Anyone who reads Irish Country Living is acutely aware of the multiple challenges facing farmers and food producers at this time – soaring fuel, energy and fertilizer costs coupled with environmental issues.
They are reeling from the enormity of the task ahead. Many are concerned about their ability to survive as the war in Ukraine adds to the problems and the debate around food security rekindles concerns about the very real possibility of food shortages, sooner rather than later.
In my view the greatest threat to food security is the “cheap food policy” and consumers assumption that cheap food is a right. It’s a disaster in health terms and socio-economic terms. It means food producers in many areas are forced to produce food below an economic level and are fortunate to get 33% of the retail price.
Cheap food is a myth, we are simply not paying the true cost of food. As taxpayers though, we pay in hidden ways starting with the price on the shelf and to provide subsidies and to fund the health service.
So what’s the solution?
Farmers’ markets are a small part of the solution, as are initiatives like NeighbourFood, the online farmers’ market. In this business model the producer gets 80% of the retail price; the host gets 10%; transaction costs are 3% and NeighbourFood takes the remaining 7%.
In the traditional farmers’ market, the producer gets the full retail price for the product but risks not having a customer. In the NeighbourFood model, the farmer or food producer gets the order ahead and the customer collects it at an allocated time. The producer can get back to the job, is guaranteed payment with three days and consequently no time or product is wasted.
Customer attitudes changing…
In recent times, with the increased focus on sustainability and climate change, consumers are becoming more aware of the social and environmental impact of what we eat. Concern is growing that if there is not a fundamental change, farmers will simply not be able to stay in business.
Here in Ireland, we may even have passed the point of no return with vegetables. There will always be people for whom price is the most important factor but there are many who can and would be prepared to pay more if they trusted the money would go directly to farmers.
Another model - CQLP
In 2015, Nicolas Chabanne and his brother Laurent, entrepreneurs with a particular interest in food systems created C’est qui le patron (CQLP) in France.
Nicolas originally founded “Les Gueules Cassées” to pressure the multiples to sell “ugly fruit and veg” at 30% less to give consumers a choice. A welcome development for both shoppers and food producers who could sell a larger proportion of their crop.
In 2015, he became aware of the plight of the many French dairy farmers who were losing money on every litre of milk they sold. Yet, at the same time, prices continued to be mercilessly forced downwards by the major retailers.
Chabanne did the math and worked out that a mere eight cent could be the difference between a dairy farmer making a decent living or going bust. He worked out that the average French consumer buys 50 litres of milk a year.
When he did the arithmetic, he calculated that if each customer spent just €4 more on milk per year, the farmer could survive. So little to make a difference to so many. He was convinced that people would be prepared to do that and it turns out his hunch was correct.
He established CQLP where shoppers armed with the facts of production set just prices for farmers. It has caused a revolution.
CQLP is run by a co-op of over 10,000 members, each of whom pay €1 to join. CQLP set up an online questionnaire that ordinary shoppers could fill in. Members were asked to choose from a long list of priorities.
They made a decision on how they wanted the food produced; cows indoors, pasture reared outdoors, chemical-free, organic, good animal welfare and working conditions. They indicate whether they are prepared to pay “a break-even price, fair or permitting investment”.
As they answered the questionnaire, people could check how their decision impacted on the final price of the product.
Thousands of people voted, it was clear that a growing number would prefer to pay a little more to ensure a decent living, healthy, sustainable food product and to avoid paper and plastic waste.
Since its launch in November 2016, milk in the distinctive blue CQLP carton is the bestselling milk in France. Recently members have agreed a price increase in response to spiralling costs.
What started with milk has now expanded to 32 products produced to specifications democratically decided from the data chosen by the CQLP co-op members and consumers. The concept has been a remarkable success with sales far exceeding original predictions, in some cases up to ten times the targets.
CQLP’s organic butter has become the fastest growing and most popular brand in France. Even more amazing is the fact that none of these products are advertised on TV, promoted in store or marketed by a sales team. It’s all driven by word of mouth and unsolicited write ups.
FASTEST GROWING BRAND
In just six years, CQLP products are in 7, 265 shops, have won 14.5 million customers, and sold 343.4 million products boosting the income of 3,000 family farms. The CQLP pledge, ‘This product pays the producer a fair price” is emblazoned on the packaging.
The long-held belief that all consumers are only interested in cheap food has been challenged. CQLP covers its basic costs with a flat levy of five cents on every euro earned. It reinvests its profits and has a fund to help farmers in need. France has also banned below cost selling of food.
Would this concept work in Ireland? I certainly believe it would.
The Irish Government must reintroduce the ban on below-cost selling immediately. We urgently need a national food ombudsman with strong powers to ensure farmers get a just share of the retail price.