A Preliminary Review of Integrated Farming Standards and Food Eco-Labelling: Interim Report for Project IF0131

Research output: Book/ReportCommissioned report


This document reports the preliminary findings of a review of integrated farming standards (IFS), food eco-labelling and their role in improving the overall environmental performance of UK agriculture. This review has been undertaken as part of a research project, funded by Defra, entitled 'Assessment of Reduction in Environmental Burdens through Targeted Measures compared with Whole Farm Approaches in Cropping and Livestock Systems' (CSA 7471/IF0131). The review is broad and shallow in its approach and aims to draw together the activities currently taking place within the United Kingdom (UK), Europe and more globally with respect to the application of IFS standards, eco-labelling and associated activities. The purpose of this review is to inform and direct the wider research project but also to provide policy support for emerging related issues. This includes the possibility of developing a standard for IFS.

The agricultural industry is no stranger to change, largely as a result of changing circumstances. Retailer and consumer demands, public requirements, legislation and regulation, and even the response of the environment itself have presented the industry with a very dynamic situation in which to operate. Two of the key responses in the past 20 years have been the shift towards more integrated approaches to farming, including organic farming, and the development of assurance schemes and marketing labels and brands.

There is no exact definition of integrated farming (IF). It is generally recognised that it is not based on a set of fixed parameters but on informed management processes. There are a generally accepted set of principles covering a broad set of topics such as pesticide and fertiliser use, animal husbandry and welfare, health and safety and environment, but there is much that is open to interpretation. This is the essence of the approach - it is about tailoring best practice to the individual circumstances of the farm to deliver the best for both the farm and the environment. As such it is difficult to develop a detailed 'standard' for IF. Management plans are a key tool often used to implement IF. However, just having a management plan is not adequate to achieve the standard for IF. The plan needs to be properly considered, implemented and monitored in order to be effective. As such, what a management plan should cover and how it is implemented needs to be defined in as much detail as any other standard.

In the UK there are many initiatives and schemes that can be considered to have some connection with integrated farming to greater or lesser extents. These include all the schemes under the umbrella of Assured Food Standards (AFS), LEAF Marque, Conservation Grade, White and Wild, Freedom Food, Lion Quality Mark, Fairtrade, all the Organic schemes, geographically based schemes, and other initiatives such as the Voluntary Initiative. There are also initiatives operated by some of the retailers, such as Tesco's Nature's Choice and Marks and Spencer's "field-to-fork". All of these encourage more integrated approaches to varying degrees.

In Europe the level of recognition and implementation of IFS standards varies considerably. There are some over-arching initiatives and organisations that deal with integrated approaches. Most notably there is the European Initiative for Sustainable Development in Agriculture (EISA) who have tried to define a framework for integrated farming in a similar fashion to an assurance scheme, and who are connected with organisations such as LEAF and equivalent organisations in other EU member states. There are also other organisations and initiatives including the IOBC Integrated Production Guidelines, the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI), International Social and Environmental Accreditation and Labelling (ISEAL) Alliance and EUREPGAP. The latter of these being connected with AFS and other assurance schemes by providing an umbrella standard, which national standards can benchmark themselves against. There are also many schemes in other European countries that are equivalent to LEAF, AFS or other schemes in the UK. These include ÖPUL in Austria, Flandria in Belgium, FARRE in France, FNL in Germany, SMK in the Netherlands, and Odling i Balans in Sweden. There are also many other labels, including those for organic production. The level of IFS in other countries is also growing, especially to increase national export markets where EUREPGAP compliance or membership of an IFS-related scheme is becoming essential.

Amongst all these labels and schemes there are number of common issues to understand and acknowledge. These include taking a life cycle perspective for a 'true' eco-label, assessing performance (what is achieved) against outcomes and not just what is considered to be best practice, embracing the concept of continuous improvement, and understanding the advantages and disadvantages of labels. There is also the structure of advisory services for supplying help and guidance to support the adoption of best practice (knowledge transfer) to consider and the IT and information infrastructure required to manage the schemes and labels.

In the UK, many of the labels and schemes that might be perceived as being an eco-label, e.g. LEAF, Nature's Choice, or Organic, are only based on production practices meeting a set standard, and typically this standard only applies to production at the farm level. However, a 'true' eco-label must be based on a full life cycle assessment (LCA) of a product from its production through to consumption, where its performance is based on environmental impacts. At the moment we judge performance by achieving levels of best practice, but this does not ensure that desired environmental (or other) outcomes are being achieved. There is only the relationship that best practice should lead to the outcomes, but this relationship is not always strong or guaranteed. The reason we use 'practice-based' measures is because 'outcome-based' ones are difficult to measure. Data, particularly at the farm level, is often difficult obtain, as recently highlighted with current initiatives to develop carbon labelling. However, it is possible to combine LCA, outcome and practice based approaches. This is demonstrated with the SMK label in the Netherlands, where LCAs of production processes are used to set the standard for practices that must be achieved to obtain the label. Other techniques such as the balanced scorecard approach used by businesses also acknowledge that it is important to assess performance using a combination of both outcome and practice based measures. These can then be used to help identify practices that might be the cause of failure to achieve outcomes. Central to all of these approaches is the concept of continuous improvement. It is important that businesses do not remain static and know where to make improvements. Both outcome and practice based measures can help identify these areas and benchmarking tools can also provide information on the performance of a business in relation to others. A key part of continuous improvement is education and learning. Thus it is important to recognise that any approaches that aim to improve standards need to be accompanied with an effective and targeted programme of knowledge transfer. This can be as simple as providing advice/guidance or can include detailed training, education and awareness programmes. Some assurance schemes have recognised this, for example in New Zealand the Farmsure scheme has made a software package available to participating farmers to help them formulate plans for land and animal management and social responsibility.

It is clear that whatever approach is utilised, the amount of data and information that needs to be handled is vast and no system will be viable without an effective IT infrastructure. There is already a substantial amount of data that is recorded and communicated for assurance schemes, if we are to add the data for eco-labelling the 'dossier' of data for each product will be large. So it is important to acknowledge that the need for an effective infrastructure should not be underestimated. It should also be recognised that duplication of data should be avoided. If it has already been collected by one scheme, it should be available to another.

To conclude, this report provides a broad and shallow review of the various schemes, initiatives and eco-labels that are related to integrated farming, and has highlighted some of the key issues and challenges associated with them. At the heart of the matter is the need to understand the outcomes we want to achieve, for example: safe, affordable, healthy food, a productive, economically viable agriculture and a sustainable environmental footprint. These are ultimate basis by which we will judge the performance of our production systems and the 'quality' of the produce we consume. How integrated farming, assurance schemes and labels contribute towards achieving these outcomes needs to be understood. The relationships between practices being promoted and desired outcomes needs to be fully incorporated into the system in order ensure transparency and a clear direction for improvement. The labels we place on our food can help this process. Although there is much criticism of food labelling, if based on sound science, it can provide a positive force for change. Labels can influence consumers purchasing behaviour and can drive industry practices to meet the required standards. However, care needs to be taken to ensure that any labels are valid and credible, as failure to do so could result in confusion and a negative effect.

This review has established that there are many aspects to consider when examining integrated farming, assurance schemes and eco-labels. There are many interesting approaches in the UK and across Europe and these are outlined in detail in the report. Although there are some findings, this report has not identified a 'blueprint' for an integrated farming standard or an eco-label for food. This report is just the preliminary step of the project (CSA 7471/IF0131) which seeks to improve the understanding of different approaches and how they influence outcomes. This project will continue over the next 2 years and will be completed in April 2009.
Original languageEnglish
PublisherDepartment for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra)
Number of pages96
Publication statusPublished - 22 Jun 2007


  • agriculture
  • labelling
  • food
  • integrated farming
  • standards


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