Red Tractor Greener Farms module

Source: Red Tractor 

Red Tractor chair Christine Tacon apologised for the controversy and promised the scheme would fully consult on any future environmental accreditation

Red Tractor has confirmed it is abandoning its controversial Greener Farms Commitment module, in the wake of a furious backlash from the farming sector.

The farm assurance scheme’s board confirmed the move today. Red Tractor chair Christine Tacon apologised for the handling of the proposed retailer-backed module – which was first announced last October and prompted outrage due to Red Tractor’s failure to consult with farmers over the plans.

The proposed GFC was due to go live in April and was a voluntary, bolt-on module to core Red Tractor standards.

It had been developed to “help farmers, processors and retailers meet the growing need for all to demonstrate sustainability, but in a single, practical and consistent way”, the scheme said.

But its announcement without sufficient industry consultation, and the heavy involvement in its development of major retailers, led to claims by farmers and an array of food sector bodies that the scheme was essentially a “fait accompli”, with Red Tractor accused of “empire building”.

Further concerns were expressed over its potential to become a compulsory module in due course, with no premium paid to farmers for their work on improving on-farm sustainability, despite many already undertaking similar work.

Read more: Does Red Tractor need a jump-start? Meat & poultry category report 2024

The fallout from the scheme’s announcement led the NFU to implement a review of the governance of Red Tractor – which it part owns – and a second probe, launched this week alongside AHDB, into the wider farm assurance picture in the UK, amid growing concerns over a mounting ‘audit burden’ on producers.

The first review, undertaken by consultancy Campbell Tickell, found the farm assurance scheme was “sound” in February. But despite its findings, both the NFU and AHDB recommended the GFC be discontinued on 5 March.

Having taken on board the concerns of the sector, the Red Tractor [Assured Food Standards] board then agreed to ditch the module.

While the GFC had been conceived with the best of intentions, errors had been made, Tacon admitted.

“We take responsibility for those issues and are sorry. We hope that by dropping the module, we can close the door on this chapter and move forward,” she said.

“We will only be involved in future environmental standards when all constituencies across the UK food and farming chain, by sector, ask us to and with full consultation.”

Red Tractor’s AFS board also accepted the conclusions of the Campbell Tickell review of Red Tractor’s governance and confirmed its commitment to implement recommendations to improve engagement with stakeholders and scheme members.

“Whilst the review found that ‘Red Tractor governance is sound’, it also sent a clear message about the frustration farmers are feeling,” Tacon conceded.

Red Tractor CEO: ‘scheme is not here just for farmers’

“We will act now to improve our communications to farmers, including the transparency of our operations, purpose and benefits and we will strengthen our stakeholder engagement.” 

Red Tractor would “listen more closely to our farmers. For example, it has previously found that transparency, audit burden and value are farmers’ top concerns. Significant efforts are already underway to tackle these, which you will hear more about in the next few months”, Tacon insisted.

AHDB and the UK’s main farming unions (NFU, NFU Cymru, NFU Scotland and the Ulster Farming Union) welcomed the decision to abandon the module. 

“It’s also pleasing to see a commitment from Red Tractor that it will only consider future environmental standards with sector consensus and full consultation,” they added. “This is essential in rebuilding trust with farmers from across Britain, something we are pleased that Red Tractor has said is a priority and is already acting upon.”

It comes as AHDB and the unions week officially launched their industry-wide assurance review.

A review commission will be led by Dr David Llewellyn CBE, the former vice chancellor of Harper Adams University. Llewellyn’s fellow commissioners will be James Withers, former CEO of Scotland Food and drink and Mark Suthern, chair of trustees of the Farming Community Network. A fourth commissioner is yet to be appointed.

“A well-structured farm-level assurance system should be efficient, effective and economically viable for farmers and the wider food production system, while also providing confidence to retailers, other food businesses and consumers, that UK produce is among the best in the world,” Llewellyn said.

“The Commission’s work will include an exploration of best practice, consideration of how methods of assurance can provide value to primary producers in a fast-changing environment and a review of the relationship between assurance and regulation.,” he added. “These are complex matters on which we will be seeking the views of the farming industry, and the wider supply chain, to inform our conclusions.”