Red Tractor has created a new, retailer-backed, environment-focused accreditation framework – designed to “meet the needs of the market with a single consistent industry approach” to sustainability credentials.
However, parts of the farming sector have reacted with outrage over a perceived lack of industry consultation by Red Tractor to the voluntary scheme, with some describing the move as a “fait accompli”.
The Greener Farms Commitment module, which will be available from 1 April, will offer farmers, processors, and packers one set of common environmental criteria. It will sit outside and operate separately to Red Tractor’s core standards, with its own distinct label.
The new framework has secured the support of supermarkets including Tesco, Sainsbury’s Morrisons and M&S Food, in addition to the BRC. Red Tractor CEO Jim Moseley said the widespread retail backing given to the module offered the food sector “a unique opportunity to make this common industry approach work”.
The module would “enable farmers to make commitments and track their own progress across five key areas for environmentally focused farming: carbon footprinting; soil management; nutrient management; waste management; and biodiversity”, Red Tractor said.
And it would recognise other programmes such as Defra’s Sustainable Farming Incentive and other devolved government schemes, “reducing the cost and complexity, and making it as easy as possible for farmers to complete”, it added.
Development of the module started in 2020 in response to concerns that the supply chain and farmers in particular were coming under mounting pressure from a “multitude of audit demands” over sustainability.
But Red Tractor and its retail partners have come in for stiff criticism in the wake of the announcement this week over how the scheme has been communicated, and how it could potentially drive through environmental improvements – at huge costs to farmers – but with no premium.
The NFU was quick to distance itself from the project this week, with deputy president Tom Bradshaw stressing it had “not been involved with the development of the bolt-on module” in a post on X (formerly Twitter).
In a statement, the union added: “It is critical any new Red Tractor module is developed through the approved governance structures to make sure all parts of the supply chain understand the implications for our members.”
The reactions of other farmers on X were even stronger, with one accusing Red Tractor of “empire building”, while others questioned “how long the voluntary bit will last”.
One senior industry leader told The Grocer the scheme’s communication “has not been handled well by RT, as can be seen by reaction from the farming sector”.
Meanwhile, British Apples & Pears executive chair Ali Capper, whose organisation has also started championing the need to reduce the environmental audit burden, described the lack of consultation as “an extraordinary governance situation”.
“The process by which new standards and modules have always emerged from Red Tractor in the past involves consultation with their Technical Advisory Committees, which comprise farmers, growers and technical representatives from UK retailers,” she pointed out.
The UK had “very high” standards “but they are coming at a cost”, she warned, with a “huge duplication of audits demanding ever more time, cost and money from growers”.
For most growers in UK horticulture, Red Tractor was “simply a licence to sell”, she added.
“Many UK fresh produce and apple and pear growers now also need the Leaf audit if they supply most major UK supermarkets. For those growers, this new Red Tractor module will create duplication and unnecessary cost. We hope Red Tractor will provide ‘earned recognition’ and simply accept the Leaf audit instead.”
Capper’s comments were echoed by Dairy UK CEO Judith Bryans, who, while broadly being in favour of a “baseline” environmental standard, said “it will be important for it to take the time to explain the benefit and the detail of this initiative as farmers will understandably be nervous about potential additional cost and how the standards will impact their businesses”.
And Leaf – whose standard could effectively be duplicated by the Red Tractor scheme – told The Grocer the module should be welcomed if it could be shown “to have a positive impact on the environment, while also helping more producers build the commercial resilience of their farms”.
However, CEO David Webster also warned the module should complement existing frameworks like the Leaf Marque “that are well established and already helping many farmers across the globe deliver against these important societal goals”.
In response to the criticism, Red Tractor stressed the module was widely supported by supermarkets, while work was underway on a development advisory panel, which would take input from farmers on its rollout.
“The initiative takes a new approach which will offer benefits to everyone,” added Moseley.
“It gives Red Tractor farmers a new way of differentiating their product and a consistent framework to talk about their environmental credentials. The GFC is designed to protect farmers from future audit demands, costs and complexity.”
While some farmers may not be facing these questions from their customers yet, “there is clear evidence from some agricultural sectors that alternative schemes have added cost, duplication and complexity for Red Tractor farmers”, he added.
And for processors and packers, the common industry approach “should reduce the need for a multitude of product lines to be segregated, which could be substantial if customers start to develop their own bespoke programmes”, Moseley pointed out.
“Retailers are under increasing pressure to disclose how their sourcing policies promote positive management of soil, water and biodiversity both to consumers and investors,” said BRC director Andrew Opie.
“The new Red Tractor module offers the opportunity for farmers to deliver that assurance in a consistent, efficient scheme. Farmers in other countries are already embarking on similar schemes but we feel the Red Tractor scheme puts British farmers in the strongest position to demonstrate their credentials alongside quality and provenance to British consumers.”