Around a third of us have bought food directly from the producer in the past year. How do buyers perceive this kind of trade and how does it affect the producers?
The five-year EU-funded project Strength2Food has looked at short value chains, i.e. direct sales from producers to consumers. Examples are farmer’s markets, REKO rings and local shops that sell products from the local area.
‘We’ve looked at how sustainable people think this kind of food trade is,’ says Gunnar Vittersø, who led the work on comparing direct trade in 12 different cases in six European countries. He is one of several researchers from Consumption Research Norway (SIFO) in the project, including colleague Virginie Amilien, who has been project manager in the research group.
Farmer’s markets and fish subscriptions
The short value chains varied from traditional open city markets in Poland, Hungary and France to a more modern form of farmer's market in England to consumer cooperatives in Norway where the customers buy directly from the producers.
Trade of fish and seafood was also part of the project. In England, the researchers looked at a subscription scheme for fish where customers received different products each time based on access. In Norway, they looked at local fish and seafood trade in Vestfold.
Vittersø describes this as thriving, continuous and local trade of fish.
The researchers have studied three aspects of sustainability; environmental, economic and social.
People who want organic products are often those who shop locally. It’s related to their interest in their health and the environment– Gunnar Vittersø
Environmental sustainability is related to transport. Are transport emissions reduced when people buy food produced in the local community? Unfortunately, direct trade does not necessarily have an impact on emissions from transport.
‘People needing to go a long way to get the food, such as to a farm shop, requires more resources than if they shopped at their local store,’ says Vittersø.
However, people perceive local products as more sustainable, particularly if they are also organic.
‘People who want organic products are often those who shop locally. It’s related to their interest in their health and the environment,’ says Vittersø.
Direct sales to the customer means that producers keep more of the profit than they would otherwise by selling through supermarket chains. According to Vittersø, this is as expected.
'For producers, this is a good way of selling their products. They may have too low a volume to sell via the supermarket chains.’
The project has not compared the prices of products via direct sales with the prices in supermarkets. The customer considers the quality of direct sales to be the most important. The wish to support local farmers is also a major driver.
‘Members of the Norwegian cooperative felt that they helped to give the farmers a fair price,’ says Vittersø.
The most notable dimension of sustainability was the social aspect, and this was highly valued by both producers and consumers. When they meet, the customers can, for example, ask the producer about the product directly and receive advice about how to prepare it.
Direct trade reduces the social distance between the producer and consumer. The customers have more trust in the quality and the way the food has been produced– Gunnar Vittersø
‘Direct trade reduces the social distance between the producer and consumer. The customers have more trust in the quality and the way the food has been produced,’ says Vittersø.
‘The consumers find it motivating to support local production. The price was often less relevant due to the social aspect,’ explains Vittersø.
‘The farmers are also inspired by direct contact with the customers,’ he says.
Social sustainability is about belonging and identity. Producers and consumers feel that they share something through direct trade, and that this has great value for both parties. It is basically an experience.
‘You really feel something when you buy food and you know where and how it was produced. You “own” it, in a way,’ explains Virginie Amilien.
Showing care through food
In Norway, we have a high level of trust in all parts of the food production chain and relatively few food scandals. In many other countries, there is less trust and more people buy food directly from the producers. They perceive the products to be fresher and of better quality.
‘We want to be good consumers and want what is best for ourselves and our families. Food is a way of caring for your family,’ says Vittersø.
How popular is this now?
Although the media has caught up with REKO rings and direct trade, the researchers still describe it as a fairly marginal phenomenon in Norway. About 66 per cent of us have not bought food directly from the producer in the past year.
However, it has become more established among those who are interested in it. Many people come back when they’ve had a taste of this way of buying food. Digital tools can take much of the honour for this. Organisation via Facebook groups and payment via Vipps has made it much easier to sell outside shops.
‘It’s become easier for producers to find buyers for their products,’ says Vittersø.
About the project
The EU-funded project Strength2Food (2016-2021) has looked at local production and consumption in light of the EU policy on food quality and the public sector’s procurement policy. The goal is to strengthen local development of agriculture and fisheries and the market for local and organic food. SIFO has been responsible for several activities in the project:
- Investigated direct and local sales of food from producers to consumers in six European countries.
- Conducted ethnographic studies of consumers’ perceptions of food quality, and their knowledge about and use of quality labels on food.
- SIFO has led the work on developing a method for democratic dialogue in local communities, known as hybrid forums, in seven European countries: France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Norway, Serbia and the UK.