Local farmers’ markets have become the latest coronavirus casualty after France decided to close open-air markets as a further measure curb the spread of coronavirus. However, the move has proved controversial given that it stands to disproportionately affect small producers.
In a speech on Monday (23 March), Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said France has made a decision to close open markets.
He specified that prefects will be allowed, on the advice of mayors, to derogate from this ban, remarking that markets are often the “best and only way” for people living in villages to have access to fresh products. But he said he stood by the principle of banning open markets and stressed they will only be allowed “under strict rules.”
As measures are tightening across the EU, this trend is likely to continue across other countries.
The decision to close farmers’ markets has caused considerable consternation in some quarters.
Andoni Garcia Arriola, member of the Coordinating Committee of European Coordination Via Campesina, told EURACTIV that closing direct points of sale such as farmers’ markets and farm shops is “causing huge problems in many countries for small-scale farmers.”
“Access to markets for specific production sectors, like meat and milk, is increasingly difficult and needs very specific support measures,” he said, stressing that small farmers have “already lost access to other sale points such as restaurants, and some are now left without anywhere to sell their food.”
“It is paradoxical that in a lockdown to minimise movement, you would close the points of sale for locally produced products, which bring together fewer people than supermarkets,” he said.
“Small-scale farmers could provide healthy food to local communities in this crisis, in the safest and most sustainable conditions.”
Garcia Arriola stressed that the authorities should “re-open or maintain open the local farmers’ markets” and put in place measures to protect the producers and consumers from the risk of COVID-19, specifying that the “interests of industry cannot be put above the health, well-being and livelihood of the people.”
Pekka Pesonen, secretary-general of farmer’s association, told EURACTIV that he was “concerned” by the move, and questioned the wisdom of the decision, saying he hoped it was based on “sound scientific evidence.”
“Small farmers are already under pressure due to the closure of the HoReCa [hotels, restaurants and catering] which makes up the majority of direct sales. Closing farmers’ markets will have a further dramatic impact on small producers,” he said.
“Realistically, if markets are prohibited, food will have to be re-directed to retailers, but there are many practicalities that mean they won’t be able to take the produce,” he said, highlighting that much of this food will also be perishable and there is therefore a tight time span in which to find solutions.
He added that market produce is likely to be “unsuitable” to be transferred to supermarkets, especially in terms of packaging and labelling requirements.
Neil McMillan, director of political affairs and trade at EuroCommerce, concurred. He told EURACTIV that although he understood why the decision had been taken, diverting food will be “very difficult,” especially given that supermarkets are subject to more stringent hygiene requirements than produce sold in markets.
However, he stressed that the closure of food markets will have differing effects in different countries, depending on whether supermarkets have a long-standing tradition of buying from markets or not, and thus decisions must be context-specific.
“Direct selling between supermarkets and farmers is complicated,” he said, adding that “only 5% of produce in supermarkets currently comes directly from farmers.”
After the closure of open markets, he said, it will be considerably easier for farmers who are part of a co-operative or sell to local suppliers that already have a relationship with retailers, thus removing the necessity to draw up contracts directly between producers.
However, he said, given that such co-operatives, wholesalers, and suppliers take a cut of the profit, small producers stand to lose out financially compared to directly-selling their products.
“Food chains are already considerably stretched,” he said, adding that decisions such as these are often taken by “city-dwellers” who “don’t necessarily understand rural life and the impact of restricting the movement of people in rural areas.”
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]