Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Terroir Act

On account of our regular professor being out of town, I had the opportunity to listen to Dr. Jim Bingen speak about “Terroir, Quality, and Rural Development: Reflections from Farm Visits in Southern France” the other day in my International Agricultural Systems class.  At first I thought he would touch on many of the same things that Dr. Chiffoleau spoke about during her presentation several weeks ago, but as it turned out this was not the case. 

Dr. Chiffoleau had spoken of a food product labeling system in use at a local farmers’ market in southern France.  The system provides consumers with information regarding where the product came from: one label identifies the retailer as the producer as well; another identifies the retailer as a middleman for another producer (presumably a smallholder); while another label identifies the retailer as just that, signaling that the product may have easily been bought at a supermarket and then resold.  The idea is to illuminate which products are part of a short food supply chain—a concept similar to American ideas of stressing the producer-consumer direct relationships that ideally leads to the availability of high quality products from local producers.  Dr. Bingen’s labeling system, however, reflected less of the social relationship component.  His labels instead identified products according to quality and place of origin as a way of recognizing not only distinctive taste (quality) differences (and usually advantages) between food items produced a specific geographic area compared to those produced elsewhere but the distinctive production methods employed by the producers within a specific geographic region.  Some utilize terroir in the form of agritourism, especially producers who recognize that the income from production alone cannot financially sustain a household.   It seems, then, that even countries that recognize the importance of quality and origin in food products host agriculturalists who struggle to make ends meet.  Small-scale producers still struggle to make a living despite a burgeoning effort among the general population to laud and support their line or work and its important role in society.  What else can be done concerning this issue?  Is the industrial food system—one of convenience and low prices—and its effects irreversible?  Will the local smallholder continue to struggle in spite of our efforts to re-engage them in our food system?

Rural populations in particular seem to be attracted to exploiting this concept.  Regions appear to be reviving traditions of economic production that died out long ago in favor of other economies such as silk and chestnut production in southern France and a return to original grape rootstock in Languedoc to counter the prevalence of American grape rootstock that is said to have a different taste.  A major motivating factor is the economic opportunity and opening of the market for these commodities, but another is also the nostalgic component of returning to “what once was”—that way of life that defined how the people saw themselves and how they were seen by everyone else.  The government also tends to endorse policy in support of small-scale production in rural areas.  They argue it is less of a social interest as environmental since small-scale producers tend to engage in ecologically-friendly practices such as organic farming and running mixed-agricultural systems that incorporate livestock and pasturing that diversify the land as well as terracing practices that greatly reduce soil erosion in the hillsides.  These are notably archaic agricultural practices—ones that have held on in the face of monoculture cropping, mechanization, industrialization, etc. but ones for which society is now finding renewed respect.  But it appears this renaissance is only successful due to government intervention.  Are we to assume that the free market has played little to no role and will continue to play little to no role in the revitalization these practices?  If so, this suggests that the rural ways of life can only be preserved if society deems them important enough to do so.  Even then, will small-scale producers ever reclaim the role they once held in the food system or will they always be subject to elimination and require the protection of societal and governmental institutions?  If this is the case, will their roles forever be diminished in importance and forced to take on an element of performance (think agritourism) that belittles the profession?  

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