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Time for consumers to stand in solidarity with dairy farmers-Devinder Sharma

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WHAT began as a small effort to help French dairy farmers overcome distress has galvanised into a unique consumer movement, slowly spreading its wings globally. While ensuring that the agri-food industry works towards a healthy transformation leading to sustainable and regenerative farming systems, French food cooperative brand C’est qui le Patron (‘Who’s the Boss?’) has emerged as a lifeline for farmers.

For all those who believe that giving a higher price to farmers distorts markets, here is a great learning. Instead of always wanting food to be cheap, consumers are willing to pay more, provided they realise that the fair and remunerative price they pay supports farmers in earning a decent living. And if calibrated well, it can help provide them, in return, safe and healthy food. With consumers increasingly taking control over the food chain, this quid pro quo has only grown. This is reflected in the sales of its products, showing an average increase of 31 per cent. And if consumers are willing to pay extra, there is no reason why the agribusiness industry cannot be made to pay the right price to growers.

This assumes importance at a time when the demand by protesting Indian farmers for legalising the minimum support price has drawn the ire of mainline economists, the media and the middle class, who fear that it will increase food inflation. But if consumers in France and elsewhere are voluntarily paying more, realising how the denial of a fair price kills farm livelihoods, instead of creating a fear psychosis, mainline economists in India must realise that the effort should be to educate consumers on how crucial it is to ensure decent prices for farmers. By and large, consumers are sensitive to farmers’ plight. And with the right kind of awareness, they can easily change consumption behaviour that also makes market forces change.

It all began in 2016, when milk prices crashed in France amid surplus production. This resulted in the near collapse of the French dairy industry. As dairy farmers began to pull down shutters, the farm suicide rate in rural areas soared. It was during those difficult times that Nicolas Chabanne met a dairy farmer, Martial Darbon, who was the president of a local dairy cooperative. As they discussed the plight of the farming community and the distress that prevailed all around, the idea of bringing together consumers to support farmers took shape. “I knew it was difficult, but it was worth a try,” Nicolas, who founded the initiative, had told me.


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This is how ‘Who’s the Boss?’ was created. The objective was to support cultivators by paying them a fair price. “We need everyone who feeds us to be able to live with dignity,” he said. In October 2016, the blue carton design pack for milk was launched with the aim of ensuring the sale of 7 million litres of milk, helping 80 families in distress. Social media was used to help spread the message. All that the farmer had to do was pay an enrolment fee of one euro and demonstrate his commitment to good practices.

In a little over seven years since it began, the ‘Who’s the Boss?’ solidarity brand has sold more than 424 million litres of milk at a guaranteed fair price of €0.54 euro per litre, which is 25 per cent higher than the market price. This has emerged as the best-selling milk brand in France today and is supporting around 300 farm families (about 3,000 for various products). Unlike the price variations that markets operate under, farmers get a fixed price that does not fluctuate with market trends. Given that 38 per cent tillers earn less than the minimum wage and 26 per cent somehow survive below the poverty line in France, it is heartening to find 75 per cent of the people willing to add cents to their purchase, as per a survey, if it guarantees a fair price to producers.

It started with milk, but over time, the brand extended to nearly 18 products, including organic butter, organic cottage cheese, free-range eggs, yoghurt, apple juice, apple puree, potatoes, crushed tomatoes, wheat flour, chocolate, honey and frozen ground steak. While the cooperative assures a fair price to growers, they also have to follow healthy, sustainable practices, such as no palm oil being used in the recipes or in the cattle feed, no genetically modified ingredients and the grazing of animals for at least four months a year.

The concept is now reaching out to consumers in nine countries — Germany, Belgium, Greece, Italy, Morocco, the Netherlands, Spain, UK and the US — where consumer structures have been set up with licensing agreement with the parent French company.

Considering that France imports 71 per cent of its fruit and vegetable requirements, hitting the livelihoods of local producers, Nicolas has launched a drive to help domestic farmers. “We don’t want to ship from the end of the world. We need to protect our local producers and the food they produce daily on our doorstep. This is a precious treasure that must not disappear,” he said. To help local producers, the cooperative brand recently introduced strawberry, asparagus and kiwi in its food basket.

At a time when the markets are trying to race to the bottom to stay competitive, ‘Who’s the Boss?’ is an idea whose time has come. In any case, with markets having failed cultivators across the globe in terms of enhancing farm incomes, a lot hinges on consumer support for farmers. If 16 million people in France have come forward to support farmers by making purchases at relatively higher prices, the initiative launched by Nicolas certainly has come a long way.

‘No farmer, no food’ is not an empty slogan. It needs consumers’ commitment to keep farming alive and kicking. It’s time for consumers to stand in solidarity with farmers.

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