Urban and rural ‘terroirs’: shared assets in the global village

Malvoisie vineyards in Lanzarote. Yummifruitbat/Wikipedia, CC BY-SA

Current debates surrounding two European trade agreements – CETA and TAFTA – provide us with a perfect opportunity to examine the French concept of terroir, and issues regarding the protection of geographic labelling (Protected Designation of Origin, and Protected Geographical Indication) that relate to that concept.

Geographical origin has always been used as a mark of quality in selling a wide array of agricultural products. Who hasn’t heard of Champagne or Bordeaux wines, Prosciutto di Parma, Parmesan or Roquefort?

In France, this practice has resulted in the development of specific geographical labelling, the Appellation d'origine contrôlée, which revolves around the concept of terroir. The reputation and prestige associated with a product’s geographical origin has created the temptation for misleading labelling. Fighting against misuses has become a major financial and legal issue in many rural areas.

While the concept of terroir is universally understood in France, its international definition and relevance has been the subject of lively debate. The United States has contested it at the World Trade Organization.

The system of Protected Designation of Origin and Protected Geographical Indication has now been successfully expanded throughout Europe. Does this mean that the fight for terroir recognition has been won?

An ode to cultural diversity

France’s national institute of origin and quality (INAO) defines terroir as:

a restricted geographical area, in which a community of people, over the course of their history, developed a shared knowledge and production methods, based on a set of interactions between the physical and biological environment, and human factors. The particular characteristics, or typicity, arising from these social and technical histories bestow their notoriety to products originating from this geographical area.

To a large extent, the European Protection of Designated Origin is based on the French appellation. To be awarded this label, producers must prove:

  • the product’s historical origin and reputation
  • the strict delineation of territory and area of exclusivity for a given geographical designation
  • the specific characteristics, or typicity, of the product; knowledge and know-how inherent in the traditions and local customs associated with the local community.

In France, studies in anthropology, history, geography, economics, sociology, agronomy and animal science have helped define the link between a product and its terroir but failed to resolve differences of opinions as to its exact nature.

Between tradition and innovation

A product of the wine industry, the concept of terroir applied exclusively to wine for a long time. But terroir is a flexible concept that has progressively expanded to include other French products such as cheeses, cured meats and vegetable products.

Sometimes considered inapplicable internationally, this concept emphasises the role of natural elements (landscape, soil, climate, genetic resources, and flora, among other things), and their interaction with human factors. Therefore, the definition of a locality and the legal protection given to geographical designations raise questions about the importance accorded to local knowledge, a product’s reputation and history, and the natural environment.

Causse du Lot lamb from the Quercy region. Jean-Jacques Boujot/Wikipedia, CC BY-SA

Some efforts have been made recently to encourage UNESCO to classify a number of terroirs as world heritage sites. However, such emphasis on history and cultural heritage does not translate into inertia or an end to innovation.

Maintaining a diverse range of social and technical systems is also useful in the fight against climate change, and the protection of natural resources (landscape, soil, biodiversity, and water, among other things).

However, ever increasing industrialised production methods, the standardisation of of know-how, as well as the development of new production lines for origin-based products (using reverse engineering techniques), do raise the tricky question of how to reconcile tradition with innovation.

Constant collaborative re-invention

The US has mainly fought against and criticised the concept of terroir, while supporting private trademarking. But some American producers have shown growing interest in the idea over the last decade. This group, coordinated by the American Origin Products Association, indicates a real change in outlook.

Labelling geographic origin can be understood as what Elinor Ostrom and Charlotte Hess define as “knowledge commons”. It’s based on both the shared prestige and reputation of a product with its customers and on the specific set of natural and cultural resources that come from local communities’ and producer regions’ shared knowledge and know-how.

Roquefort cheese is protected under EU law. Digitalyeti/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

This attitude is substantiated by the growing number of countries in Africa, South America and Asia that are adopting legal measures similar to Europe’s protected geographic indications. In these cases, however, the concept of terroir and what constitutes typicity is broader: products are labelled according to their geographic origin, with a lesser substantive reference to other criteria defining their terroir.

Even in France, the origin-based labeling system has been sometimes criticised for its supposed rigidity and failure to adapt quickly enough to the demands of international markets, although it has boosted the promotion of local products and helped strengthen regional identities. By creating another link, terroir products have helped reshape the relationship between urban and rural areas.

By promoting traditional, typical and regional products with an origin-based label, terroir has become a valuable economic development tool for many EU rural regions.

The international use of the concept of terroir also includes transforming and adapting it to different contexts and applications, such as “urban terroirs”, and artisanal products, among other things. This usage should help reshape our vision of regions and their heritage.

Translated from the French by Alice Heathwood for Fast for Word. This article was published originally on The Conversation France.