WP4: local agro-food networks

Final report: Pascal Aubrée, Blaise Berger, Gilles Maréchal, Local agro-food networks in Brittany, November 2010

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Executive Summary

This study analyses the development of short food-supply chains and their environmental effects.  It has been carried out by the Federation Régionale des Centres d’Initiatives pour Valoriser l’Agriculture et le Milieu rural (FRCIVAM).  The FRCIVAM Bretagne links 22 local groups of farmers and citizens with 1200 members. In particular, it has responsibility for development of local agro-food systems and for links with research institutions.

This study has aims which include the following:

1.To identify and explain the main environmental benefits when farmers get involved in a local agri-food network.
2.To identify available methodologies and tools to assess those environmental effects.

The CIVAM intervention method is traditionally based on education populaire (popular education). Those methods, adopted by the CIVAM movement since the late 1950s, consider knowledge exchanges as the basis for developing new knowledge and skills. It is used for farmers’ training. Peer groups focus on identifying, analysing and improving the best know-how inside the group, with external help from experts, such as academics. Those experts often comment that these sessions are also a training period for them, because many farmers are experts or field researchers through their experimentation and innovation.  In many ways, we carried out this study through methods similar to our farmers’ training sessions.

Shortening food-supply chains

In the last decade, local food networks – better known as circuits courts alimentaires (short food chains) – have been quickly developing in Brittany (Maréchal, 2008).  These networks feature traditional forms of short chains, such as open air markets, micro farm-shops and collective shops of farmers.  These networks also develop innovative schemes, especially Associations pour le Maintien de l’Agriculture Paysanne (AMAP), which sometimes accept orders via internet for home delivery.  New practices are linked at farm level: 30% of direct sales come from organic production, whilst organic producers are only 3% of the overall farmers. Nevertheless they are linked in the consumers’ mind, seeing direct sales as organic far beyond the level of official certification.

Traditional forms of short chains, such as open air markets and micro farm-shops, also have expanded. In the late 1990s the Rennes area had 21 weekly markets; by 2009 there were 35, with more being planned.  Some new ones are open in the early evening, to target “back home transit” consumers, while the traditional ones are morning or early afternoon markets.  Most increasingly favour local or organic producers.  At the same time, direct sales seem less present in Brittany than in the rest of France (Denéchère et al., 2008).

Some commentators portray direct sales as a leftover from earlier agriculture or as a disappearing practice.  According to the dominant agricultural organizations of Brittany, ‘There still remain some farmers who use direct sales as a niche market, but short food chains have no future.’  Despite that narrative, circuits courts alimentaires have been expanding for several reasons. There are greater demands to protect natural resources (water, air and soil) and to bring consumers closer to producers. Consumers prefer to buy local food products for reasons of freshness and quality, including environmental and health aspects, as well as the proximity of sales (Cardona, 2008).

Agro-industrial practices remain dominant in Brittany. Environmental issues are especially prominent there – both in public debate and in the physical world –  e.g., pollution from fertiliser run-off, biodiversity loss, uniform landscape, etc. Agro-industrial practices are responsible for nitrates run-off and thus green seaweed growth, especially on the northern coast of Brittany (IFREMER, 2003).

The national context has become more favourable, especially through a public consultation process.  Since 2007 the Grenelle de l’Environnement has proposed new measures for the local, national and global environment, based on a debate of all stakeholders1. Strong commitments for agriculture include an objective of 20% of organic agriculture by 2020 and 20% of organic food in public catering by 2012. For the first time, French law has linked the environment with the commercialisation model of food.

Farmers converting to organic agriculture, or to sales in short chains, have encountered hostility from conventional farmers, even from their neighbours. Adoption of sustainable agriculture or direct sales was considered as a rupture, or even a betrayal, by their professional environment. They have to recompose a new professional network through a higher density of new relations in each territory. Our study investigated how they develop these new relations and change their practices, in ways that also bring environmental benefits.

Reducing GHG emissions

In the context of agro-industrial practices, the environment is considered something external to the farm. Most productivist farms follow the hors sol (“out of ground”) scheme, where natural spaces mainly serve as pollution sinks, whilst the production system becomes highly artificial, dependent upon chemical inputs.  The environment is seen as a “charge” (meaning a burden and expense) that is mainly used by authorities to impose tasks and taxes upon farmers.

Our research has shown that re-integrating the farmers’ responsibility for their own commercialisation scheme, through short supply chains, leads to a new vision of the environment:  It becomes an internal resource that can provide the whole farm system with free inputs and ecosystem services. In this way, the route is no longer to shape environment according to technical external rules, but rather to adapt the whole agricultural system to potentials of the farm territory.  The environment becomes a benefit, both for the farmer’s (and his family’s) needs and pleasure and the whole society.

From our study of how farmers develop short food-supply chains, we identified three distinct routes. The first is followed by farmers who use short chains for only a small proportion of their turnover, as a complementary means to enhance profitability.  They continue the conventional model, seeking technical excellence in production and high apparent productivity through large-scale commodity production. The second route is followed by farmers who progressively shifted more of their production through local sales, while also changing their vision of added value. Discovering that they could gain higher prices, they tried to improve their economic efficiency by reducing their input costs (e.g. fertilizers, pesticides). Through this pragmatic approach, a lower environmental impact becomes an extra gain, although it is not pursued for itself. The third group is composed of farmers who have a social and environmental commitment as activists. They always aimed to implement an environment-friendly system, e.g. through organic or low-input production methods.

For improving the environmental practices of farmers, the second group is a major target, given that the first group would be difficult to change and the third one already implements environmentally-friendly methods.  For the second group, the environment is initially seen as an externality that can provide the farming system with free resources. Later this environmental care turns into a commercial argument and is thus maintained.  This pragmatic basis has great potential for expansion to more farmers.  The potential illustrates the development of Agricultural Knowledge Systems (AKS), as highlighted by the SCAR expert report:

AKSs for instance would focus on ways to reduce the length of food chains, encourage local and regional markets, give more scope for development and marketing of seeds of indigenous crop varieties and foodstuffs, and restore the diversity of within-field genetic material, as well as of farming systems and landscape mosaics (SCAR CEG, 2008: 42).

Public interventions

Until recently, most public interventions on environmental issues have been based on law (new rules) or direct economic incentives (subsidies, grants). Alternative food networks have found little scope to gain support from public authorities, e.g. via policies on rural development or public procurement (restauration collective).  As our research reveals, local authorities now use indirect incentives (e.g. public procurement, creation of sales points, information on local products) for local sales to gain local environmental benefits that will also address global environmental issues.

Indeed, our research has helped to persuade some local authorities to give such support through new policies.  In the Brittany regional context, agro-food policy is still dominated by agri-industrial farming interests.  Short food supply chains could not gain support through political lobbying, especially by criticising agri-industrial systems.  As a different strategy, our research has highlighted environmental advantages of short food supply chains, especially in the wider policy context of climate change and food insecurity.

In wider discussions over reducing GHG emissions from agriculture, this aim has become a rationale to invest in scientific research towards technological innovation which could use resources more efficiently.  Although such efforts may be worthwhile, they ignore or even marginalise farmers’ organisational innovations which significantly reduce GHG emissions.  Already available, such solutions could be implemented rapidly and at low cost.  The main obstacles are farmers’ and institutions’ mindsets, as well as government policies, which therefore need more research towards overcoming them.