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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Helena Horton Environment reporter

Red Tractor ‘failing to regulate’ pesticide use for UK supermarket products

A chemical sprayer at work
A chemical sprayer at work. Recent studies have revealed alarming global declines in insect populations due in part to pesticide use. Photograph: geogphotos/Alamy

The Red Tractor scheme, used to mark food produced to a “high standard”, is failing to regulate the use of pesticides on farms, a report has found.

As the UK’s biggest farm and food assurance scheme, which certifies about 50,000 farmers, Red Tractor is relied upon to uphold environmental standards. The products are sold in all major UK supermarkets.

The Red Tractor scheme certifies about 50,000 farmers.
The Red Tractor scheme certifies about 50,000 farmers. Photograph: Red Tractor

However, most farmers surveyed by the Nature Friendly Farming Network said the scheme did not help them to reduce pesticides.

Overall, farmers felt Red Tractor was failing to help them to consider their pesticide management in any meaningful way, and was ineffective at assisting them to reduce pesticide use. Only five of the 24 survey respondents said they had been encouraged by Red Tractor to review their pesticide management.

Martin Lines, a co-author of the report and chair of the Nature Friendly Farming Network, said: “Our interviews with Red Tractor certified farmers have revealed that the standards are barely encouraging – let alone supporting – farmers to reduce their pesticide use.

“There are many UK farmers working hard to switch to using non-chemical alternatives and it is time Red Tractor, as our largest farm and food assurance scheme, becomes a key player in driving the transition to more sustainable farming systems. Farmers want – and need – their support to work with nature instead of against it.”

The report also pointed out that Red Tractor had no targets to reduce use of these harmful chemicals. Recent studies have revealed alarming global declines in insect populations, with more than 40% of insect species declining and a third endangered. Alongside habitat loss, pesticides have been identified as one of the key factors driving these declines. In the UK, butterflies have declined by 50% since 1976 and 13 species of bee have gone extinct.

Perhaps as a result of the decline in insects, further up the food chain farmland birds have declined by 54% since 1970 and hedgehog numbers have fallen by up to 50% in rural areas since 2002.

In addition, those pesticides that pose highest risks to human health and the environment, known by the UN as “highly hazardous pesticides”, are not being targeted for a phase-out by the scheme. Red Tractor standards do not include any additional restrictions concerning which pesticides farmers are allowed to use.

Josie Cohen, head of policy and campaigns at Pesticide Action Network UK, said: “If we are 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 responded that the sector as a whole needed to change its attitude towards pesticides, otherwise large numbers of farmers would be left behind and locked out of standards schemes. It added that the new report “makes some constructive suggestions about how Red Tractor content may evolve to meet these challenges and we welcome this contribution to the debate”.

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