An opaque diversity of tomatoes from a limited number of suppliers
Except for covered markets and open-air markets where data could not be collected from all the sellers, the points of sale surveyed offer, on average, five different types of tomatoes. For the sellers, the tomato is an appealing product that “must take hold a place on the stands”Footnote 6 and requires diversity. These types of tomatoes, both in shops and market stands, are differentiated by name (“round tomato”, “beef tomato”, etc.), origin (at a minimum, the country must be indicated), price and appearance. Commercial types generally correspond, in supermarkets and specialised supermarkets, to modern hybrid varieties which are the most commonly consumed tomatoes (round tomato, bunch tomato, etc.). Some of these modern varieties produce tomatoes whose appearance, without regards to taste, is similar to those from old varieties, commonly observed in-season on the stands of producers at markets. Regularly covered in the media, the difference between “true” and “false” old varieties is not communicated in shops. This, from the point of view of food supply resilience, without posing a problem in terms of quantity, puts into question the ability of certain chains to provide products that fit the food preferences of consumers, who seek out old varieties for their taste (Debarle 2019). In the same vein, concerning geographical origin, it is not uncommon for a tomato from a variety selected for its shelf life—supplied by a central purchasing office and originating in Brittany—to be found alongside a tastier tomato supplied directly by a local producer on a supermarket shelf, both displaying the same “French origin” indication, without any information to differentiate them. Local supply, observed in all the supermarkets surveyed, is in fact still generally undervalued, in both integrated and organised independent trade, as previous studies have shown (Brand 2015). This is more the case in independent in-shop distribution, which often indicates the place or region of production on shelf labels. On the other hand, the origin of tomatoes is rarely specified beyond the country of origin at open-air market stands. Once again, this lack of information does not affect the quantity of supply, but can be a source of vulnerability: as one of the actors interviewed described to us, in the event of a food safety problem observed in a production region, for example, consumers will not have sufficient information to know whether they can continue to buy tomatoes safely. Problematic batches of tomatoes will be quickly withdrawn, but the information on other tomatoes will not be improved, which may raise doubts among consumers.
Moreover, apart from producers at open-air markets, AMAPs (Associations for the Preservation of Local Farming) or directly at farms, where we did not observe any in-season purchase and resale of tomatoes, a third of sellers (21 out of 63) say they have only one tomato supplier and the same number say they only have two suppliers, with no direct link to the volume sold. This, according to some respondents themselves, implies a certain vulnerability for the point of sale concerning the supply of this product and may be surprising in view of the importance of this appealing product. We also noted that one of the suppliers identified supplies nine (out of 63) of the points of sale surveyed apart from open-air markets and covered markets, under a normal situation for seven of them and in case of an emergency for the other two. Moreover, 30 of the businesses surveyed obtain their supplies from the producers’ section of the city’s National Interest Market (MIN), which brings together about ten tomato producers in season. This may reveal a relative dependence of the sellers on certain actors but also on this place of exchange. We will come back to this point. While noting that supply disruptions have already occurred, only three sellers reporting only one supplier (3 out of 21) mentioned having a “plan B”, with which they often have a strong link. On the other hand, other sellers have both several suppliers and a plan B. This plan B is usually a local producer or wholesaler, such as the one mentioned above, specifically seeking to differentiate themselves by responding to emergency requests. However, it is not always possible for sellers to diversify their suppliers: in particular, for businesses linked to mass distribution, integrated businesses have more limited room for manoeuvring than organised independent businesses in theory, as their managers or department heads are required to obtain most of their supplies from a central purchasing office. The survey, however, did not reveal any significant differences between these two types of shops in terms of tomato supply, as some integrated shops may, for example, obtain most of their tomatoes from a local wholesaler. Some purchasing managers in both integrated and organised independent trade stated that they wanted to diversify their supply sources in order to address possible disruptions but also to buy more local food in order to meet what they assessed as a growing demand. Therefore, some do not hesitate to go beyond what is recommended and commit themselves, often in their spare time, to approaching other suppliers, particularly local producers.
Supply chains mobilising flows across France
Starting from the 81 points of sale and the 90 sellers surveyed, we were able to trace 257 flows contributing to the tomato supply in Montpellier (Fig. 4): here, a flow corresponds to the transfer of tomatoes between two different locations, carried out either between two operators (supplier to seller) or by a single operator but between two different locations (such as a producer going to an open-air market to sell tomatoes there).
First of all, the representation of these flows makes it possible to visualise three major production areas supplying the city with tomatoes in season: the first corresponds to the Montpellier production basin (an irrigated plain historically specialised in market gardening for shipment), with a large number of direct flows between producers located less than 80 km from the centre of Montpellier and points of sale (83 flows out of 257). This 80 km distance is commonly used at present to define a “local” product (Chiffoleau 2019). The two other major areas of origin are the south-west region (the irrigated Garonne valley) and Brittany. However, we also observed a significant number of flows from intermediaries located in Provence (wholesalers present in the MINs of Châteaurenard and Cavaillon). These may possibly be supplied in the production basin of Montpellier but generally speaking, in season, we do not observe any flow of tomatoes produced near Montpellier and transported over long distances before returning to the points of sale in Montpellier. We can nevertheless note the importance of flows from Brittany in season, which can be explained by the presence in this region of two of the three largest tomato producers in France. Moreover, while the supply from Spain or Morocco appears negligible in season, it is, according to the interviewees, significant in the off-season.
In terms of the resilience of the supply system, this representation underlines the possible dependency of the city on certain production sites but puts into perspective the vulnerabilities linked to transport for supply. We will put these dependencies into perspective by extrapolating the volumes associated with different origins on the scale of the city.
Food supply chains structured into three sub-networks
An analysis of the relationships between sellers, intermediaries and producers that underpin Montpellier’s tomato supply chains also reveals a network made up of three sub-sections in which the players are closer to each other than to the other members of the networkFootnote 7 (Fig. 5).
First of all, the network analysis enables us to visualise short food chains, corresponding to seller-producer relationships, and long chains, linking the point of sale to a wholesaler or a central purchasing office. Within this network, however, even in short chains, the links may be weak (a relationship limited to a commercial exchange) or strong: for example, some independent businesses differentiate themselves by committing in advance to buying from local producers, by helping them to plan their production and/or by supporting them in the event of production contingencies, preferring to explain to consumers the reasons for a stock shortage rather than asking for a “plan B”. In other cases of short chains, particularly those observed in the case of supermarkets buying directly from producers for certain tomatoes, the strategy is more often opportunistic and the relationship is weak. Above all, we can see that several producers and middlemen are at the centre of the network, in a position as a crossing point: on the one hand, they concentrate a large number of relationships, supplying many points of sale in Montpellier, and on the other hand, they make the link between the two other sub-parts of the network that are poorly connected (Burt 1995). This representation highlights the key role of a few actors in particular in the resilience of the city’s supply. However, this can be nuanced by the fact that these actors are grouped together in the same place, the Montpellier MIN, which can be a vulnerability.
An analysis of the chains that reveals the coexistence of three interconnected markets
By cross-referencing data on the strategies, flows and relationships between the actors behind Montpellier’s tomato supply, we propose going beyond the framework of supply chains and report on the different “markets” that supply the city. By “market”, we mean, within the meaning in Anglo-Saxon economic sociology, a system made up of companies with similar strategies and interacting preferentially with each other around products of comparable quality (White 2002). From this perspective, the three sub-networks then correspond more broadly to three markets, which we call respectively “nearby”, “mixed” and “centralised”, connected by a few operators but also by a physical location, the Montpellier MIN. More precisely, the three markets are interconnected through two sites located at this MIN: the producers’ floor and the wholesalers’ floor (Fig. 6).
These three types of markets each correspond to types of products, suppliers, flows, chains and relationships (Table 2).
Hence, our analysis highlights more precisely that resilience is mainly covered by the suppliers (producers and wholesalers) of the mixed market, capable of mobilising, in the event of risks to their production or their own suppliers, the supply of the local market and/or the centralised market. The key position of these operators can be seen as a source of vulnerability. However, their ability to connect these markets, coupled with their relevant number (13 according to our study, which is not exhaustive) and their diverse statuses, makes the supply system more resilient than a system made up of unconnected markets or connected only through a very small number of operators would be, even with the same status. While the location of these operators in the same place may also raise questions—in the event of a blockade of the site by demonstrators or flooding, for example—this vulnerability is offset by the fact that some of them already market tomatoes outside such sites (sales on the farm or from another storage site).
Moreover, our surveys show that the sellers and wholesalers involved in this mixed market compete strongly with each other and with those of the local market to develop organic and local supply, which is further encouraged by the food policy implemented for several years by the City of Montpellier. Beyond creating tensions between operators, these practices destabilise local producers who do not market through the MIN: despite the interest in their production, they do not feel in a position of strength and do not necessarily have the means to respond or negotiate. Above all, visibility is lacking regarding the commitments that buyers on this market will actually make. From the point of view of resilience, this competition is likely to change the morphology of the supply network, by destructuring the mixed market on which the coexistence of the different markets, which have hitherto been complementary, is based.
Volumes that confirm the importance of coexistence
In line with the work carried out in New York, our objective was not only to describe the city’s supply system but also to quantify the volumes circulating in the chains so as to better understand the value of their coexistence from a resilience perspective. Data on volumes were difficult to obtain from open-air and covered market stands, but was easily collected in other types of shops, including specialised supermarkets and supermarkets, with some department heads or shop managers even providing us with spread sheets showing their sales, thus showing a greater openness than had previously been observed (Brand 2015). On the basis of the sample surveyed, we extrapolated the volumes sold on a citywide scale, also relying on an estimate of the fruit and vegetable market shares of the different types of shops located within the area of study, carried out by the Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CCI) in 2014 and updated by the latter with 2018 population data. We have hypothesised that the volume share for each type of trade corresponds to the associated market share, which could be discussed but would, according to the CCI experts, be “realistic”. We therefore extrapolated the data collected from the 81 points of sale from the total population estimated from the SIRENEFootnote 8 database and field observations, and compared our extrapolations with the volume shares of the various businesses based on CCI data. This comparison first forced us to cross-reference the categories of trade used by the CCI with the categories of points of sale that we had selected for the study (Table 3). This led us to highlight the CCI’s failure to take into account direct selling structures (except for producers at the markets), which were less developed in 2014 but represented a significant volume share in 2019 (Table 4). We have therefore added a specific category to those established by the CCI.
The data extrapolated from our sample are therefore broadly consistent with the estimate of volumes by type of trade made from the CCI data, which lends credibility to their validity. The total volume is larger than that estimated from the CCI because it is an average over the year, whereas we estimated averages during the production season. The other difference is due to the respective shares of specialised supermarkets and direct selling structures outside the open-air markets, which are significant according to our survey: these reflect the growing importance of such types of points of sale in recent years (since 2014), a trend highlighted both by national studies (Chiffoleau 2019) and by the local experts to whom we have submitted these results.
On this basis, we have also extrapolated data on the origins of tomatoes and the length of supply chains mobilised by sellers. This calculation confirms the importance of short chains (46% of volume, Fig. 7) and local supply (43%, Fig. 8) in Montpellier’s in-season tomato supply system.