Which future for labels in agriculture?

Published on 19 October 2021 Read 25 min

8Recently, HVE (High Environmental Value) certification was at the center of the debate. A new battle horse for public authorities, HVE is gaining ground on the shelves and in the fields, increasing from 5,399 certified farms at the beginning of 2020 to 8,218 by mid-2020, with a goal of 15,000 by 2022. It joins the long list of the many labels of quality approaches to agriculture that abound to reassure the increasingly demanding French people. However, these approaches, which allow the efforts of the agri-food industry to be valued, are being criticized: they would lose consumers and would make it more complex for farmers to manage their farms while facing a multiplication of objectives. What are the reasons for this? What are the avenues of reflection to resolve the situation?

Towards a strengthening of the weight of labels in agriculture

An increased sensitivity of consumers towards labeled products

Labels make it possible to highlight know-how, more agro-ecological production systems or other value propositions that the French population is looking for.

Following the food crises of the 1990s, SIQO (Identification Signs of Origin and Quality) appeared in France to reassure consumers. Since then, they are more and more sensitive to this type of approach, whether it concerns animal welfare, the use of inputs, fair remuneration or the origin of the product.

After the labels, a constellation of quality approaches (the term label being reserved for official approaches recognized by the State) is emerging, to highlight the know-how more agro-ecological production systems or other value propositions that French consumers are looking for.

Demand and supply are constantly increasing: 1/3 of farms deliver products under SIQO, organic farming has doubled in the last 5 years, the number of HVE certified farms has doubled in 2020 and the label Origine France has seen a 19% increase in requests for labeling in 2020.

Learn more about the clean label approach in the food industry >

The State and the sectors push official labels in agriculture

Some of these methods of valuation benefit from the support of the French public authorities: this is the case of the SIQO and AB which are recognized and controlled by the State, via the INAO, or the HVE which the government has been actively promoting for a year, with the objective of 50,000 certified farms by 2030 (compared to just over 8,000 in mid-2020).

For example, the EGALIM law requires that 50% of the products in collective catering come from quality and sustainable channels, with an emphasis on these approaches and in particular on AB (20%).

It is becoming more complicated at the international level to support all the approaches since they can vary in terms of specifications from one country to another, raising difficulties of economic competitiveness between labelled local products and imports. For the moment, organic farming is the big winner: it benefits from the recognition and support of Europe via the CAP and the Green Deal, which wishes to impose 25% of organic UAA (in France, in 2019, we were at 8.5%).

Private approaches pushed by private structures and sectors

Other approaches are pushed by private bodies, on their own initiative (Démeter, Bleu Blanc Cœur, Bio Cohérence, C’est Qui Le Patron…), or by the agricultural sectors themselves (Terres Oléopro, CRC, Vergers écoresponsables, Global G.A.P…) which may make them prerequisites for certain markets.

They can be as restrictive (or even more so) than official acronyms, but they do not enjoy the same notoriety: according to a 2018 study by Kantar, SIQO, AB or origin labels are largely more popular than private approaches like Déméter or Vergers écoresponsables. More recent, they are often aimed at a smaller number of consumers, but their multiplication sometimes brings some consumer confusion.

The multiplication of labels and their complexity creates problems for consumers and farmers

Labels sometimes too numerous, complicated (methods VS means) which can lose consumers

AB, Bio cohérence, Déméter, Nature et Progrès, Zéro Résidu de Pesticides: what are the differences? Is there a better way? Do “too many labels kill the label”? We were already asking ourselves this question 10 years ago: it is difficult for the consumer to know what is hidden behind these acronyms and in packaging with the same colors.

And then there are the local, ethical, fair trade approaches, the approaches based on means and those that focus on results (see our article on Zero Pesticide Residue vs. Organic Agriculture).

The labels are sometimes complementary, overlapping but can end up losing the consumer and the farmers.

Farmers have difficulty in choosing the right labels (that will please consumers and also unlock subsidies)

So, what should farmers turn to? HVE or AB? Rather Vergers Ecoresponsables or Demain La Terre? What are the long-term economic impacts for the farm? What is the short-term financial impact of the transition? What agroecological impacts for the farm and its surroundings? The challenges are numerous: technical barriers (or impasses), substantial investments in machinery, certification processes, self-monitoring devices…

While some manufacturers are pushing specifications that are even more elaborate than those of recognized approaches, farmers are left to their own devices to meet the increasing demands and lack clear economic indicators to measure the impact of such transitions. Some labels are very complex, with a holistic approach to agricultural processes leading to many challenges.

Read also: Food 2050 – Alcimed Position Paper

Standardization and simplification approaches

Towards simpler approaches?

While some approaches present substantial specifications with a holistic approach to the farm, others have focused on a more precise expectation of the consumer, to value each of the efforts of the value chain. Among these approaches is, for example, the recent Terres OléoPro approach (that appeared in 2014), which was the result of a long process of reflection by the oil and protein sector, and which focuses on the French origin of products.

Beyond being apparently “easy”, the standardization and simplification of procedures are also a way to meet the economic challenges of a global market in which players face competing products that do not meet the same level of requirements.

Bridges between approaches pushed by the sectors: the example of the HVE label

Simplification – which would push towards a clearer hyper-segmentation of the quality approach landscape – can also take place between labels. Since many labels share fairly similar requirements (although the indicators or measurement methods differ), it is sometimes proposed to grant equivalence between approaches.

Then there is hope for harmonizing the landscape of labels in order to integrate the approaches between them. This could be the case with the HVE, which would become a base for other agro-ecological approaches, making it possible to encourage agro-ecological transitions thanks to the available aid to the HVE sector, while supporting the work of farmers who wish to go further towards even more restrictive approaches.

Beyond a simple facilitation, working on harmonization would make it possible to value the efforts made upstream of the sector with the processors who support these quality sectors.

Support work to be provided for all stakeholders

Ensuring better communication on labels

During our expeditions, it appeared that consumers sometimes had difficulty recognizing and differentiating between the different approaches. This is particularly the case for the vegetable/organic/natural labels. The display of these labels on packaging (already overloaded with information) is already a challenge in itself, as can be seen with the reflections around the addition of the low carbon label on wine bottles. Then comes the recognition, understanding and awareness of these labels. If a lot of packaging still confuses the consumer (like the incomprehension of some consumers discovering that pesticides were used in AB), what about guiding them via smartphone applications?

Providing technical support to farmers

As specifications become more complex, it is necessary to continue to support farmers in their transition and training intermediaries: via access to economic, financial and environmental indicators, to reference systems and to new, more holistic methods.

Identifying equilibrium prices that offer accessibility for consumers and income for farmers

Finally, beyond technical support, the gap between the intention and the act of purchase among consumers must be reduced. While barometers show growing purchasing intentions (see “Barometer of consumption and perception of organic products in France“), faced with products that are twice as expensive as conventional products (and for processed products, the gap doubles or triples), consumers may be led to change their minds or to turn to imported equivalents.

And the problem will become more complex as conventional farms convert. Some AB farmers are already worried about the repercussions on the prices of products which, if they were to fall, would no longer allow them to maintain the efforts necessary to keep the label.

Faced with increasingly anxious and demanding consumers, labels have multiplied, sometimes pushed by the State, sometimes by private structures or the sectors to meet a hyper-segmented demand. Faced with this phenomenon, some consumers have difficulty finding their way around and understanding the profusion of labels, while farmers have to respond to increasingly complex specifications, and do not always have access to the necessary support to help them navigate and adapt. However, initiatives exist to provide them with indicators, simpler labels are appearing and bridges between approaches are being established at the national level.

There is still work to be done to educate consumers about labels, and to work on prices to make products more accessible without undermining the efforts of industry and farmers. And as labels increase in importance, becoming almost unavoidable, can we envisage one day seeing the implementation of a common agroecological approach for all products in the same category?

About the author, 

Mathieu, Project Manager in Alcimed’s Agri-Food team in France

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