Cheap Food, Terroir and the Blind Spot of Geographical Indications

Cheap Food, Terroir and the Blind Spot of Geographical Indications

Irena Knezevic is on the executive of the Canadian Association for Food Studies and is currently a PhD candidate in the Joint Graduate Program in Communication and Culture at York and Ryerson Universities.

Food enthusiasts and artisan producers around the world know how important terroir is for a range of foods from cheese to wine to smoked meat. Flavour, nutritional content, and shelf life of products can all be affected by terroir - a set of location-specific characteristics given to food and beverages by the geographical and climate conditions, and traditional preparation practices particular to a place.

The World Trade Organization gave the concept legal life when it embodied terroir under the category of geographical indications (GIs). Encompassing all sorts of geographically specific products, GIs have mostly been used for food, and most prominently for wine and spirits, which enjoy "additional protection" under the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights.

Under the Geographical Indications for Wines and Spirits registered with the Canadian Intellectual Property Office, one can find 28 regional designations coast to coast. Overseen by the industry's self-regulating body, the Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA), these designations are intended to preserve the terroir of wine by not only requiring that at least 85% of grape juice in a batch of wine comes from the designated area, but also by taste-testing wine samples to ensure that each variety indeed preserves the "varietal characteristics" of that particular grape. As with GIs the world over, these designations promote our romanticized notions that the wine not only comes from local grapes but is also imbued by cultural traditions involved in its making. Meanwhile, the vineyards in southwestern Ontario show that grapes in the Lake Erie North Shore and Pelee Island regions (both listed under those 28 Canadian designations) are more often than not grown and picked by migrant workers, a segment of the 17 000 seasonal work force that comes to Ontario every year, mostly from Mexico and the Caribbean. They are employed by wineries (along with greenhouses and tomato field operations), which cannot recruit local workers to do the backbreaking work that pays little if anything above minimum wage.

While the seasonal worker program is overseen by Service Canada, which ensures that workers are properly compensated, protected and insured, one has to wonder about a slew of global inequalities implied by the fact that Mexican and Jamaican workers are here to do the work nobody local will do. Even when accommodations, plane tickets and work permit costs are taken into account, migrant labourers make financial sense. A testimony to Canadian assumptions of cheap food (see note below), this is merely another side of outsourcing, but one legitimized by GI designations that still give products the noble status of 'local.' 

Across the Atlantic Ocean, where notions of both terroir and GIs originated, there is much resemblance. The hardest labour in Italian, French and German vineyards, creameries and ham production facilities is often done by migrant workers. Most of the labourers in France and Italy come from North Africa, and those in Germany from Turkey and Eastern Europe. The legacy of colonial history remains stark in the European Union, and this migrant labour force is arguably the most important blind spot of GIs.

Meanwhile, the smallest of wine, cheese, and ham producers in Europe who actually do imbue their food with cultural continuity, are often too overwhelmed by the bureaucratic processes and the costs involved to even bother registering their products. Similarly, some of the smallest wineries in southwestern Ontario cannot afford to pay the fees required for VQA testing as their batches are small and only sold in their production facilities. While their wines are bestowed with as much terroir as that VQA bottle in the liquor store, they are left out of the GI club.

GIs, though ostensibly conceived as way to protect taste and cultural traditions in one stroke, have done nothing for the labour behind those fine but often privileged concepts. All labels mediate and as such have the ability to frame issues in very particular ways. They can also make us blind to issues of social justice and inequalities hidden behind a designation stamp. There is no official designation for a block of cheese that can replace the face of a dairy farmer at a local market. A visit to a regional winery can give consumers a much better sense of what it is they are purchasing, than any kind of label ever could. Those face-to-face interactions speak volumes, whether the producers are local or migrant. No amount of regulation, standardization and labelling can replace personal connections to our food and its producers. Ultimately, that is what terroir is all about - the whole of the food experience, gustative and cultural. GIs on the other hand are about protecting commercial rights and that puts them miles away from both culture and labour justice.

(Canadians spend less than 10% of their income on food. This compares to over 10% for the industrialized European countries and Australia, and up to 30% or 40% for many Eastern European and Asian countries, while data for most non-industrialized countries is not even available. USDA Economic Research Service, 2007,