After reading and discussing this text, students should be able to:
- Explain the emergence of place-based designations as a response to and product of the globalization of food systems.
- Discuss the rise of certification within contemporary trends in agri-food governance.
- Review the role of place-based designations in strategies of rural development.
- Identify critiques and shortcomings of place-based designations.
Introduction: Globalization and the “placeless” food system
What is the meaning of place in an increasingly globalized food system? Do the particular landscapes and cultures of food production continue to matter in a food system premised on uniformity, standardization, and “placelessness?”
Given the steady rise of place-based designations for food products around the world, it may be too soon to claim that place no longer matters in our global food system. Place-based designations, like the French appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC; controlled designation of origin) system have long existed to authenticate that certain products originate from their traditional regions and are produced using traditional practices. These systems rely on the concept of terroir—the idea that the specific qualities of a product are linked to the environmental and cultural characteristics of its region of production. Since the 1990s, internationally recognized place-based designations, like Geographical Indication (GI), have become part of global agricultural and food governance, or agri-food governance. These designations continue to be taken up with enthusiasm around the world as a way of inserting “place” back into the global food system.
This brief overview examines place-based designations with a focus on three key topics: the globalization of food systems, certification as a technique of agri-food governance, and the role of place-based designations in rural development. It then turns to a discussion of the critiques of place-based designations. While the term place-based designation covers a range of labels and certification projects, the focus here is on internationally recognized systems, like AOC and GI. While it is difficult to make any hard and final claims about the impacts of place-based designations, it is clear that they have illuminated place as a terrain of contestation in our food systems, making them an important topic for food scholarship.
The globalization of food
The industrialization and globalization of food systems have transformed the places and landscapes where food is produced. These transformations have resulted in a “placeless” food system in which food products are standardized, anonymized, and disconnected from the landscapes, seasons, and sites of their production. Yet these processes of industrialization and globalization have not proceeded without resistance. Rather, consumers and broader social movements have resisted the globalization of agriculture by asserting the right to know where their food comes from and by honoring regional food and agricultural traditions.
It is in this context that we have seen the global expansion of place-based designations, through which a particular food product name—like Tequila or Camembert—can only legally refer to products produced within a historical region of production using traditional methods. These designations not only link foods to particular places but are premised on the idea that place is what gives particular foods their characteristic tastes and qualities (i.e., the concept of terroir). GIs strive to reinforce the traditions and meanings of place, but also serve to limit what producers from that place can do to innovate and transform their practices.
Given this connection to “tradition” and “place,” GIs are thus seen as a counterpoint to the globalization of food. Along these lines, Trubek and Bowen describe place-based designations “as a source of resistance against the homogenizing effects of ‘placeless’ food systems.” Similarly, Rangnekar argues that placed-based designations “offer opportunities to retrieve history, inscribe locality, and facilitate resistance against global agrifood.” For these scholars, connecting food with place is seen as a means of countering the processes and impacts of globalization.
Authentic foods: The rise of certification
While place-based designations can be understood as a response to the globalization of agriculture, they are, like other forms of agri-food certification, also very much a product of the globalization of agriculture. The rise of certification systems for food products is part of the complex shifts that have occurred as the governance of food and agriculture has become globalized. To understand how agri-food certification has emerged and proliferated, we need to understand this broader context of agri-food governance: the institutions, rules, and regulations that shape the production and trade of food and agricultural products.
As the food system has become more globalized, new forms of governance have emerged to regulate the production and trade of food. Power to regulate food and agriculture have shifted away from states, and toward global governing bodies like the World Trade Organization. These institutions set standards for food quality and safety that shape the rules of international trade in food. As global governing bodies attempt to “harmonize” national standards to facilitate international trade, global standards have increasingly come to shape the production of food across the globe. Agri-food certifications are one such standard that has emerged to designate and authenticate specialty products that are produced in particular places (GI, AOC) or in particular ways (e.g., organic, fair trade). Because consumers cannot verify the origins or qualities of food produced around the globe, these standards serve to guarantee the quality of foods on the global market.
These processes of certification have also emerged in response to a demand for “high-quality” and “authentic” foods that have particular environmental, social, and cultural values embedded within them. The emergence of new forms of consumer preferences and education, ecogastronomy and other food-based lifestyles, and various food movements have bolstered the demand for “high-quality” and “authentic” foods. Because these foods carry a price premium, it is necessary to certify the claims they make that differentiate them from generic commodities. How can I be assured that my Camembert cheese is an authentic product of Normandy, rather than a case of false advertising? Here, certification systems like AOC and GI have emerged as a way to support the claims being made by food producers, while ensuring transparency, authenticity, and quality in globally traded food products. In this way, we can understand place-based designations as both a response to the impacts of a globalized food system and a product emerging from the context of global agri-food governance and trade.
Capturing value: Rural development and agri-tourism
What are the benefits of place-based designations? In addition to authenticating the origin of a food product, place-based designations are promoted for their potential to protect rural cultures and bolster local and regional economies. Because place-based designations add value to a product, they produce price premiums that are (ideally) captured by producers and thus support agrarian livelihoods (although this is not always the case). Beyond adding value to food products, place-based designations are often part of efforts to promote rural landscapes and heritage through forms of tourism focused on agriculture and rural life, like agri-tourism. In this sense, place-based designations support the marketing of both products and places; they highlight a region’s unique agrarian and culinary heritage and help promote it as a tourist destination. For many regions around the world, agri-tourism and gastronomic tourism are seen as vehicles for rural development that can support, rather than erase, locally specific forms of food, farming, and culture.
While the histories and meanings of development vary regionally around the world, place-based designations like Geographic Indication have been seen as potentially contributing to forms of rural and agricultural economic development in both the Global North and Global South. In the Global North, agri-tourism has come to play a significant role in rural economies as these regions have transitioned from production to consumption landscapes. The term “consumption landscape” describes how some rural landscapes have become less oriented toward commodity food production and have shifted to more diversified, consumption-based activities, including tourism and recreation. In this context, agri-tourism has been seen as a strategy for rural development and farm diversification, through which rural areas can support social goods including the protection of agricultural landscapes and agrarian cultural heritage. In the Global South, place-based designations have similarly been seen as a way to promote biodiversity and cultural traditions, and, critically, as a means for increasing export revenues, launching a product into global circulation, and promoting tourism. In both contexts, by marketing the landscapes, products, and places of food production, farmers and other stakeholders seek to capitalize on the agricultural heritage of regions while connecting them to new economic circuits. However, given the different histories and meaning of development in the Global North and Global South, it is important to attend to broader cultural, socio-economic, and historical contexts when evaluating the potentials of place-based designations in any given place.
As previously discussed, proponents of place-based designations argue that they can counter the impacts of globalization, support local food economies, contribute to rural development, protect cultural heritage, and provide various other cultural and environmental benefits. Yet others remain critical of how well place-based designation and other forms of agri-food certification can accomplish these ambitious goals. In what follows, two critiques of place-based designation are considered: (a) that it reproduces dominant modes of neoliberal governance, and (b) that it produces uneven development.
Neoliberalism and market solutions
One of the major critiques of place-based designation as a form of agri-food certification is that it can reproduce neoliberal ideologies and practices. What does this mean? Neoliberalism refers to a philosophy and practice of governance that emerged in the 1970s in Europe and the United States, and which remains dominant today across the globe. Premised on the primacy of the market as a regulator of social life, neoliberal approaches emphasize privatization, commodification, and other forms of marketization as solutions to social and environmental problems, entailing a shift in power from state to non-state actors. According to neoliberal doctrine, social and environmental problems are best solved through market-based solutions. For example, in the case of air pollution, a neoliberal, market-based solution would entail “trading” the right to pollute by buying and selling “credits” (e.g., the right to pollute a given quantity) on the market. An example of a non-market-based approach would be enforcing emissions laws through state agencies.
Forms of agri-food certification, including place-based designations, are part of this trend in neoliberal governance. Instead of addressing the systemic problems of our food system through regulations, reform, or social movements, neoliberal approaches like food labelling leave it up to the market and consumers to make socially and environmentally conscious choices (by paying a price premium). From this perspective, solving the problems of our globalized industrial food system becomes the responsibility of consumers, rather than the responsibility of the food and agricultural industry or the state. According to critics like Guthman, certification does not actually challenge this system; rather, it merely allows privileged consumers to pay their way to consuming healthier, more ecological, more socially just, and more “authentic” food, all while leaving the system intact. Other scholars argue that food labels can spur on collective action and serve as a point of resistance to the logics of a globalized food system. Understanding place-based designations and other forms of agri-food certification as both a symptom of and a response to neoliberal governance is key to evaluating its strengths and limitations as a strategy of agri-food governance and rural development.
Other critics of place-based certification point to how these strategies can produce benefits that are unevenly shared. First, the narratives underwriting these place-based designations—narratives that rely on ideas of tradition, place, and heritage—can be constructed in ways that valorize certain producers and practices while excluding others. This occurs as various actors attempt to control narratives of place and tradition to suit their interests and ensure that they can claim the value produced by place-based designations. Second, the material benefits of place-based designations and other forms of agri-food certification, like price premiums, may flow to some more than others, and thus can reproduce unequal social relations. For example, Rangnekar (2011) describes how attempts to secure a GI for a traditional Indian beverage, Feni, ended up benefiting bottlers and distributors at the expense of producers of the beverage, who may not even know about the designation and its value. In the case of the GI status of tequila in Mexico, Bowen similarly demonstrates how negotiations over the details of the designation, including quality standards, processing protocols, and dynamics between small producers, bottlers, and distributors have diluted the meaning of the GI designation. Bowen describes “influential actors have manipulated production standards and certification policies in ways that contradict the theoretical concept of a GI and negatively affect the overall quality of tequila.” Further, any kind of place-based designation relies on the demarcation of “traditional” regions and techniques of production, thus recognizing some producers as eligible for distinction while excluding others.
These problems are not unique to place-based designations but accompany any attempt to produce value through the distinction of labels and processes of certification. Guthman points to how all certification systems are built on exclusions; barriers to entry allow some to benefit from designations while excluding others. Thus, rather than seeing place-based designations as a panacea to issues of rural development and the problems of a globalized food system, we need to approach these projects critically, with an awareness of both their potentials and limitations.
As this discussion suggests, place-based designations open up complex questions and practical challenges concerning food systems, globalization, agri-food governance, and rural change. This complexity means that there is no single verdict on the impacts or merits of place-based designations as a general approach, nor are there any uniform effects of such designations. Instead, how place-based designations affect particular places and landscapes depends upon how they are pursued; that is, by whom, for whom, and at what scale. This is because place-based designations, like any form of certification, are not simply a technical standard to be implemented, but a strategy of governance located within uneven socio-economic, cultural, and power relations. To understand their impacts, strengths, and limitations, we must pursue careful empirical research about particular certification projects in specific places. The general problems outlined here can aid us in approaching specific cases of place-based designations with a critical lens and within their larger historical context.
- What is terroir? How do claims to terroir differentiate a given food from other food products?
- How can place-based designations be understood as both responses to and products of the globalization of food systems?
- In what ways can place-based designations contribute to rural development?
- What are the major shortcomings or critiques of place-based designation as a form of rural development?
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