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Chugging along or stuck in the mud?

19 January 2005

A report published today (Wednesday 19 January 2005) by the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) calls for improvements to food assurance schemes to offer better choice for consumers in terms of environmental, welfare and nutritional issues.

'Sustainability Implications of the Little Red Tractor Scheme' analyses the main stamp of approval for British food, set up in 2000 to reassure people on food safety, animal welfare and environmental impacts. It claims that the Little Red Tractor (LRT), now managed by Assured Food Standards (AFS), does not go far enough.

The report concludes that the LRT:

- Meets minimum regulatory requirements, and has an effective approach to regulation and on-farm inspection

- Provides minimum reassurance on food safety, animal welfare and, to a lesser extent, environmental imperatives

- Fails to cover many other issues relating to aspects of sustainable food production and land management, including broader public health issues

- Fails to set a standard that will encourage farmers to significantly improve their practices

- Could mislead consumers into believing the scheme is a symbol of food produced to standards compatible with sustainable development principles, through the wording on the LRT website, which states that the standards 'cover all aspects of production on the farm from looking after the countryside to food hygiene and safety, what animals are fed, and how they are cared for.'

SDC Chairman Jonathon Porritt said: 'We believe consumers are now looking for assurance schemes to set standards that are significantly above the legal minimum, that are properly regulated and inspected, and that are communicated to the public so people know exactly what they are paying for. We would like AFS to ensure consumers understand what the LRT signifies. And we would like the Government to actively encourage schemes and standards that significantly exceed the current LRT, not least to ensure that UK farmers do not lose out any more to imported produce that doesn't even meet the LRT baseline'.

The report states: 'The levels of current LRT standards do not provide customers with an assurance that products marked with the logo are 'sustainable food products' And it's uncertain at the moment whether AFS intends to seek improvements in the standards to meet consumers' wider expectations.

The Commission is recommending that a more ambitious approach is needed, and is calling both for an improvement in the LRT standards, and for an assurance scheme that helps the consumer identify food products that significantly exceed the current LRT baseline. This could be done through either:

- An amalgamation of existing assurance schemes, such as Freedom Food, LEAF, Conservation Grade, Fair Trade, etc; or

- The creation of a freestanding, comprehensive assurance scheme based on standards that are compatible with the principles of sustainable food

To download a copy of 'Sustainability Implications of the Little Red Tractor Scheme', visit www.sd-commission.org.uk (available from 19 January 2005).


Editors notes:

- The Sustainable Development Commission commissioned sustainability consultants Levett-Therivel to carry out a review of the Little Red Tractor scheme, and to compare the various standards it promotes against the core objectives for sustainable farming and food as defined by the Sustainable Development Commission itself.

- The 'Sustainability Implications of the Little Red Tractor Scheme' report concludes that:

if the customer looks to the LRT scheme tothen this analysis suggests that it'
provide assurance to buyers about the safety of their foodprobably does OK
certify that farmers' operations are sustainable, ethical, etcfails; might lead consumers to think that LRT-accredited farms do this, but in fact does not require them to
set a standard that makes farmers significantly improve their practicesfails, except for farmers that don't even meet legal requirements
provide a starting point for improving farmers' activities through steady expansion/strengthening of standardsdoes just fine, but now the standards would need to be expanded and strengthened

- Sustainable food, in the view of the Sustainable Development Commission is food and drink that:

o Is safe, healthy and nutritious, for consumers in shops, restaurants, schools, hospitals etc
o Can meet the needs of less well off people
o Provides a viable livelihood for farmers, processors and retailers, whose employees enjoy a safe and hygienic working environment, whether in the UK or overseas
o Respects biophysical and environmental limits in its production and processing, while reducing energy consumption and improving the wider environment, and also respects the highest standards of animal health and welfare, compatible with the production of affordable food for all sectors of society
o Supports rural economies and the diversity of rural culture, in particular through an emphasis on local products that keep food miles to a minimum.

- The Little Red Tractor (LRT) logo was launched by the National Farmers' Union in June 2000 as the public face of several existing assurance schemes. Assured Food Standards (AFS) was established to administer the logo and licence its use. AFS subsequently assumed ownership of the schemes that used the LRT logo, though the existing scheme names have been retained.

- The Sustainable Development Commission is the independent Government advisor on sustainable development, reporting to Tony Blair and the devolved administration leaders. The Commission's objectives include advocating a compelling vision of a sustainable economy and society, and reviewing how far sustainable development is being achieved in the UK across all sectors.

- Sustainable development provides a framework for redirecting our economies to enable everyone to meet their basic needs and improve their quality of life while ensuring that the natural resources on which they depend are maintained and enhanced, both for their benefit and for that of future generations.

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