“I have found this position completely unacceptable and said so repeatedly. At no point have expert NFU members and advisors been involved with the development of the crucial details within it.”

Mr Bradshaw also challenged the heavy involvement of the British Retail Consortium in developing the GFC.

“As it stands, there has been no clear vision delivered as to how this is going to add any value at the farm gate, and yet it will help retailers deliver more of their [environmental] requirements, which ultimately brings value.”

Farmer reservations

Grassroots farmers have also expressed their reservations.

Oxfordshire farmer Tom Allen-Stevens questioned the need for Red Tractor to venture into environmental standards at all.

“Red Tractor was introduced in the early 2000s to provide assurance about food safety, and that was fine,” he said.

“The danger is that we will quickly see extra requirements creeping in with this environmental add-on, yet retailers will not pay a penny more.”

Staffordshire arable grower Clive Bailye also doubted that the GFC module would remain optional for long, and feared that supermarkets would use it to demand a slice of any carbon credits or other natural capital generated by farmers. 

“It seems pretty obvious to me that the supermarkets, via the British Retail Consortium and Red Tractor, are going to collect the data, find out what credits we’ve got, and then start demanding that we offer it to them, along with the grain we sell.”

This view has been strongly denied by Red Tractor.

“We recognise that farmers need to be in control of the commercial arrangements they want to make with their customers,” a spokesman said.

“The GFC is the common framework that allows farmers to demonstrate their environmental credentials while also having complete freedom to negotiate an appropriate financial reward from the market.”

Red Tractor’s answers to farmers’ questions

How is this part of Red Tractor’s remit?

One of the purposes of assurance is to deliver maximum market access with the minimum audit requirements. This work recognises increasing market demand for environmental credentials, and the indications that multiple customers will make extra audit demands on farmers. This new environment module offers one set of common criteria which can prevent this possibility.

Will our data be shared with retailers?

Nothing that farmers supply to Red Tractor to demonstrate they are meeting the Green Farming Commitment requirements will be shared with retailers or customers.

Won’t retailers make it compulsory through their contracts?

Not immediately. In the short term, it is more likely that this will be a slow and selective approach, with retailers trialling this over time and through their existing aligned farmer groups.

Who will administer the GFC?

It will be administered by Red Tractor directly, rather than by appointed certification bodies. Unlike core standards, the GFC does not require the same thing at every farm.

Will there be a cost to farmers?

The annual GFC application cost initially will be £125+VAT a year.