Selling directly

“Today, we have come to sell our produce for a fair price,” declares Gérard Ricardi. The secretary general of radical farmers’ union MODEF (MOuvement pour la Défence des Exploitants Familiaux) has plenty of takers for tomatoes at EUR 1.50/kilo outside the mairie [town hall] of Ivry sur Seine on a blazing hot morning in late August.

The supermarkets pay around 45 centimes/kilo for tomatoes that cost 70 centimes/kilo to grow, Ricardi explains. There is 20 centimes/kilo to find for transport and packaging, before the same tomatoes are sold in Paris for EUR 2.50/kilo.

“Prices like that are a racket,” he grumbles. “Here, the growers are earning 70 centimes/kilo, there’s 20 centimes/kilo freight and packing, with 60 centimes for the distributor.” Total EUR 1.50/kg.

“We want to make it clear that there is scope for everyone to earn a living. The state should face up to its responsibilities and support consumers and growers alike.”

Sixty years ago, the French state imposed a maximum retail margin on agricultural products. “The state recognised then that retailers were overcharging and took action to stop the abuse.”

Known as the coefficient multiplicateur, retailers were able to multiply their cost prices by a factor of between 1.5 and 1.7, but no more. “The grocers were just lining their pockets, but it was not acceptable then in the way it is now.”

In fact, this policy had two important benefits: “Consumer prices were lower, because prices were linked to growers’ production costs and growers received a fair return for their work,” Ricardi observes.

“There was even a shared interest for retailers to pay more to the producer, so that the retail price could be higher. It was a virtuous circle that worked for consumers and producers, too.”

The coefficient multiplicateur lasted until 1986, when the retail lobby finally managed to kill it off. In recent years, a watered-down form of the coefficient multiplicateur returned to the Code de l’Agriculture as an emergency measure, but it has never been implemented because there is simply no political will to question the integrity of multiple retailers.

MODEF is celebrating its 50th birthday this year. MODEF was founded to stand up for small family farmers at a time when the mainstream farming unions would have cheerfully excluded six million peasants from the political process. Today, the largest union FNSEA uses the word paysan (peasant) to pluck the heartstrings of a nation that has very varied notions of a time before industrial farming, which should somehow have been better than today but probably was not.

Against all the odds, MODEF is still fighting the same assumptions in harder times. There are fewer peasants – just under half a million – but the growing power of a handful of multiple retailers has become a stranglehold on the nation’s food supply.

“We are disappearing and the head of state takes us for a bunch of idiots,” growls Girardi. Around him are crates of nectarines, plums and melons, fruit on which supermarkets earn similar margins to the tomato bonanza he described above.

“They’re buying my potatoes for 5 centimes a kilo,” another producer chips in. “They cost me 20 centimes a kilo to grow.”

As he speaks, just 100 metres away a French-owned discount grocery chain is selling 2.5 kilos of potatoes in a net for EUR 2.99. At 13 locations around Paris, there are queues to buy MODEF-produced potatoes priced at EUR 4 for a 5 kilo net.

The previous night, the growers had loaded an articulated lorry with tonnes of potatoes, melons, tomatoes, nectarines, plums and salad grown in Lot-et-Garonne before driving to the French capital to sell directly to Parisian consumers. Not that the public needed a lot of convincing.

The prices speak for themselves: two lettuces for EUR 1, compared to EUR 0.99 for a single lettuce in the same French discounter, while MODEF nectarines were priced at EUR 2/kilo against the retailer’s EUR 2.29/kilo.

At a local shopping centre a bit further away, Spanish grade II tomatoes are being sold in a larger supermarket for EUR 1.09/kilo. MODEF growers are not alone in resenting the kind of market distortion that arises from a European directive that has allowed countries such as Germany and Spain to exploit cheap foreign labour and undercut growers elsewhere in the European Union.

“The Bolkenstein directive must be revoked as a matter of urgency,” says MEP Patrick Le Hyaric, who was present at Ivry sur Seine. “This directive has allowed Spanish growers to take on Moroccan farm labourers and pay them less than the minimum European salaries,” he declared.

As a member of the European parliamentary commission for agriculture, he had just returned from Lot-et-Garonne where he had met a delegation of fresh produce growers, some of whom were on the same improvised market square at Ivry sur Seine. “I knew the situation was difficult, but now I have a better idea of the scale of the crisis that is gripping the small and medium-sized holdings in this sector.”

Over the past 20 years, Lot-et-Garonne has already seen a lot of growers go out of business. “Today, those that remain do not know if they will still be standing in six months’ time,” warns Le Hyaric.

He is organising an urgent meeting with the French minister for food, farming and fisheries, Bruno Le Maire, to demand emergency aid packages for growers and the urgent implementation of the coefficient multiplicateur. This is available as a crisis measure but has been studiously avoided by the French government.

“In its present form, the Common Agricultural Policy has a number of negative effects. But in its original form, it was a sound piece of policy. The préférence communautaire was not a bad idea, it just did not fit in with ultra-liberal ideas or the so-called ‘free market’, that is all.

“So Europe gave in to US demands. And now, for instance, France is completely dependent on imported soya to feed its livestock, most of it from Brazil.”

As long as cheap food imports can be procured around the world, consumers in the industrial world can get by without small, local food producers. But abandoning an entire sector of the economy has a cost that should be neither underestimated nor trivialised.

It is neither a secret nor is it difficult to understand. Talk to anyone who sells food direct: just don’t leave it too long.

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