The NFU has launched reviews into both Red Tractor and the wider farm assurance framework in the UK, following a backlash by farmers over a new, retailer-backed Red Tractor environmental accreditation.
The probe into Red Tractor will examine the body’s governance, looking at its decision-making procedures and transparency, in addition to who was consulted by Red Tractor in the development of its standards.
The “balance of this feedback” and how Red Tractor engaged with farmers would also be examined, the NFU said, alongside an examination of the effectiveness of these processes.
The review is due to be completed by the NFU Council’s next meeting in January.
It follows outrage from large parts of the farming sector earlier this month over the announcement of Red Tractor’s new Greener Farms Commitment (GFC) – a voluntary ‘bolt-on’ module to its core farm assurance scheme – which will offer farmers, processors, and packers one set of common environmental criteria.
Though the module gained the early support and input of key UK retailers and the BRC, farmers, including members of the NFU hierarchy, slammed Red Tractor for its failure to sufficiently consult them over its plans – with the new framework set to come into force on 1 April.
Red Tractor, while run independently, is jointly owned by the NFU and the farming unions of Ulster and Scotland, alongside AHDB, Dairy UK and the British Retail Consortium.
The second, larger NFU review hoped to “revolutionise” farm to fork assurance by looking at the wider farm accreditation picture – asking whether farmers “still get fair value from assurance schemes”, while also looking at the relevance of assurance to different sectors and whether the ‘one size fits all’ model was fair and correct.
The review, proposed by NFU president Minette Batters, would also examine the impact on farmers’ and growers’ mental health, with the aim of “repurposing assurance in a post-Brexit world”, the union said. It comes amid mounting concerns that myriad competing accrediation standards across the food sector are becoming increasingly onerous for food producers.
Batters added it was time “to look at what works and what doesn’t, and to make sure assurance is fit for purpose in the years ahead”.
“It’s critical that this involves a wide consultation with NFU members through their boards, both regional and sector, and also that it is a collaborative review, undertaken across all the farming organisations,” she said.
In response, a Red Tractor spokesman said: “Our chair, Christine Tacon, commented in her open letter to Red Tractor members earlier this week, that any request for a review of Red Tractor should be considered by the ownership body – who would then instruct Red Tractor’s main [Assured Food Standards] board as appropriate.
“The team at Red Tractor would co-operate fully to ensure openness and pace.”
Tacon’s open letter stressed the GFC module had been a response to “urgent” action from retailers in particular for an environmental accreditation framework – hence its work with the BRC and its members to “ensure their commitment”.
“There is a risk [retailers] will use alternative, possibly global standards, which will not differentiate British produce from overseas,” she added. “In some sectors we can already see sustainability marks being required which are adding cost and complexity for farmers.”
Tacon added involving farmers in the continued development of the GFC was “absolutely essential”, pointing to a six-month timetable “to do more work with farmers and growers, to refine the content of the GFC and consider how it will be practically applied in different sectors”.
However, she also conceded that Red Tractor “clearly need to do a better job of explaining what’s intended” and how it was different to its core standards – following criticism over the GFC’s announcement and concerns the scheme would ultimately become compulsory, with no premium paid to farmers for their work on improving on-farm sustainability.
The GFC was “a commitment, a journey for farmers to become more environmentally focused. It is not pass or fail standards,” Tacon added. “Farmers upload their plans and actions, as opposed to being physically audited, and the GFC will recognise other programmes and national schemes to prevent duplication.”