Santa’s comin’ to town with Red Tractor and sustainability schemes

December 16, 2017 |

All some farmers want for Christmas this year is a sustainability certification that is EU approved. Farmers and biofuel producers in the EU, or exporting biofuel to the EU, need to validate their products and supply chain as sustainable for buyers who demand it and the EU government which requires it, but when their sustainability certification expires and isn’t renewed by the European Commission, their stocking looks pretty empty.

The good news is Red Tractor just got their 5-year biofuels RED approval from the EU, putting an end to the extensions and waiting that has been going on since the spring for Red Tractor certified biofuel growers and producers in the United Kingdom.

But why is there sometimes a gap in EU approval and what does this mean for biofuel producers around the world, not just in the UK or EU? And what are these sustainability certifications all about anyway? Will they help us get on Santa’s good list?

Sustainability schemes just a scheme?

For some of us in the U.S., we may not know much about sustainability certifications because our government doesn’t require it for biofuels (though some like JetBlue, United Airlines, Lanzatech, and others are all over it). But in Europe, you can’t produce or sell biofuel without some sort of sustainability certification – often called “voluntary schemes” even though “scheme” has a negative connotation here in the States, perhaps hindering its uptake in American conversations.

Why the need for sustainability certifications in Europe? Because the EU government wants to make sure farmers and producers aren’t chopping down rainforests to make biofuel and that they are actually reducing GHG emissions over fossil fuels. Some governments, like the U.S., hope you do, but don’t require you prove it with a third-party, independently verified and audited sustainability certification.

So the news last week that Red Tractor, one of the certifications for biofuels made from combinable crops and sugar beets, received approval from the European Commission that they will continue to recognize the scheme under the Renewable Energy Directive, was a huge sigh of relief for Red Tractor certified farmers and biofuel producers. This new recognition will run until 2023, regardless of any negotiations or new policy structures which are formed as part of the UK’s exit from the European Union.

Red Tractor applied for continued recognition in the spring of 2017, however the Commission was unable to complete the approval process in time. As reported in the Digest in August, there was some neighborly love that Santa would have been proud of, as Scottish wheat growers jumped in to help their southern neighbors by supplying feedstock to ethanol plants covered by the SQC scheme (that was approved by EU RED) until Red Tractor could sort things out. Eventually, Red Tractor was granted two extensions to ensure all crops could continue to be traded unhindered until full registration was confirmed, thank goodness for the UK crop producers.

As a result of the review process by the Commission, however, a small change was made to the Red Tractor standards which only affects UK growers who have converted land to arable for the production of biofuels in the past 10 years (which is likely a large number of growers).

The only constant is change

If you paid attention to that previous paragraph, there are changes to certification standards and yes, that goes along with the territory with any certification system, not just Red Tractor.

Technology changes, new crops and feedstocks emerge, new research finds something we thought was great for the environment isn’t so great. So one thing we can be sure about is that sustainability certifications will change and farmers and producers have to adapt to those changes. One year, they may get certified for doing everything properly, but the following year they can’t be certified because of something now deemed unfit for certification and thus need to make improvements or adjustments to their operations or process.

So does that mean growers and producers give up? Well, in the EU, they can’t – it’s required to have a sustainability certification for biofuels.

But what about the rest of the world? Should we just say “aw, shucks, not worth the trouble” or “Bah humbug, I’m on the naughty list already anyway?”

Absolutely not.

Farmers and producers can’t ignore sustainability certifications, even if not required by government. They have consumers and buyers who are concerned about image and branding. As more and more people and businesses are paying attention to impact on climate change, GHG emissions, environmental impact and human rights issues, the more everyone in biofuel supply chains need to pay attention.

Having sustainability certification can show you are on Santa’s good list. It can show transparency, attention to details, efficient and non-wasteful processes, care for air and water pollution, preservation of biodiversity, and more. It doesn’t mean you are perfect, but it can show you are the cream of the crop and trying to make a difference for the better.

Red Tractor, for example, said back in 2012 when it first obtained EU RED approval, that it “should improve the export market for UK farmers – both for grain and seed generally and, specifically, for biofuels going into Germany.” Matthew Read, chairman of the Red Tractor Crops and Sugar Beet scheme, said in their press release, “We have great confidence in the quality of the Red Tractor Crops and Sugar Beet scheme which, as well as its food safety objectives, has at its heart environmental protection and traceability.” Who can argue with the fact that “environmental protection and traceability” and helping farmers export their products into more markets is a good thing?

Bottom Line

Whether it’s purely for branding and marketing purposes, for financial reasons and improved ability to export product, or because you really do care about the planet and people and want to prove you are truly sustainable, sustainability certifications are a good start on the path to Santa’s good list.

Crop farmers and biofuel producers should still hang up their stocking on Christmas Eve and try to obtain sustainability certification for their products or supply chain. Why? Because while it isn’t perfect, it is something – and having something in your stocking is better than nothing.


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