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Preface: About local food

Virginie Amilien

Editor's notes

Many thanks to Isabelle Téchoueyres, for her help in translation from French to English.

Full text

1Local products are one of the most dynamic sectors in European food consumption over the last few years, as well as in other parts of the world, as underlined in this special issue. Answering the needs of western social evolution, food consumption has become a distinctive feature of collective as well as individual identities. The tension between “globalisation” and “localisation” stands as a credible development policy framework for the future of food production in Europe. This is why we begin this preface with a short overview of globalisation theories so as to shed some light on the context of “localisation” and the importance of the place of origin.

2In the years 1990, the concept of globalisation established its theoretical form in social sciences, while the media and popular discourses associated the term with an ambivalent, even negative, image of the evolution of western society. The idea of a homogenous world where all men act alike and have the same tastes seem to typify the potential threat hidden under the concept of globalisation. Post-modernist visions such as Ulrich Beck's characterize globalisation by the compression of time and space dimensions. Despite this freeing relationship from time and border constraints, many researchers have revealed the importance of locality and tradition. The apparent opposition between processes such as homogeneity and fragmentation1 or universality and particularity2, eventually turns into complementarities. “The process of globalization does not result in the homogenization and standardization of culture, but rather in the provision of new spaces for culture clashes. Occurrences of culture clash and mixing not only take place across the boundaries of nation-state societies, but also within them.” Appadurai adds: “The central problem of today’s global interactions is the tension between cultural homogenization and cultural heterogenization.”3 Concepts such as glocalisation and transculture contribute to enrich such a context. According to Welsch4, the transculture concept goes beyond globalisation and can encompass both global and local aspects of our modern cultures. The globalisation phenomenon doesn't therefore eradicate but rather arouses the rebirth or reconstruction of local and regional productions. The homogeneity/heterogeneity dualism, just like the concept of glocalisation, enhances the co existence of a global food market with a collective homogenous vision parallel to increasing interest for local values.

3Nonetheless consumers, as final users of products, find themselves stuck in a confusion of dualities and ambivalence, which Bruno Latour describes with those words: “We, as poor subjects-objects, as small local-global individuals, are literally torn apart between ontological regions which define themselves mutually yet don't reflect our practices5. The image of small local-global individuals lost in a labyrinth of food where consumer's routine gets to meet quality labels and brands, illustrates the importance of food practices and ideologies when it comes to studying local products.

4Although theories on globalisation occupy a central place in the global-local debate, we wished to open a new window dedicated entirely to Locality, local productions and the cultural aspect of localised agro-food systems (SYAL6). The fact that the interest for local products has been greatly stimulated by European agro policy has directly influenced scientific contributions published in the 90s. Most of them have been written in an economic perspective and generally deal with production or marketing of food products, while other texts find their place in a more institutional framework where the scientists' role consists in justifying the ethnological legitimacy of the products concerned. In their book Les produits de terroir7, Laurence Bérard and Philippe Marchenay note that “terroir products” are today “highly-coveted objects” which not only obey new visions of agriculture, but also seduce tourism, serve regional development and even as prevention against population drain. Local products have become objects of fresh interest as they represent regional cuisines or the peculiarities of a place, of a group, a family, a time, and they are brandished as fundamental elements of local culture. Such an interest varies according to countries: while it is observable in France as early as the end of the XVIIIth century8, then progressively in Southern European countries, it explodes in Norway at the end of the XXth century9. The structural framework is paramount, as observed by Alessandro Stanziani, in his book on the quality of products in France: “consumers' choice, if such a thing exists, does not occur in an institutional void.10

5Over the past 10 years, numerous researchers have shown in their works that the notion of territory, directly linked to local food ways, calls for complementary dimensions: geographical, historical, political, legal, institutional, economical, social and cultural. In this pluri-disciplinary and international context, AOFood has gathered articles, interviews and book reviews which aim at enriching the debate and should enable readers to think about local food as a multi faceted cultural entity. Editing articles from various regions of the world dealing about local products along complementary perspectives was our first aim, to better understand common and unique characteristics of the evolution of local foodways.

6In the first place the challenge is mainly linguistic for, although the concept of Local Food has been chosen as theme for this issue in direct reference to local food products, it is nevertheless ambivalent.

7The word Local, which substantive form is recent in French, comes from the Latin Localis, e, an adjective meaning local, from the place. The idea of place refers to the notion of space where the territory and moreover the terroir seem to stand naturally in opposition to the city. The “local” doesn’t need to be defined when it is applied to a local population. Need for definition is only felt when facing “others”. One could easily imagine local food development not only as a marketing, agricultural and economical offensive, but also as a defence system for rural identity versus the city. The city is an enclosed space where “local” is not ambivalent, while a “local” territory in the countryside is difficult to determine, a problem met by groups trying to obtain an “appellation d’origine”. To take things further, the countryside can be interpreted as region or nation, while the city represents Europe or the world, giving shape to globalising threats. Marc Augé confirms such an interpretation by stressing on the importance of spatial delimitation: “Indigenous fantasy of a closed world founded once and for all long ago […] the spatial arrangement express the group’s identity, and has to be defended against external and internal threats”11. This is the role of double quality signs attached to local products. Brands and labels of origin offer differentiation while aiming at urban or foreign consumers that is consumers who don’t know local products and need landmarks and indicators of trust in order to move into another space.

8In « local food products », the idea of local does not only concern a rural space, but also a territory, limited by its own area and its proximity. This “distanciable” dimension gives to local food a sustainable value, opposing long distance products to short distance food. In this perspective, which is both ideological and practical, the dichotomy rural/ urban persists and is concretised by the image of the neighbour/ local farm. Local is then strong differentiated from the transnational agro food industry that urbanism encouraged. It is indeed a matter of limitation of space while respecting the environment.

9But the spatial environnement principally evolves because of human work and influence. There is then a third dimension which emerged, linked to rural development. Local space is not only determined by a geopolitical boundary, but also by a sociocultural line, which contains and illustrates the human transformation and fabrication of the space. It is the reason why local food plays a central role in political programs about rural and ecological development, focusing on multifunctional farms and survival of rural life. The aim is then to protect the local existence by a conservation of the space in its hybrid form of cultivated nature.

10The place, defined as the geographical aspect of « local », is at once an identity, a sign of distinction (on several levels) and an informative sign. However, the concept of local food includes space as directly linked to food. The spatial aspect is part and parcel of the food system, conferring the expression “local products” a more complex dimension than the one referring simply to a territory: thus the food value of the product as linked to nutritional and cultural values transforms the “place” into a “place of origin”, and the “territory” into “terroir”. The articles of this issue, according to country or discipline, use expressions such as “local products/ local food”, “produits de terroir”, “typical food”, “regional food”, “food of local origin” and even “regional heritage”, and sometimes even a mixture of all these terms in relation to notions of territory or locality as linked to food culture. The local food concept could to this point be summed up with the image “ce-qui-va-de-soi” (it goes without saying) borrowed from Roland Barthes12, or with the Black Box image defined by Bruno Latour as a stable network which becomes so obvious that nobody questions it13. According to this author, black boxes come to existence when several elements come to act as one14, or for the present case when several characteristics are being translated into one single concept expressed under several terms.

11The notion of terroir, a French term which cannot be translated because it refers at once to both a physical and cultural place, still remains the most practical. Because of its historical value and the number of studies concerning this term15, it conveys a better understanding of the concept “produits de terroir” than “local products”. L. Bérard and P. Marchenay’s numerous works point accurately the complexity of relationships between local as a particular place and local as traditional knowledge when it comes to “produits de terroir”. In her study “Le lien au terroir”, D. Barjolle notes the importance of factors as diverse as climate, geographical place, practices, etc. and eventually suggests that “the terroir is not necessarily a pedo-climatic homogeneous area. But it is a human space characterised by a shared history that tells about it.”16 The local dimension of the product is more linked to collective history than to the geophysical properties of the soil, one complementing the other over time. In a recent paper about definitions of concepts of terroir and typical food, Casabianca and al. dig those notions by mixing many aspects linked to geographical values, human values, biology, originality, typical value and status17. Perspectives of community and collective knowledge, usually typical from folklore studies, give a human dimension, which is central in matter of local food by its capacity of transforming the place in space. Socio-cultural, bio-geographical and technical values make a “whole” of the terroir concept.

12Gianluca Brunori offers a model which links the socio-cultural identity typical of a terroir to its surrounding background and local productions18. (Table 1) The complex relationships between the different parts of the model however express both their complementarities and the dynamics of the concept “terroir” which evolves in time and according to context. These dynamics are devolved upon local productions which swing constantly between tradition and innovation. The notion of “symbolic asset” plays a fundamental role because it stands for the cognitive link between consumer and product. It seems that the main function of origin labels, founded on this symbolic asset, is to produce trust.

Figure 1: The complex relationships between “terroir” and “local food products”, borrowed from G. Brunori

13The symbolic asset, along with the problematic of definition and standardization of terms, is all the more compelling while the phenomenon today encompasses legal and economic aspects, which go beyond southern European borders, since Geographical Protections are now requested by groups from all continents (43 Chinese applications in 200319).

14When the call for papers was launched, we have got many proposition of articles and we have the pleasure to publish here 9 articles, from disciplines as different as economy, ethnology, business and marketing, anthropology, social geography, botanic or history, and from many different countries, culture and climates, as Brazil, Guadeloupe, Scandinavia, France, Italy, UK, and Spain. The following articles develop one or another aspect of local food problematic, not only focusing on production, distribution, processing, purchasing, sale and consumption of local food but also on the role of regulations, institutions or quality perceptions on the development and the evolution of local food products.

15In their article about food identity / food quality in the North East of Brazil, José Muchnik, Estelle Biénabe and Claire Cerdan assume that the neither the quality or the identity of a local product is intrinsic. Food products have to go through a process of qualification before being local, what make the “local” a dynamic practice more than a stable quality. Building on both theoretical and empirical perspectives, they try to understand how these varying identity factors can be combined with new regulations about local food and how producers can take those new rules into consideration.

16The second article presents concrete field constraints for those who work with production and processing of local food products. In his article about ‘Bonifieur’ coffee in Guadaloupe, Michel Dulcire presents obstacles and reflections emerging when producers and local institutions want to label a local food product. The project is still running, but it is interesting to see all the challenges that have to be faced while creating a local product identity in the market. The author shows us what goes on behind the scene when working to get a designation of origin.

17We leave then Guadeloupe to Italy and producers to vendors and consumers. In her article about local food regulation and changing traditions, Rachel Eden Black explores local food from the farmer’s market perspective, built on proximity production and traditional social habits. Her observations underline the conflict between the daily routine in Porta Palazzo market and new regulations about hygiene and structure of local food markets in Europe. Relationships between regulations and practices illustrate a concrete part of the local food products challenge, when they leave the small-scale production to larger distribution.

18Farmers markets are often based on a short-chain perspective, which is almost synonymous of “local” in the fourth article. The Scandinavian article written by Gunnar Vittersø, Geir Lieblein, Hanne Torjusen, Bjørn Jansen and Edvin Østergaard, associate local with organic food distribution issues by focusing on two main questions. First to what extent do local and organic food are being ’conventionalised’ and second how local distribution of organic food may influence the ordinary food system. This way of considering local food products emphasizes the importance of short distance and sustainability in production, distribution and consumption.

19In her article about local foods and local markets in UK, Georgina Holt also link local and organic food, “two different trust strategies for the consumer”, by presenting consumers demand and analysing stakeholders’ discourses about production for local food. After noticing a lack of definition of local food in legislation, she tries to give an overview of the different meanings of the concept, focusing on the importance of freshness and direct sale combined with processing and hygiene regulations. Going through different data about local products and consumers, she finally analyses depths interviews with stakeholders to better understand how small scale producers have to promote local in order to reach the rural and urban consumers.

20Consumers are the main subject in the three last articles, where the definition of “local food” and “terroir” remains central. Philippe Aurier, Fatiha Fort, Lucie Sirieix made an interesting field work in the Southern part of France and propose here to explore terroir products meanings for the consumer. Even if they propose to define a terroir by a relationship between the product and the geographical and cultural characteristics of the area the product comes from, they would like to deeper investigate what consumers themselves mean by this concept of terroir. After assuming that images of the food product and of the terroir have to fit together, they identify several factors, like connection to time and culture, justify the way consumers judge terroir product.

21We leave then from quantitative survey and general perception of the “terroir” to observations from the close contact between people buying and selling local food products. In their article about the role of trust in the perception of the quality of local food products, Anne-Hélène Prigent-Simonin and Catherine Hérault-Fournier want to study the influence of direct relationship on some French consumer perception of food quality. By observing and analysing direct sale of meat from farmer to consumer and promotional events in supermarkets, they show how important is the direct contact while purchasing local food. They define at least five different dimensions along this relationship, as the trading one or the cognitive on for example, emphasizing the importance of trust based on a combination of knowledge and beliefs, which varies from consumer to consumer.

22From France, the first country which introduced an origin designation system for food products, we go up to Norway, which recently has got its first PGI, and its first PDO. In an article about thick sour milk from Røros – Norway, Virginie Amilien, Hanne Torjusen and Gunnar Vittersø concentrate on consumers’ views on one local product. The thick sour milk is here an actor whom the visual presentation on the milk carton influences the representation of the “local”, which is then considered from a spatial, a traditional, an ecological and a designation perspective. The authors also emphasize the importance of passion and cooperation in the creation of the local identity which support the local food product.

23At the end, we present a last article accepted as a hors theme, where the authors draw a general context around Spanish agro food business showing how important is the regional development and local regional food products. Juan José Juste Carrion and Jésus María Gómez Garcia, give an overview of the Spanish agro food industry focusing on the role of regional development. Their description obviously helps to place the concept of “local” in an industrial “global” national frame, reminding about the modest quantity of local food products but confirming the central place they have to play in agro food systems.

24Two interviews of field specialists give a frame to those contributions. Laurence Bérard and Bertils Sylvander were kind enough to accept answering our questions, and give a general view to local food, from their ethnologist and economical perspectives. Finally, this issue ends by the list of the referees which made our editorial work possible, and book reviews of recent publications.

25We could imagine what Appadurai calls global connections and local realities evolving in different contexts yet all as essential when it comes to the final form of local food ways. The following articles, while illustrating “the adventures” of local products in several countries, often describe similar realities. These global aspects of local matters find their roots in the rise of networks, the importance of collective action and cultural identity all backed up by the free market perspective.

26Local food systems also seem to turn to modernity, giving shape to new forms of alliances, such as private cooperatives, regional associations, new production forms inspired by modern technologies, new distribution channels as alternatives to mass marketing, new forms of consumer information, from guest-house farms to the internet… Much innovation under a traditional façade, revealing the duality of tradition as defined by folklorists: at once a state – fixed and permanent – and a process – in perpetual change.

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APPADURAI, A., 1990, “Disjuncture and difference in the global cultural economy” in M. Featherstone (ed.), Global culture: nationalism, globalization and modernity, Sage, London.

AUGE M., 1995, Non-places – introduction to an anthropology of supermodernity, Verso, London-New York.

BARJOLLE D., 1998, in Le lien au terroir, bilan des travaux de recherche, online:

BARTHES R., 1957, Mythologies, Editions du Seuil, Paris.

BECK, U., 2000, What is globalization?, Polity Press, Cambridge.

BERARD L. ET MARCHENAY P., 2004, Les produits de terroir-Entre culture et règlements-Cnrs Editions, Paris.

CASABIANCA F., SYLVANDER B., NOËL Y., BERANGER C., COULON J.B. ET RONCIN F., “Terroir et Typicité: deux concepts-clés des Appellations d’Origine Contrôlée. Essai de définitions scientifiques et opérationnelles”. Papier présenté au Symposium international: “Territoires et enjeux du développement régional” à Lyon, 9-11 mars 2005.

FEATHERSTONE, M. (ed), 1990, Global culture: nationalism, globalization and modernity, Sage, London.

FEATHERSTONE, MIKE AND LASH, SCOTT (EDS), 1999, Spaces of culture: city, nation, world, Sage, London.

FRIEDMAN, J., 1990, “Being in the world: Globalization and localization” in M. Featherstone (ed.): Global culture: nationalism, globalization and modernity Sage, London.

LATOUR, B., 1987, Science in Action, University Press, Boston: Harvard .

LATOUR, B. 1997, Nous n’avons jamais été modernes, La Découverte, Paris.

ROBERTSON, R., 1992, Globalization: social theory and global culture. Sage, London.

ROBERTSON, R., 1995, “Glocalization: Time-Space and Homogeneity-Heterogeneity” in M. Featherstone, S. Lash & R. Robertson (eds.): Global Modernities, Sage, London.

STANZIANI A., 2004, La qualité des produits en France, Belin, Paris.

WELSCH W., Transculturality – the puzzling form of cultures today in California Sociologist, 17 & 18 (1994/1995), and in Featherstone 1999. Online version at:

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1 Cf. Friedman, 1990, or Appadurai, 1990.
2 Cf. Robertson, 1992.
3 Appadurai , 1990, p. 295.
4 Wolfgang Welsch Transculturality – the puzzling form of cultures today in California Sociologist, 17 & 18 (1994/1995) pp. 19-39. Online version at:
5 Latour 1997, p. 167.
6 See the first SYAL conference, online:
7 Bérard et Marchenay, 2004. p. 5. See book review at end of issue.
8 Cf. Julia Csergo’s article in Flandrin & Montanari, 1996.
9 Amilien & Hegnes, 2004. Reference in Amilien and al, in this issue.
10 Stanziani A., 2004. p. 19. See book review at end of issue.
11 Augé M., 1995, p. 44.
12 Cf. Préface (p. 9) in Mythologies with further explanations in postface the myth today.
13 as defined in Action Network Theory (ANT) in Latour, 1987.
14 Latour, 1987, p. 131.
15 Cf. Bérard L. et Marchenay P. or Tregear A. as examples, and several others quoted along theses pages.
16 Barjolle D., 1998.
17 « Un terroir est un espace géographique délimité, où une communauté humaine a construit au cours de l’histoire un savoir intellectuel collectif de production, fondé sur un système d’interactions entre un milieu physique et biologique et un ensemble de facteurs humains, dans lequel les itinéraires socio-techniques mis en jeu révèlent une originalité, confèrent une typicité, et engendrent une réputation, pour un produit originaire de ce terroir. » In F. Casabianca and al. 2005 p. 5.
18 Presented at the Rural Sociology Conference in Trondheim, July 2004 – with author’s permission.
19 Sautier D. In Paper for Trondheim Rural Sociology Conference in July 2004.
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List of illustrations

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Electronic reference

Virginie Amilien, « Preface: About local food », Anthropology of food [Online], 4 | May 2005, Online since 01 May 2005, connection on 23 March 2017. URL :

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About the author

Virginie Amilien

SIFO. Oslo.

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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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