26th April 2024

Time to Listen & Reflect

Time to Listen & Reflect

Peter Brown, QMS board member.

The Red Tractor’s recent “emergency stop”, slamming on the Greener Farms Commitment brakes, forcing a reconsideration of the direction of travel is, I suggest, helpful. With the module axed, a farm to fork Assurance Review Commission is now at the accident scene, tasked with looking hard at the purpose, management and operation of UK assurance schemes, focusing on “repurposing assurance in a post-Brexit world”. This moment for reflection and it’s resultant, possible, re-set of assurance is, I think, good news.

I’m not trying to second-guess the Review Commission but its work should not stop any of us seeking to learn lessons from the recent Red Tractor experience or our thinking about our own Scottish QA Schemes. In other words QMS should not stand idly by. So what are the early straws in the wind?

The Campbell Tickell review of Red Tractor activity on the Greener Farms Commitment found that “…a process was agreed which included customer surveys, piloting with 40 farming enterprises, a cost-benefit analysis, updates to all Sector Boards, and regular OB and Board updates. Some 300 + stakeholders were involved in this process, including the NFU, which was duly briefed at formal meetings during the process.” It appears that, despite all of this, some key messages from the Red Tractor’s farming constituency were not picked up. Quite astonishing really. How can this possibly happen when there are more ways to communicate than ever before?

This echos my own experience in Speyside, watching on as Cairngorm Farmers and Crofters is established, railing against the Cairngorm National Park after the release of beavers. As an observer with a croft in Speyside I’d suggest that, while beavers are an issue, they are not THE issue. Beaver release had, in fact, been extensively trailed, explained and consulted on.

These small, furry sometimes useful, sometimes damaging creatures turned out to be a trigger for a much bigger release of a slow burning, sense of exclusion and loss of voice in a changing world run by others.

My point is we must constantly keep our ears to the ground and never assume that everybody is on-board our journey just because we think we’ve listened but have, actually, only gone through the motions. QMS have plenty of consultation groups and communication channels but let’s never assume its “sorted”. Good communication is hard graft even though it can seem to slow things up.

As for farm assurance itself, and its related chain of QA, screeds have been written and argued over since it all kicked off in 1990. Farm Assurance was an innovation born in Scotland, setting us apart from the rest. It has become an established, UK norm, is still voluntary, can be a nuisance but doesn’t cost a fortune, helps us prove we do things well, offers a platform for additional standards which can offer access to new markets and it underpins our valuable brands. It has evolved over the years to some degree but has never been radically overhauled. It is not perfect but its standards and operation have been hammered out by many well intentioned and wise souls over 35 years.

Our “post Brexit world” throws in challenges from new players in our markets who operate to different standards. Add to that a climate crisis and a data, digital and technology revolution that offers measuring, monitoring and management opportunities at a different level. Our own QA schemes should be refreshed to match these changing parameters. Easy to say, not so easy to deliver. However, as we address all this, QMS must and will listen to all those involved and affected.

About Peter:

Peter studied agriculture at Aberdeen and worked for 6 years with the Highlands & Islands Development Board, then became founder and Managing Director of Scottish Food Quality Certification (Edinburgh) and CMi Certification (Oxford). He was involved for over 20 years in the establishment of farm assurance schemes across the UK, and further afield. He has chaired two arts charities and has been Chair/Director of the List, the UK guide to what’s on and to Scottish food & drink. Following his interest in the food industry he recently gained a masters in Gastronomy at Queen Margaret University.

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