Christine Tacon, chair of the UK’s Red Tractor Assurance scheme, provoked quite a reaction this week with an open letter to members.

The letter essentially sets out the purpose of the scheme and the funding base, which is from farmer membership fees and a licensing payment from processors for its use.

The UK Red Tractor Assurance scheme is broadly similar to the Bord Bia Sustainable Beef and Lamb Scheme (SBLAS) and the Northern Ireland (NI) Farm Quality Assurance scheme, which is part of the Red Tractor scheme, with NI being part of the UK.

The row is over adding a “Greener Farms Commitment” (GFC) as a voluntary option to the standard from next year.

Farmer 'backlash' over GFC

This has created a farmer backlash to a scheme that was, at best, tolerated by farmers, especially in England.

Scotland and Northern Ireland both have separate schemes from England and Wales, and while it would be wrong to say there is farmer enthusiasm for their schemes, there is general acceptance that they have a place in ensuring their beef and lamb is sold in the best markets.

Much of the kickback on social media in England is centred on the burden of bureaucracy being further added to and that, in any case, Red Tractor (RT) accreditation is unnecessary and pointless, as simply adding the Union flag would denote the products' Britishness, and that is all that is required in the UK marketplace.

Who benefits from Red Tractor Assurance?

There is also the perception that the scheme is driven by retailers and processors with farmers left with no choice but to sign up for it.

The announcement by RT on their website about adding the GFC to the scheme doesn’t counter this perception, as it carries lengthy quotes from the major UK supermarkets, but no comment from farmer representatives.

At the start of this week, the National Farmers Union (NFU) have launched two reviews into how farm assurance schemes operate in England and Wales, and whether they provide value for producers.

The first will examine the governance of Red Tractor; the second will look more widely at farm assurance and will be aimed at revolutionising farm-to-fork assurance.

Delivery for farmers

While it is no doubt timely for a review of the schemes from the farmer members' perspectives, there can be no denying the premium price UK beef commands in the UK market.

Whether or not this could be equally achieved without an assurance scheme can be debated, but the reality is that the Red Tractor branding is now part of the fabric of British beef in the UK supermarket sector and beyond.

There is also the perception that the scheme is driven by retailers and processors with farmers left with no choice but to sign up for it

To walk away from this at this stage would be a risk, especially as Australia and New Zealand now join Ireland in offering a very similar product at a much lower price.

There is no doubt the attraction of the scheme from a supermarket and factory supplier perspective. A retailer or factory that has sourced product from farms that have an accredited assurance scheme in place can at a stroke demonstrate that they have exercised due diligence on the product they are offering for sale.

They are undoubtedly clear winners from the Red Tractor Scheme, but would point out that they have been paying UK farmers a premium, especially for beef.

Comparison with Irish beef price

The easiest way to measure the premium that British farmers achieve for RT membership is to compare their farmgate price with alternative supply sources.

For UK supermarkets, the most obvious comparison is with the Irish price, as Irish beef is sold alongside UK beef as part of the offering from Tesco, Sainsbury and Asda.

Currently, the same R3 steer is worth €1.04/kg more (excluding VAT) in the UK compared with the Republic of Ireland. While at least some of that premium could probably be captured without RT, there is no denying that RT has given the UK product branding and value in the retail marketplace.

Indirectly, this poses an interesting dilemma for the value of the Bord Bia SBLAS scheme. This scheme was also updated to reflect the sustainability dimension of beef and lamb production on-farm.

It cannot point to a clear market premium outside of Ireland, despite membership being a requirement for farmers supplying factories that serve Irish and UK supermarkets and burger chains.

The value of the Irish SBLAS scheme is that farmers would probably be worse off without it and be left perhaps with an even lower beef price than the present one.