Green module row threatens credibility of Red Tractor: Comment

22nd October 2023 | Comment, Company News, UK Policy & Regulation

The current row over a proposed environment module within the Red Tractor assurance scheme risks grower confidence in the wider scheme.

Red Tractor emerged in the wake of the BSE crisis in the late 1990s, when there was a very real threat of a pathogen causing degenerative disease in humans being transmitted through livestock and the meat supply industry.

While the eventual number of fatalities was thankfully much smaller than that forecast by some experts, it was enough for a new approach to food safety in the UK – many of the food chain checks that consumers had assumed were in place in fact weren’t.

This led to the formation of the Food Standards Agency to regulate this area, while the farm sector had already acted to assure food standards at the primary production stage through new farm assurance schemes, supported by the whole food chain and now consolidated under Red Tractor. Farm assurance in turn led to trade assurance – common standards for handling and storing crops and feed materials post farmgate, and for the manufacture of finished feeds.

There was farmer opposition to the assurance schemes at the time – some expected premiums and the issue of imported food standards continues to rumble on. But farm standards have improved – no-one would want to return to the pre-assurance farm grain stores open to contamination from birds, rodents and whatever might be stored alongside the grain.

However, this achievement and the scheme’s credibility is at risk if farmers lose faith in Red Tractor over the proposed extension to cover environmental compliance. Many in the farming sector fear this is a move by supermarket body the British Retail Consortium to burnish retail ESG credentials with no reflection of the additional costs at farm level.

There is a clear need to consolidate environmental standards and audit trails for biodiversity, carbon removal and sequestration, rather than a multiplicity of competing standards and checks. But this must work – and benefits must be shared – along the whole agrifood chain.

It would be tragic if all the work done by Red Tractor to improve food safety over the last 25 years were to be undone by a breakdown in relations between primary producers and retailers over this move. The Red Tractor board needs to fundamentally rethink its approach to the environmental standards issue – being fair to all interested parties if it is to keep them on board. And work on its public relations.