Vegetables are no more expensive in shops that buy directly from farmers than in large supermarkets, according to a new report – and organic produce is even less expensive this way.
Organic vegetables 15% cheaper
Volunteers from consumer association UFC-Que Choisir visited 406 shops supplied by producers across 63 departments. They then compared the prices for a basket of 17 vegetables with those listed on the websites of the seven main supermarkets.
The non-organic basket cost €38 in both cases, but the organic products were 15% cheaper via short distribution channels (€41 compared to €47 in supermarkets).
No more than one intermediary between grower and consumer
Circuit court (short circuit) distribution channels are growing in popularity in France.
The official Agriculture Ministry definition of a circuit court does not reference proximity. Produce can be imported. What matters is that there is no more than one intermediary between producer and consumer, which helps to explain the attractive pricing.
In practice, we are usually talking about local, or at least regional, produce.
Yuna Chiffoleau, research director at the national research institute for agriculture, food and environment (INRAE), specialising in short distribution channels, said: “Consumers who use circuits courts expect products that are almost organic, respect the environment, and are tasty.”
Buy directly from farmers at markets
While the study focused mainly on shops, the notion of circuits courts also encompasses markets, and buying directly from farmers.
Here, vegetables are even cheaper – up to 15% or 20% less on outdoor markets than in supermarkets, even for non-organic products, Dr Chiffoleau said, as they do not have to pay to rent a shop front.
Which vegetables are more expensive and why?
The report also highlighted significant differences, depending on the vegetable.
For example, onion, garlic, beetroot and mesclun salad were all 13% to 20% cheaper in circuit court outlets, while carrots, fennel, button mushrooms and leeks were all 10% to 20% more expensive.
That is because onion and garlic are essential to many meals, Dr Chiffoleau said. “There is nothing you can substitute for an onion, and supermarkets know people need them so they put the prices up.
“Circuit court carrots more often come from small producers who have a bit of everything, and have to go out every day and harvest this or that.
“The growers who supply supermarkets are specialised in two or three products, and they are much cheaper to produce. They cover enormous fields, and they have a machine that can harvest 200 hectares of carrots at once.”
Organic products tend to be more expensive in supermarkets as they know the target audience is generally better off and driven by convictions, meaning they are willing to pay a premium, she said.
Why the study only compared French vegetables
The UFC-Que Choisir study looked exclusively at vegetables produced in France, which Dr Chiffoleau believes is an important clarification.
“People think it’s expensive because they are comparing a tomato from a circuit court with a low-cost tomato from Spain, which is a completely different product,” she said.
“People who do not use circuits courts think it will be too expensive, but once they’ve made the leap, they start to think more in terms of value for money.”
Supermarket fruit often picked unripe
The price difference is less clear for fruits, which are often more difficult to produce on a small scale, the researcher explained.
“Certain fruits, like strawberries at the moment, are cheaper in circuits courts. Others that can be mechanised are more complicated, like apples, cherries and melons.
“In any case, fruits and vegetables are more flavoursome from circuits courts, as varieties are chosen for the taste, whereas in supermarkets they are selected so they will keep for a long time.
“And fruits are picked once they are ripe, whereas in supermarkets they are unripe and often go bad in your pantry before ripening.”
Processed foods such as artisanal soup, jam and pâté are usually less expensive in supermarkets, meanwhile, as large factories can achieve economies of scale, whereas small businesses have to invest in expensive materials and have less opportunity to spread out these costs.
Colour code system shows supply chain length
When it comes to markets, it can be difficult to tell where the food comes from without asking each individual seller.
“Sometimes resellers pass themselves off as producers, and tourists especially can be fooled,” Dr Chiffoleau said.
That is why she and INRAE collaborated with the town of Grabels, outside Montpellier, to create Ici.C.Local, a colour code system for market traders.
Products feature labels in one of three colours – green if they are sold direct from the producer; orange for circuits courts with one intermediary; purple for circuits courts which are not local; and the rest have an ordinary black sign.
Where to find circuit court sellers
The system is used in departments including Hérault, Var and Ardèche, and is being put in place in large cities, including Lyon and Rennes.
It reflects a growing appetite for circuits courts, which Dr Chiffoleau says came back in fashion in the 1990s amid an outbreak of mad cow disease as consumers wanted to be sure of what they were eating.
Interest grew again during the Covid pandemic as people grew cautious once more and also had more time to cook.
UFC-Que Choisir has developed an interactive map showing circuit court retail points..
As well as searching for local farms via sites including Bienvenue à la ferme, you can also turn to your closest Association pour le maintien d’une agriculture paysanne.
These support producers by asking members to pay for their produce in advance.