Your questions answered on crop assurance

Growers want to know what they are getting from crop assurance schemes. Plenty is the view of Assured Combinable Crops Scheme chairman, Tony Pexton. Here he gives his views on a range of questions.


How successful has ACCS been?


Without any fear, I can say it has been extremely successful.


If you include the Scottish scheme, around 80% of grain traded in the UK is assured and about 16,000 farmers are inspected to ACCS standards.


ACCS is by far the biggest scheme in terms of membership and sets the standards that others are licensed to inspect to.

What benefits has assurance given to members? Are they enough to justify the increased costs and paperwork?


One way to answer this is by asking what is the price difference between assured and non-assured grain.


I’ve heard of an 8/t difference in the Midlands, but this is something only the individual can answer.


We’re firmly in a buyers’ market and if you can hang bows and bells on a product that no one else can, you are giving yourself a marketing advantage.


Receivers of our grain reckon storage standards have gone up and they’re getting fewer rejections at intake.


How do you put a value on reduced risk?


Will there always be a minority who are not assured?


Assurance as a concept is now accepted by the vast majority of growers.


There will always be some people who, for whatever reason, haven’t joined the scheme and this is often near to export ports.


It is a commercial decision on the individual’s part whether he goes into assurance or not.


If a producer can find buyers knocking a path to his door without being part of an assurance scheme, then fine.

Isn’t assurance just another form-filling exercise?


Some records are a legal requirement anyway and give the buyer confidence you’re doing the job properly.


We’ve helped reduce the level of environment and food safety risk because we inspect all spray records and spray stores, and have a standard now where the operator has to be a member of the National Register of Sprayer Operators.


We’ve also just introduced a standard for having sprayers tested. It has all helped raise the professional standards of the industry.

How does ACCS compare to other assurance providers?


ACCS represents one standard across the country that everyone (buyer and producer) agrees is appropriate at that moment.


Standards have been deemed as equivalent up until now, but this year Genesis has said it’s not going to introduce sprayer testing as a standard requirement.

What efforts have there been to market assured grain abroad?


I have spoken to various groups that import from the UK and assurance and traceability are two issues that are pushed – they’re points of differentiation.


We’re finding increasing interest in assurance from those who take our grain.


British Cereal Exports and the Grain And Feed Trade Association are working to get an assured chain from the dockside.

Is there a market for non-assured grain in the UK?


If you’re not producing assured grain, you are restricting your markets.


There are fewer and fewer outlets that will take non-assured grain.


Exports used to take a lot, but this is changing, as buyers like to see a chain of assurance.


What changes do you envisage in the next five years?


As a general concept we are trying to ensure people who are inspected to ACCS standards get a benefit out of it so far as other inspections are concerned.


With increasing rules and regulations – such as cross-compliance, the waste directive and nutrient management plans – I would like to get to a position where ACCS members are seen by inspecting bodies as lower risk and less likely to be inspected.


We’re in the process of talking with the Environment Agency, which is interested in such a system.


But I don’t want to be seen as a government policeman.

Will ACCS standards get stricter?


Inevitably there will be a review of standards every year and they are set at a level the trade has input into.


They may well require extra standards to be put in – for example they were very keen on having sprayer testing included – but it’s not a question that we just roll over to the trade’s wishes though.


Should the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution recommendations be included in ACCS if adopted?


Two of the things the report says are: You ought to have sprayers tested; and you ought to have sprayer operators that are up to scratch – precisely what we’ve already got in.


The trade may require extra standards to be put in, as we want to make sure there is less risk of food safety problems, but I’m not going to try to guess what they will be.

Should ACCS standards apply to all grain, whether home-grown or imported?


This has always been a concern.


There are requirements on imports because those who process grain have certain standards to adhere to (for example, testing for pesticide residues or heavy metals).


Part of the reason many buyers prefer UK-assured grain, is they know it’s been produced to set standards, approved by the whole food chain and independently inspected.

How does UK assurance compare with that in the rest of Europe?


As far as I’m aware no one else has an independent inspection system as we do.


But EUREPGAP – which is involved with setting international standards – is looking at standards in Europe.


Sprayer testing is already compulsory in four or five countries.


Australia is also starting to put in standards and an inspection system.


Do you think there’s a need for one assurance body or logo to make it simpler for buyers to recognise assured produce?


We’re getting there with the Little Red Tractor.


At the moment there aren’t a lot of cereal-based products that carry the Red Tractor, but we’re looking at composite products (for example, pies), because the only way you can get the logo is if it’s 90% made with assured products.


The Red Tractor itself is getting better recognised and better support from retailers, the IGD [a food industry think-tank] and government.


Haulage regulations for contractors have been tightened.


Will tighter controls be placed on on-farm haulage e.g tractors and trailers?


At the moment buyers are comfortable with the system.


As long as most haulage is to those standards, that is reducing risk.


But we are aware there are differences between farm haulage and professional contractors.


We’ve got to be pragmatic about what will and will not work.

Could Quality Assurance lead to a licence to farm?


No, it won’t. Whether this develops separately is an entirely different matter.


If it does, then if you’re in an assurance scheme, it should get you a long way.

Why don’t you listen to members?


We have farmer representatives on the standards setting board, with an opportunity to put their case to customers.


Any substantial change to standards has to go to consultation.


About 30 bodies are consulted, including the NFU, Country Land and Business Association, DEFRA, the National Association of British and Irish Millers, Linking Environment and Farming and Consumer Association.