It sounds good, but look closer and you’ll discover the Red Tractor stamp of quality assurance and approval for food is nothing more than a clever marketing manoeuvre, writes Lush Times columnist, Miles King
Wherever we live and however much we care about where the food we consume comes from, it all has an environmental impact of one kind or another. This is an inescapable truth.
When there were just a few hundred thousand humans on the planet, and they were busy killing and eating megaherbivores (if this means nothing to you, then read my column from a couple of weeks ago on Sudan the Rhino) it’s reasonable to argue that the environmental impact of their food consumption was no different from, say, the eating habitats of Rhinos or Elephants. They were part of the ecosystem.
Now, with 7.6 billion people on the planet and agriculture taking up over one third of the total land surface of the planet, it is no longer possible to talk about the impact of producing food for people, as equivalent to, say, an Elephant chomping on some acacia branches. So, if we care where our food comes from, we need to know about the impact its production has - on the environment, on the climate, on wildlife.
If we grew the food ourselves or we live near to the farmers, we would instinctively know. But in the urban industrialised countries like England this is less likely. And in that case we need some sort of system that can help us to choose foods, or production methods, which have less of an adverse impact, bearing in mind they all have impacts. That system is called quality assurance.
For some (especially at Lush), a move to a vegan diet means that all the impacts associated with eating meat or animal products, can be factored out. For others, eating food produced organically, or using permaculture, is the approach they prefer. If you buy organic food, you can be confident that the food you buy has been grown to organic standards because they have a label, showing that the Soil Association or another organic quality assurance system, has checked that the farmer is doing what they say they are doing.
But what about everyone else? Lots of people care about where their food comes from and the impact of its production but they are not willing or able to buy organic food or go vegan. The supermarkets are very keen to portray their food as having been produced carefully with minimal impact on the environment. There are clever, some might suggest, misleading ways they do this: Some create “fake” brands - showing pictures of bucolic scenes of rural idylls. A recent legal challenge saw the owners of a real farm called Woodside Farm, threaten to take Tesco to court, over their fake Woodside Farm brand, which they used to sell pork (not supplied by the real Woodside Farm). But the issue goes far deeper and wider than fantasy branding.
Environment Secretary Michael Gove, in his big speech at the Oxford Farming Conference in January, criticised the plethora of confusing claims about and labels on food, and shared his vision of one, gold standard, system telling the audience:
“Which is why I want us, outside the EU, to develop new approaches to food labelling. Not just badging food properly as British, but also creating a new gold-standard metric for food and farming quality.
There are already a number of ways in which farmers can secure recognition for high animal welfare or environmental standards from the Red Tractor scheme to the Leaf mark. But while they’re all impressive and outstanding there’s still no single, scaled, measure of how a farmer or food producer performs against a sensible basket of indicators, taking into account such things as soil health, control of pollution, contribution to water quality as well as animal welfare.
We’ve been in discussion with a number of farmers and food producers about how we might advance such a scheme and I think that, outside the EU, we could establish a measure of farm and food quality which would be world-leading.”
Red Tractor is probably the single most well-known food assurance standard and appears on many different food items now. It certainly gives an impression of authenticity, even official approval. But in truth it’s a creation of the food industry and the farming industry. Red Tractor was created by the National Farmers Union (NFU) and the British Retail Consortium, and continues to be controlled by these two large vested interests. It does not have the consumer’s interests as its first priority.
Red Tractor will be doing a lot of expensive tv advertising over the next few months, with the express ambition of ‘cementing’ Red Tractor in the mind of the consumer, as the symbol of assurance, of trustworthiness - that food with the Red Tractor logo has been produced to the highest possible standards. But when you look at the standards (as I have) there is, in some cases, less than meets the eye.
The standards are a rule book for farmers to work to - they include things that must be done (which are often already legal requirements) and then there are recommendations, which may or may not be followed. It might surprise you that there is no requirement or recommendation that beef or dairy cows have access to pasture.
Nor are there any requirements to protect or encourage wildlife on farms to qualify for Red Tractor status. Other assurance schemes, including LEAF, do have stronger requirements for managing farmland such that wildlife can co-exist with food production, but not Red Tractor. The only requirement for Red Tractor farms is that they comply with the law and the existing regulations called Cross Compliance, which are part of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). And of course, thanks to Brexit, we will be exiting the CAP and its rules - at the end of next year.
And while Mr Gove might be talking about a new Gold Standard for food labelling and assurance, quietly in the background, the ground is being prepared for something else. Under Cross Compliance, the Government’s regulators at the Environment Agency, checked on pig and chicken farms to make sure that they were operating in a way which did not damage the environment (unduly). Last week, the Government announced that a new option was available for pig and chicken farmers. They could forego the expensive Environment Agency checks, as long as they joined an Assurance Scheme - like Red Tractor!
So it seems the Government is already outsourcing farm regulation, in advance of us leaving the “bureaucratic burdens” placed on us by the EU (which are actually there to protect us, as consumers). Bearing in mind the Red Tractor is a scheme set up by the food and farming industry, for their benefit, not ours, I don’t find this particularly reassuring.
Miles King is an Ecologist, founder of People Need Nature and a regular columnist for Lush Times. These are his own views. Follow him on Twitter @Milesking10