David Richardson

A FEW INACCURACIES apart, I do not have a big problem with the report on The Little Red Tractor launched by the Sustainable Development Commission. As chairman of Linking Environment and Farming, I sat on the committee whose deliberations led to the formation of assurance schemes. I remember saying that the proposals did not go far beyond legal requirements and that if adopted there would be demands to improve. I am surprised it has taken so long.

But back then I was forced to concede that for most farmers even the baseline standards called for, together with acceptance of independent inspection, were as much as they would agree to. I was disappointed, subsequently, when the NFU council chose a logo more meaningful to producers than to consumers. It seemed to me then and still does that it missed the point.

The idea was to increase the attractiveness of British food, not British farm machinery. But the decision had been taken and would not be changed, so a few of us, even then, suggested hooking a green trailer on the back of the tractor for consumers who wanted something extra; phrases that have been repeated during this latest debate.

Moreover, although David Clarke, chief executive of Assured Food Standards, defended robustly the current scheme, it is clear from his and NFU president, Tim Bennett’s, responses to the SDC that they accept the need for an update. Such an exercise will not go as far or as fast as the SDC would like, but at the very least it will be necessary to make the LRT standard compatible with cross-compliance.

I suspect that would be seen as a big achievement by SDC chairman, Jonathon Porritt, even if he does not admit it publicly. His commission”s role, after all, is essentially that of a ginger group and demanding more than you expect is fundamental to how such bodies work.

So, those of us in assurance schemes can expect to have to tick a few more boxes in future. But doing so should, I hope, be no more onerous than complying with regulations already in place, compliance with which is necessary to qualify for a single farm payment.

Form filling

Certainly, that was a point I made to DEFRA officials who attended the launch of the SDC report. I explained that on our farm we now have one tractor driver, no secretary, and that the rest of the work has to be done by my son and myself. That does not leave many hours for form filling. I suggested we were typical and that they should bear that in mind as they generated yet more paperwork for us to respond to.

The key weaknesses of the Sustainability Commission”s report were the scant attention it gave to achievability and the cost-effectiveness of higher standards in the present economic climate. To be fair, one of the definitions of sustainability it mentioned was “to provide a viable livelihood for farmers, processors and retailers”. We don”t need to concern ourselves with retailers, even though some are finding it tough to live with Tesco. Most processors, too, can look after themselves. It is those of us at the bottom of the food chain who are most vulnerable to increased costs and static or falling returns.

But as much as the SDC would like it to be otherwise, there is a limited market for high environmental standards. Out of a total food UK spend of over 100bn a year, organic food, which Jonathon Porritt controversially called the “Gold Standard” and which gets more free publicity from the media than it deserves, accounts for a mere 1bn. Farm shops and farmers” markets gross 4bn, and that is encouraging. Most of the rest is bought by less discriminating consumers concerned mainly with price and convenience.

Meanwhile, retailers scour the world for even cheaper products to maintain or increase their profits while responding to that price-obsessed majority. Unless that greenhouse gas-generating trend can be controlled, accurate labelling imposed and the awful realities of production in some exporting countries becomes known, the influence of the LRT will be limited to a niche of caring buyers.

But as Jonathon Porritt said, there are many sustainable things being done “invisibly”. What farmers, the LRT and the SDC need to do is to jointly mount a sustained programme to inform consumers just what they are buying and how it has been produced. An initiative like that might get somewhere.

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