Red Tractor urgently needs to review and strengthen its promotion of non-chemical pesticide alternatives, including via Integrated Pest Management (IPM), according to a newly published report.

The Nature Friendly Farming Network (NFFN) report titled ‘Sub Standard’ found that Red Tractor is missing an opportunity to provide a strong framework for addressing pesticide use and thus becoming a key player in establishing a sustainable farming system across the UK.

The report highlights the scheme’s lack of targets to reduce pesticide use and its failure to require its certified farmers to adopt alternative approaches, such as selecting pest and disease-resistant crop varieties, crop rotations and using biopesticides.

Red Tractor is the UK’s biggest farm and food assurance scheme. Its symbol denotes that a product has been farmed, processed and packed in the UK.

“There will always be a balance to strike between pesticide reduction and the quality and quantity of the crop produced, but Red Tractor has an opportunity to provide the right support and guidance in driving an uptake of IPM,” said co-author of the report, farmer and chair of NFFN, Martin Lines.

“This is more than achievable, but most importantly, incredibly necessary.

“If Red Tractor can demonstrate reduction in pesticide use and enable best practice in IPM, it could help facilitate a route to nature recovery and connect its certified farmers to consumers at a time when the public want greater clarity – and trust – in their food labels.

“By improving IPM uptake, Red Tractor can help its farmers demonstrate world-leading environmental delivery and give a competitive advantage in a changing marketplace.”

Furthermore, the report authors have compiled a series of recommendations, which include:

  • Establish and monitor targets to reduce the total amount of pesticides used by Red Tractor certified farmers;
  • Prohibit the use of the most harmful pesticides and require farmers to select non-chemical alternatives when available;
  • Adapt the requirements of its standard to include a specific focus on pesticide use and hazard reduction, and place more emphasis on preventative and non-chemical methods for managing pests, diseases and weeds;
  • Introduce measures designed to support farmers to make continuous improvements on reducing pesticide use and adopting non-chemical approaches.

Supporting the report, head of policy and campaigns at Pesticide Action Network (PAN) UK, Josie Cohen said:

“If we’re to have any hope of solving the biodiversity crisis then we must move away from our dependence on pesticides.

“But Red Tractor standards continue to prioritise the use of chemicals, without placing limits on how much or where they can be used. Unlike many UK supermarkets, Red Tractor allows its farmers to use any legal pesticide product, regardless of concerns over impacts to human health or the environment.”

Red Tractor

Responding to the report, Red Tractor said it welcomes constructive suggestions about how its standards could evolve to meet key challenges, and that IPM-based strategies will be central to the future management of pests and disease on farm.

It added that it is important to recognise that growers may already exceed market access expectations applied to imports, but do not always receive a premium or improved market access for this.

Work must be done, it said, in partnership with stakeholders, to ensure this challenge is not simply offshored.

A spokesperson for Red Tractor said:

“Red Tractor’s voluntary scheme is the bedrock of progressive farming in Britain – assuring food that is responsibly produced.

“The UK is one of the most regulated markets. Our standards align with Defra’s [the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’] National Action Plan for Pesticides and aim to meet IPM expectations linked to the Sustainable Farming Incentive.

“Where farms are asked to go further, a clear rationale is needed, especially given increasing competition from imports.

“UK fresh produce already has lower levels of pesticide residues than imported products and this must be considered alongside the delivery of safe, affordable food.”