Farmers' seeds: sowing for biodiversity!
By helping farmers to grow and sell their seeds, Carrefour is able to provide consumers with a wider variety of fruit and vegetables. Local, organic products with more taste, in line with the Group's long-standing commitment to sensory quality and biodiversity.
You think you have a choice when you buy fruit and vegetables? Well you don’t! At least, not entirely. Nowadays, farmers cannot freely sell seeds harvested from their fields. Their grandparents could, as could our ancestors – from the Neolithic period right up to the last century. But a number of factors changed the situation after the First World War – such as governments' desire to ensure food safety for people, guarantee the quality of the seeds that they purchased and increase yield.
Thus was born, in 1932, the Official catalogue of species and varieties of cultivated crops in France. A limited list of certified seeds, the only ones which could be sold. A nasty blow for many farmers. And accessing the catalogue is cumbersome and costly – not something that small producers are able to do easily. Biodiversity was also undermined. A major concern.
"90% of all cultivated seed varieties have disappeared in less than a century"
Let's take the tomato as an example. There are some 7500 varieties throughout the world, but only 328 are listed in the catalogue. Furthermore, the seeds in the catalogue are selected on the basis of criteria which could be considered commercial in nature first and foremost – such as their ability to withstand transport conditions: they yield standardised varieties of tomatoes which, although well calibrated, lack character and – ultimately – taste. Finally, they are sold by major global retailers and agrochemicals experts who promote the use of fertilisers, pesticides and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
For years now, a handful of invincible Frenchies have been trying to escape this traditional form of intensive farming. They include René Léa and Luc Calvez. These two Brittany-born farmers, who use organic farming methods – want to naturally cultivate and then freely sell their seeds – which Mother Nature has made for all of us, and which all of us – and not just a few – own.
Especially since farmers' seeds have numerous benefits.
"They are brimming with nutrients, are able to adapt naturally to diseases and uncertain weather conditions, and do not harm pollinating insects which play a vital role in fruit and vegetable reproduction", explains Luc Calvez whose family has been growing Roscoff onions for three generations – a variety created by his grandfather.
Qualities and benefits that have not gone unnoticed by Carrefour. The retailer has been committed to preserving the planet's biodiversity and promoting high-quality food for many years now. In 1999, Carrefour prohibited the use of GMOs in food products sold under its own brand. It also set up a "biodiversity fund” of €1 million as part of its sponsorship policy. "We encourage the installation of hives, hedges and nest boxes in fields,says Matthieu Lovery, director of Carrefour's fruit and vegetable, flowers and plants market. They’re useful for pollinating and avoid us having to use chemical treatments".
In 2000, Carrefour and Brittany farmers from the BioBreizh cooperative were involved in another battle together. Their determination to stop growing so-called "CMS" (cytoplasmic male sterility) cauliflowers, i.e. cauliflowers that were the result of biotechnological manipulation. "Carrefour agreed to stop selling them and to give preference to varieties that we have selected and grown in our fields", says René Léa.
In 2017, the retailer decided to go even further with their major communications campaign that it called "The Forbidden market". A comms coup? "We wanted more than just a nice advert from the Publicis advertising agency who came to meet us”, remembers René Léa. They had designed the "ugly vegetable" campaign for Intermarché, but only 700 kg were sold. We wanted a more substantial commitment over the long term".
"Forbidden market” campaign
In addition to a communications campaign and an online petition aimed at putting the battle for "free seeds" on the public agenda, the "Forbidden market" campaign mainly involves creating a sustainable line of farmers' varieties. "We have entered into five-year contractual agreements, committing to prices and volumes", says Matthieu Lovery.
Three partners have signed up so far: the BioBreizh consortium and its sixty-odd organic fruit and vegetable producers, the Kaol Kozh association which seeks to develop biodiversity in Brittany and Bio Poder, a company which specialises in delivery – from the field to the store. The result is that in 2017, some 53 tonnes of "farmers'" fruit and vegetables were sold. These included Camus du Léon artichokes, Angélique pumpkins and Kouign Amann butternut squash – names given to these varieties by the farmers who grow them.
“For 2018-2019, we are aiming for 200 tonnes, and we are increasing our number of partner farmers from 8 to 16. That's a major step up", emphasises Matthieu Lovery. Our aim is to provide consumers with ever-greater choice. "This summer, we’ll have tomatoes", he adds. The ones that Luc Calvez grows are excellent and we know that consumers have high expectations regarding how tomatoes taste".
The Carrefour Foundation has decided to support producers in setting up a Farmers' Seeds Company: an essential place for storing seeds and raising the general public's awareness of the time-honoured and complex work that goes into selecting them. "We also want to be able to certify that the fruit and vegetables have indeed been grown from farmers' seeds. It's not enough simply to declare it", says René Léa.
He and his colleague Luc Calvez are delighted. "Unlike Carrefour, Biocoop always refused to pay us more for these types of fruit and vegetables. But actually, they require more work and labour", he says. The prices for consumers, however, are the same as for organic produce.
And last, but by no means least, a victory: on 19 April 2018, new legislation was passed by the European Parliament stipulating that, starting in July 2021, farmers will be able to freely sell their seeds resulting from organic farming initiatives. René Léa is absolutely certain that
"It was Carrefour that set things in motion. The fact that such major player took up a position most definitely influenced the legislative process".
An expert's view.