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Local food between direct sale, short distance and collective action. Interview of Bertil Sylvander

Virginie Amilien

Editor's notes

Original text in French. Here a shorter version, translated from French by Isabelle Téchoueyres.

Full text

1VA: Bertil Sylvander, you are one of the fathers of the quality conventions concept concerning products of origin, and you have a great knowledge of socio-economic aspects of agriculture and local food systems, including products with specific origin and labels…this is why you accepted this interview for our Anthropology of Food Issue on Local products. I’ll just start with the plain question: when I say “local products”, what do you think of?

2BS: well…, in order to answer this question I’d have to distinguish two possible perspectives, one quite empirical and the other more theoretical.

3VA: Let’s start with the empirical one

4BS: First, the term “local products” seems to be less used in Southern European countries, such as France, than elsewhere… in fact we would rather talk about farm products, direct selling, short distance distribution channels, sold on open air markets directly by producers, or even by mail order for some high value products such as wine bottled on the farm and sent to listed customers…; so “local products” make one think first of direct selling products, and short distribution channels.

5VA: Is there a difference with Terroir Products?

6BS: Yes, because some terroir products circulate via long distribution channels, like PDO products. However one can even say that any product is local since it is necessarily produced in some place…. Yet since the beginning of the 1990s, both farm and local products have developed as an alternative to industrial products and long distribution channels; so short channels promoting local productions have had more success. It’s like organic foods which originally developed along short channels. It is only later that industrial producers got interested in the concept.

7VA: Organic foods and local foods seem to be obviously linked, yet is this link to be found often?

8BS: Yes, often, on several levels…On producers’ level, there is generally a link between organic growing and direct selling, while consumers assimilate farm and organic products, meaning no chemical pesticides or fertilizers, no pollution, no transformation, the product is sold directly. For 80% consumers there is a direct association between organic and local.

9VA: Yes we often get the same type of discourse, references and behaviour on the consumers’ part. A survey performed in Norway 5 or 6 years ago shows such an intrinsic relationship between local and organic, and people buying organic foods are the ones interested by local products1. Going back to local products, how do you distinguish the empirical from the theoretical perspective?

10BS: Well, on the theoretical level we could link this “revival” of interest for local products, observed since the beginning of the 1990s, together with a period of distrust from the part of citizens and consumers regarding the concentrated and productivist agrofood industry. Such distrust may be due to sanitary crisis, which are nevertheless very recent (starting with BSE in 96), but it seems to me that it is wider than that. It is more a trust crisis and food products are suspected. If one takes a look at studies by INSERM2 in the 60s, such distrust phenomenon toward the industry existed, at least in France.

11VA: so it could be a reaction to the quality of food products rather than a more general attitude towards globalisation?

12BS: Yes… although I think it is even wider than that.. I’d say in fact that consumers have been kept away from agrofood industrialization since the last war, from the productive effort set up to finance economic growth. People have adhered to this Fordist growth model in order to gain a better standard of living –they have adhered without being really conscious of it of course…- . Then later they understood the perverse effects in terms of quality and environment for instance, and this is why the model has been contested. […] besides a series of pre-marginal movements, organic and farm producers who sold directly on the farm and were considered as archaic… then different crisis have comforted and legitimized such alternative modes. During that period, in the 70s, AOCs were resurgences from the past, except for wine. It took a long time for the Label Rouge3 created in France in 1965, to become successful. The Bio Label remained very marginal for a long time…

13VA: Let’s go back to my question- frame…… You have worked with researchers from everywhere in Europe, so in the light of compared studies you have led, is there a significant difference in the way the “local” is considered, regarding food products, particularly among the different countries in Europe ?

14BS: This is a very interesting question which has been raised in a recent project on organic products called OMIARD4. In southern European countries, one tends to think in terms of food products, whereas in northern Europe one tends to think in terms of rural community (community supported agriculture) and make a link between agriculture and the rest of external amenities such as landscape, biodiversity, including the rehabilitation of the unemployed. It might be because the social bond within the local community is stronger…. At any rate, “local” doesn’t refer to identical values.

15VA: While speaking about the local… the expression local products is composed of 2 fundamental terms: local and product. If one looks at the concept alliances from different perspectives, one can imagine a) a product characterised by a place, b) a place characterised by a product. Which of these 2 perspectives seems the most pertinent to you? Is it a difficult question?

16BS: In fact… I’d unite both aspects. I believe more and more in the notion of collective project and because it is about a territorial project, I’d rather talk about a human group belonging to a place and creating, perhaps re-creating, a product. This is what I would mean by the term local product, while knowing that we raise the topic of innovation and tradition since we can observe in many instances the re-creation of tradition via innovation. Human groups must set up viable projects, which necessitate the inclusion of elements of the past adapted to the present… […] This can well be illustrated by the label rouge. […] There you have the hybrid between farm tradition (including veterinary knowledge and counselling for instance) combined to hi-tech genetics and feeding.

17VA: And are label rouges sold as local products?

18BS: In fact they all asked and obtained the PGI label which confirms the link to the place.

19VA: Therefore quality meets the place of origin…

20BS: in fact, the label Rouge was invented in areas with strong poultry tradition which very early, in the 70s, have developed an alternative model in order to survive while facing large industrial groups which invade the market. The central objective was not the place itself, but quality.

21VA: So producers play a fundamental part…and we talked about consumers’ demand and general distrust. Yet can consumers really be influenced? And talking about the success of such products among consumers: is it really a success, are consumers really in demand for such products? Or is it just that these are being talked about a lot, producers communicate a lot therefore ensuring a better visibility of these products?

22BS: Well in fact it is being talked about but it really is niche markets. In many countries, short distribution channels are the only alternatives to this type of market, and products of small local systems remain marginal. A slight increase can be observed, for instance on AOC cheese or wine, and also with organic foods (an increase from 0 to 1,5% in France and up to 5% in Austria or Denmark), yet expectations remain much higher than the actual market.

23VA: Can AOCs or brandnames enable to reach more consumers?

24BS: This is the problem of marketing harnessing for such products. One example, in the 70-80s in France with the “bio” yoghurt by Danone: consumers’ expectations were used for marketing purposes to sell a yoghurt which had nothing “organic”. Today many products refer to terroir or tradition, and the marketing offensive shows that the structure is not well organised to answer consumers’ demands.

25VA: So… A last question concerning local products: in concrete terms, which evolution is possible for this type of products in a more conventional market?

26BS: Well, we are currently working on a flexible model which could allow for partnerships, cooperation, negotiations within the food chain, as equals between producers and their down stream in order to develop long distribution channels. Which doesn’t prevent short channels development, but this can only remain limited in countries where 80% consumers live in urban areas…

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2 INSERM: French national institute for medical research.
3 Label rouge (red label): certification of higher quality
4 OMIaRD: QLK5-2000-01124
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Electronic reference

Virginie Amilien, « Local food between direct sale, short distance and collective action. Interview of Bertil Sylvander », Anthropology of food [Online], 4 | May 2005, Online since 01 May 2005, connection on 24 March 2017. URL :

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Virginie Amilien

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Anthropologie of food est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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