Several changes have been called for by the NFU and the Tenant Farmers Association (TFA) in their responses to the Red Tractor standards consultation.
The NFU demanded Red Tractor takes a ‘fresh approach’ to setting standards, ensuring they are more meaningful for farmers, increase food supply chain relevance and integrity and deliver value back to the farm.
The union added the assurance scheme should be guided by eight key principles, including providing a platform for growth in the export market for British food and refusing to facilitate hypocritical buying policies which undermine domestic standards.
The TFA, meanwhile, warned of an ‘inevitable ratcheting up of standards which leaves farmers drowning in a sea of red tape’ and said the scheme was adding cost without bringing value to farm businesses.
It called for a more robust and open governance structure with clear lines of accountability for farmers and growers to engender more confidence in the system and less suspicion.
The calls came after Red Tractor faced an industry backlash over the three ’headline changes’ in the consultation, which focused on worker welfare, environmental protection and moving the scheme towards outcome-based standards for animal welfare.
Farmers sitting on Red Tractor commodity boards also expressed their disappointment that scheme leaders refused to delay the consultation at a time of such uncertainty.
While recognising Red Tractor as ’the bedrock of UK agriculture’, NFU deputy president Stuart Roberts said some of the proposed changes had provoked ’strong feelings within our membership’, with concerns about how these changes would push value back to the farmgate.
"There is a real risk that farmers and growers will not see deliverable benefits from the Red Tractor scheme without properly addressing these concerns," he said.
Mr Roberts added the limited use of the Red Tractor logo on end products in the arable sector had left members concerned that high standards delivered domestically are undermined by imports competing in the same market.
"This hypocrisy weakens the integrity of standards and burdens farmers with extra cost," Mr Roberts said.
"There needs to be more transparency about what standards the supply chains are asking for and whether these can be matched by imported product.
“We would also like to see Red Tractor aspiring to be a progressive, cost-effective and flexible assurance scheme which continues to be a vital part of the UK food supply chain.
"It must show it is listening and provide confidence to farmers and growers that new standards are outcome-focused, not just a tick box exercise.”
The TFA also called for an appreciation of statutory and contractual obligations upon landlords and tenants in relation to building and fixed equipment maintenance, repair and replacement, to be built into the work of Red Tractor assessors.
“While the TFA is not arguing for an amnesty in situations where there is a serious risk to consumer safety or animal health or welfare, it is important that certification is not withdrawn from individuals who are either powerless to effect the changes required or need time to achieve the standard of compliance sought,” a TFA spokesperson said.
“It is for this reason that TFA would prefer basic standards to apply on a regulatory basis as this would then give more tenants the opportunity to argue for necessary repairs or replacements from their landlords.”