We understand the pressures facing farmers in all sectors. We want to offer a positive contribution and the views of our members matter to us very much. In the past couple of weeks, we have been having numerous daily conversations about the range of opinions expressed and continue to do so.
Greener Farms Commitment
The Greener Farms Commitment (GFC) is being designed around the first core principle of assurance – to find a common approach which limits the number of demands on farmers. To achieve something which offers this, it was necessary to work with the British Retail Consortium (BRC) and its members to ensure their commitment. Throughout that process we have sought to represent and protect the interests of Red Tractor farmers, which is why our preparatory work last year included trials with twenty-five farms, for example.
In turn, those customer stakeholders have made it very clear how urgent this is. There is a risk they will use alternative, possibly global standards, which will not differentiate British produce from overseas. In some sectors we can already see sustainability marks being required which are adding cost and complexity for farmers.
Involving farmers in the continued development of the GFC is absolutely essential. We had to have an approved framework for a common industry approach before that work could accelerate in a meaningful way. Following the Red Tractor Board’s agreement on that common approach last month, we announced 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.
Last week saw our Technical Advisory Committees discuss the GFC across every sector as part of that work. The process is already giving us a huge amount of valuable feedback. Strong views are being shared on the approach and those conversations continue.
To call out three examples: Whilst the GFC aligns with the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) in England wherever possible, we need to do more work to ensure this happens as the devolved schemes are developed. We are also focused on important questions about how to incorporate indoor farming operations, and short term rented land.
We will continue to listen carefully to farmers’ feedback and work hard to better understand their point of view. We need to explore every option for achieving as much flexibility as possible for farmers, without diluting the common industry approach. The last several weeks have clearly given us a great deal to consider. The new Development Advisory Panel (DAP), which is being created at the moment, will have a vital role to take full account of the first-hand experience of farmers and we will look for other ways too.
We will continue to answer questions as quickly and openly as we can. For example, quite rightly farmers are concerned about protecting their data. Red Tractor has a clear policy on data sharing – the farmer controls their own data and, as with current systems, nothing is shared without the farmers express permission, which they can withdraw at any time.
I am also aware that much of the concern is about how farmers are recompensed for the overall cost of participating in the GFC. Clearly this is a fundamental question. Will it be paid for by the market, by government incentives or a mix of both? We expect the GFC to align directly with government schemes to enable that funding, wherever possible. Red Tractor has also done cost benefit analyses to understand in detail what costs need to be considered. Ultimately though, the final price paid by the market has to be the result of a commercial negotiation between farmers or growers and their customers.
The GFC is very different from Red Tractor’s core standards – it’s a commitment, a journey for farmers to become more environmentally focussed. It is not pass or fail standards. 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. We clearly need to do a better job of explaining what’s intended and how this is different. We will work hard to achieve this.
This subject has revealed strong feelings across the membership about Red Tractor’s governance which we need to listen to and understand. I want to share my observations as there are some misunderstandings emerging about our organisation and its role.
Twenty years ago, British farming was in crisis. A series of food scandals – BSE, salmonella, and foot and mouth – had devastated the industry. People had lost trust in British produce, threatening the very livelihood of our farming industry. The industry came together to restore confidence in British farming and created Red Tractor (or Assured Food Standards (AFS)) as a new business and standard.
The NFU and the farming unions of Ulster and Scotland are joint owners alongside AHDB, Dairy UK and the British Retail Consortium. The owners are obliged to meet once annually at the AGM and their remit is limited to appointing the Chair, passing resolutions to appoint Directors and, where necessary, amending the Articles. Any request for a review of Red Tractor should be considered by the Ownership Body, who would then instruct Red Tractor’s Main (AFS) Board as appropriate. The team at Red Tractor would cooperate fully to ensure openness and pace.
The owners have no transactional or funding relationship with Red Tractor and they delegate the running of the organisation to the Red Tractor (AFS) Board. The Red Tractor (AFS) Board, which is responsible for approving the business plan, includes many of the major industry stakeholder bodies and external advisors. The composition, together with those of the Sector Board and Technical Advisory Committees, is available on the Red Tractor website.
None of the ownership bodies fund Red Tractor. We operate as a not-for-profit organisation with around 30 employees. We raise our income through farmer membership fees, which account for around 40% of total income, and a licence fee charged to processors and packers, for the use of the scheme and the logo. The license fees fund the marketing of the logo and scheme to consumers. The audits are conducted by accredited independent businesses.
Our purpose is simple: to provide maximum market access for British farmers at minimum cost by developing common standards that meet the majority of the market’s needs. And we provide competitive advantage by differentiating produce through the consumer-facing logo. Red Tractor is recognised and trusted by consumers more than any other assurance mark in the UK.
To achieve its purpose Red Tractor develops standards that meet the needs of consumers, and the organisations that supply them, and provide reassurance that food is safe and farmed with care. We continuously balance the needs of the market, with what is viable for farmers and the supply chain. We consider many other influences on the supply chain, including overseas competitors, the work of Government and Devolved Administrations, and other groups that impact shopping criteria and buying decisions. The demands of these stakeholders are evolving, particularly in relation to sustainability.
Red Tractor has become one of the world’s most comprehensive food chain assurance schemes and our logo now appears on more than £15 billion of food and drink every year. The organisation assures every stage of the food chain from farm, transport, markets, processors and packers, right through to retailers and restaurants.
We will continue to listen to your feedback and find ways to work together with our members to improve our partnership.
Christine Tacon, Chair, Red Tractor