Local Economies on Their Minds: Explaining European Preferences for Geographic Origin Food Labels.

Author:Miller, Carol D.
Position::Essay
 
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Most shoppers check labels to see where their food is produced. Inspecting food labels for geographic origin allows consumers to exercise their values. Consumers might believe that purchasing food produced locally, or at least within specific countries or regions, supports farmers or food producers in that area. Alternatively, they might be concerned with the distance foods traveled and the effects that long-distance transportation has on the environment. Food choices might be based upon awareness of the working conditions of those involved in food production and the choices might be based upon ethical or moral concerns.

European Union (EU) policies aim to encourage geographic origin labeling on foods in order to ensure a stable supply and quality of food for European consumers. Other factors, such as the price and brand of foods, can play a role in the decision process. (1) The consumers' situations, in terms of socioeconomic status, gender, and household composition, influence concerns about other food labels, such as organic, fair trade, and non-GMO labels. (2) Ultimately, consumers might be more concerned about how geographic origin of foods affects local, rural, or agricultural development than the effects on the environment. (3)

Research shows that people do not check food labels for nutritional information as often as they claim, (4) so do they even care about geographic origin labels? If so, why do some Europeans believe that geographic origin is important when purchasing foods, while others do not? Do the same factors influencing a person's belief about the importance of geographic origin influence their concern about the price, quality, and brand of foods? This study examines the factors that influence the importance that respondents place on the geographic origin of their food. Specifically, this research looks at whether Europeans who are concerned about food production in their own country and in the EU and those who believe that agriculture preserves rural areas are more likely to report that geographic origin is important when purchasing food. Following a review of existing research focused on the link between geographic origin and rural development and the other factors that influence food label choices, this paper shall explain the methods and data used to test the hypotheses. Survey data reveals that having an opinion about European food production and rural development were important indicators in predicting the likelihood of reporting that geographic origin was important when purchasing food. Finally, limitations of the study as well as suggestions for future research are discussed.

Geographic Origin and Support for Rural Development

Concern about the geographic origin of one's food is part of a larger focus on quality and alternative food systems. (5) Geographic origin labels are amongst a collection of values-based food labels, including organic, non-GMO (genetically modified organisms), and fair trade, which have emerged as food purchases have become a reflection of one's political and moral beliefs and identity. Purchasing foods with values-based labels suggests that consumers have concerns about social justice and the environment in mind as they make their choices. (6) As Elizabeth Barham theorizes, purchasing food based upon the values expressed on the label implies that consumers have a deeper understanding of the economy, a non-market sense that cannot be monetized but has consequences for humanity and nature. (7)

Geographic origin labels can be used by food producers to promote local economic development within the global economy by marketing and protecting local resources and taking advantage of consumers' desires to avoid homogenized products. (8) Geographic origin is just one of a number of "values based labels" that have evolved into a social movement that allows consumers to reflect and judge a product based upon their social and cultural values. (9) Such labeling has been used as a countermovement to the globalization of food production. (10) "Thus, GIs [geographic indications] may be a more effective form of protection for small farmers and other less powerful actors than, for example, trademarks, which could be more easily monopolized and co-opted by powerful actors." (11) Those very areas that were kept out of industrialization, often because of rugged or isolated terrain, offer unique food production methods that can provide distinct goods that can be marketed for their exceptional reputations or value. (12) Geographic origin labeling offers an avenue for establishing a monopoly over perceptions of quality and unique characteristics in a global economy where smaller producers struggle against global competition. (13) For example, a strong cooperative maintained control of the quality and the meaning attached to the territory of origin of Comte' cheese production, which promoted economic and community cohesion in the Jura Massif region of France. (14)

A more vertically integrated, competitive, and homogenized system has resulted from the globalization of agriculture and food production. (15) Farmers and food producers compete globally to get their products into markets controlled by large corporations. For example, some large, corporate, supermarket chains provide shelf space only for those food products that they know the largest segment of their customers will purchase, leaving unique, artisanal, or more expensively produced commodities out of their stores or designated to a small specialty shelf. Smaller farmers and producers cannot compete with larger, corporate agribusinesses in a globalized economy. (16)

However, the concept of "regional origin of products" developed over decades and even centuries of understandings about specific innovations or environmental and economic conditions of "remote or isolated communities." (17) As Gilles Allaire, Francois Casabianca, and Erik Thevenod-Mottet point out, some cheeses were aged in specific conditions and particular wine grapes were grown in certain terrains or soils and over time became recognized for their distinct qualities and value. Regulations were established within the Greek, Roman, and Egyptian Empires to protect such commodities. Eventually, cross-regional and cross-national trade allowed for the transference of technology and species. Parmesan cheese made from Holstein cows' milk is now made in Wisconsin, and pinot noir grapes are grown for California vintners, so the regional monopoly on the value of such food products has declined or been lost altogether.

The European Union's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was designed to not only ensure access to food, but to assure quality as well. The policy is based upon the philosophy that by improving quality, European farmers can increase productivity, competitiveness, and profitability, and rural communities are able to remain environmentally and economically sustainable, thus ensuring future food security. (18) The EU CAP includes a complex system of labeling specialty foods and geographic origin of production is the more common label sought by producers. (19)

Interestingly, it appears that Europeans and North Americans are concerned about where their food is produced for different reasons. (20) The European local food movement is rooted in concern surrounding rural economic development and the survival of small rural farms and businesses. (21) Local food movements in Europe are often based upon a desire to revitalize local knowledge and culture about how food is produced through traditional methods, as well as the motivation for rural economic development. (22) North Americans, on the other hand, are more interested in shortening the food supply chain, and re-establishing local food production and consumption out of concern for the environment and social justice--hence their passion for Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms. (23)

Other Factors that Influence Food Choices

Research on consumer support for other food labels and purchase criteria, such as food labeled organic or containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs), offer insight into which other factors influence consumer attitudes. (24) Studies found that organic food consumers tended to be female, between 30 and 45 years old, with children, and higher education and income levels. (25) Consumers who expressed concern about the environment were more likely to purchase organic food. (26) Consumers were also more likely to purchase organic food if they reported concern about food being prepared in environmentally-friendly ways or produced without disturbing nature or causing pain to animals. (27) Consumers who purchased organic foods were also found to be more willing to pay for food labeled fair trade. (28) Non-whites, women, and those who consider the environment when making purchases, were also more likely to agree to pay more for fair trade foods. (29)

Women were also found to be more trusting of information provided by environmental and consumer organizations. They were also less likely to accept GMOs, food genetically altered through biotechnology to be disease or pest resistant. Older citizens were less accepting of GMOs, as were those with more awareness about their existence and those who placed themselves toward the left of a political scale. (30) Yet another study found that most Europeans rejected the benefits of GMOs due to perceived risks. Younger respondents to the Eurobarometer survey who had more knowledge about science were more accepting of GMOs, but most rejected the use of GMO technology on food even if it contained fewer pesticide residues or "were grown in a more environmentally friendly way." (31) Europeans from the United Kingdom and Spain were more likely to perceive GMOs more positively due to the presence of commercial interests in GM foods in those countries. (32)

Two studies asked respondents to choose between paired comparisons of food with eco-labels. The...

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