Geographical Indications: linking products to their geographical origin

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Geographical Indications: Linking Products To Their Geographical Origin

Geographical Indications (also known as GIs) are signs used to safeguard the link between a product and its place of origin. In order for a product to be protected as a GI, the exact production methods and environmental factors need to be documented. It is easy to imagine that traditional products would benefit from this protection. But does GI protection also contribute to innovation in the product, the process of production or its marketing?

Tradition and innovation are concepts often used in EU legal and policy documents. On the one hand, GIs are often linked to the territory through historical factors and are aimed at keeping traditional products alive. On the other hand, innovation is necessary to compete in the market. The unresolved question is whether the current EU GI system is able to foster innovation and meanwhile adequately safeguard traditional agricultural products.

GIs and traditional know how
While traditional know-how represents the local traditions of knowledge, GIs stand for the specific geographical origin of a local product. Despite their difference, these concepts share a common element: they both protect accumulated knowledge typical for a specific place. The culture of production that gives the product its cultural value represents the way in which traditions can be embodied in a given product.

Based on the notion of terroir, GI-products represent a combination of the physical environmental aspect of the territory (climate, soil, etc.) and the human environment (know-how, community of producers etc.). At the same time, GI producers may need to innovate their products in order to compete on the market and to keep up with new developments. Experience shows that GIs do not prevent the market influence on local culture that leads to cultural transformation.

In some cases, the product specifications give a certain flexibility to producers, allowing them to amend the traditional process of production. The “Barolo War”, for example, shows the different approach of traditional vs modern winemakers. Small but important differences in barrels and shorter maceration periods allow traditionalists and innovators to coexist within the same GI. In other cases, the enlargement of the area of production and the know-how that refers to a distant or irrelevant past have led to a partial reduction in the intensity of the link between the product and its terroir. What is still to be assessed is whether these examples are the rule or rather the exception. 

GIs and innovation
The European Commission encourages producers in the agri-food business to be more competitive through innovation. Sometimes this is complicated by the rigidity of the link between the traditional and territorial nature of the products, as institutionalized by the GI system and detailed in the product specifications.

Drafting the product specifications is a complex process that requires a certain flexibility in favour of producers. Among others, climate change, compliance with safety regulations, and change in consumers’ needs have to be considered. In addition, it is important to keep the system dynamic, allowing producers to compete on the market by means of the quality and innovation of their products.

When limiting the meaning of innovation to product and process innovation, it is important to consider that food industries are mainly process-innovation oriented and use new technologies developed by upstream industries. Conservative consumers’ behaviours and aversion to new food products are another limitation to innovation for agricultural GIs. Innovation meets consumers’ approval when it increases safety levels or is associated with clear tangible benefits (e.g. reducing salt, saturated fat). Product innovations with implications for the sensory properties are usually rejected, compromises on taste or health are not welcomed by consumers. 

PhD research within EIPIN Innovation Society
The question as to whether GIs are an effective tool for the protection of EU traditions is part of PhD research within the EU-funded ITN project EIPIN Innovation Society. To achieve this goal, the possible links between GI products and their territory are analyzed. In particular, attention is paid to the human and reputational factors, observing how products have changed over time and whether this has led to a progressive loosening of said linking factors.

The research conducts a comprehensive qualitative content analysis of the product specifications and their amendments, made available on the DOOR database of the European Commission. This allows identifying some indicators for the conditions under which amendments are made. The complexity of this research is due to the high number of products and to the different linking factors. The result of this analysis will allow studying the impact that innovation, and the amendments of product specifications, in particular, have on traditional products and processes of production.

  Written by Maurizio Crupi
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