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Special issue on local food products and systems/Numéro spécial sur les produits et systèmes agroalimentaires locaux

The power of place: embeddedness and local food systems in Italy and the UK

Roberta Sonnino


This article explores the meanings and implications of the notion of embeddedness through a focus on two emerging local food systems: saffron in Tuscany and Steve Turton meats in the South West of England. Based on the analysis of documentary material and of the narratives of key actors operating within two different food cultures, the article shows that, contrary to prevailing interpretations in the agri-food literature, embeddedness is not a given characteristic of some food systems. Quite the contrary, embeddedness of local food products results from a dynamic process of attribution of meanings through which social actors construct and defend the connection between a product and a place. In addition to complicating notions of ‘territoriality’ and food ‘relocalization’, this perspective raises important questions about the sustainability of local food systems.

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Editor's notes

Acknowledgments: Funding for this research has been provided by the Economic and Social Research Council (UK) as part of a project entitled ‘Going Local? Regional Innovation Strategies and the New Agri-Food Paradigm’ (ref Toe50021). I would like to thank Kevin Morgan and Terry Marsden partners in this project. The two case studies presented in this paper have also been separately analyzed by the author in Sonnino, 2007 and in Sonnino and Marsden, 2006b.
Note de la traductrice : La notion d’embeddedness me paraît difficile à saisir en francais et renvoie au concept d’entrelacement social, de tissage culturel, de sertissage, voire de métissage. (V. Amilien, janvier 2007).

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Introduction: localness and embeddedness

1The concept of ‘place’ occupies a central role in the literature on agri-food. Even though its ‘multiple layers of meaning1 make it an inherently ambiguous concept2, difficult to define and theorize, place is commonly used to define the ‘territoriality’ of a food chain – or, in other words, to describe the relationship between a food system and its context of production. In the literature, a distinction is often posited between globalized (or conventional) food systems, which are considered to be de-territorialized or, in other words, detached from a specific place, and localized (or alternative) food systems, which are conversely assumed to be closely connected to a territorially circumscribed production context – or place.

2The concept of embeddedness, borrowed from economic sociology, is widely used to characterize these two different types of food systems: at one end, there is the dis-embedded globalized food system, the ‘placeless foodscape’ (Ilbery and Kneafsey, 2000: 319) of countries such as the UK and the US; at the other end, there are the more embedded, localized food systems of countries such as France and Italy, where food products appear to be forever rooted in a particular place. This conventional opposition between dis-embedded (i.e., conventional and globalized) and embedded (i.e., alternative and localized) food systems is in reality a false opposition3. First, it does not reflect the dynamics of the contemporary agri-food sector, where the boundaries between ‘local’ and ‘global’ are often blurred (Murdoch et al., 2000; Kirwan, 2004). Second, it does not leave much room for local agency and innovation – specifically, it does not account for the continuous changes occurring in the food system, where, as we will see, new entrepreneurs continue to trigger new processes of territorial embeddedness.

3This article critically explores the meanings and implications of embeddedness through an empirical analysis of two emerging local food systems: saffron in Tuscany and Steve Turton meats in the South West of England4. First, I will describe the process through which local actors attempt to localize the two new food products. In the following section, I will focus on the narratives of key actors involved in the two networks to show that embeddedness is not an inherent characteristic of some food systems. Quite the contrary, it involves a dynamic process of attribution of meanings through which social actors construct and defend the connection between a product and a place. In other words, embeddedness is primarily about creating and re-creating a discourse that ‘empowers’ a place. In the conclusions, I will argue that, in addition to significantly complicating notions of ‘territoriality’ and food ‘re-localization’, a focus on the nature of the embeddedness of local products raises the need for outside political intervention to sustain local food networks.

Re-inventing a tradition: the localization of saffron in southern Tuscany

4The history of saffron in southern Tuscany began with Anna, a former accountant from the town of Grosseto who, after retiring from her job, decided to purchase a small farm near the medieval village of Campagnatico. Located in the hilly interior of the Grosseto province, this village shares with the rest of the area a history of sharecropping, land reform, rural exodus and attempts at rural revitalization5 that have created new opportunities for people (including urban dwellers) interested in the ‘post-productivist’ Tuscan countryside6.

5In 2002, while she was learning to become a hobby farmer, Anna, a retired accountant from the city of Grosseto, heard that the owner of Campagnatico’s oldest estate had discovered traces of yellow in some ancient Roman tubs. Intrigued by this discovery, she did some research and found out that in ancient times that colour could only be obtained from saffron. The village’s oral history confirmed this information, as Anna found two elderly men who recalled that in the 1920s the spice was indeed cultivated in the area. On this basis, and after successfully experimenting with the cultivation of saffron herself on 100 square metres at her farm, Anna decided to mobilize local resources in an effort to ‘re-introduce this lost product’.

6With the support of the Mayor of Campagnatico, who saw in the new product an opportunity to create a distinct marketing identity for the town, in 2003 she organized a conference that marked the beginning of the ‘re-localization’ process. The leaflet distributed to the participants presents saffron as a spice ‘deeply rooted in our gastronomic tradition since the Middle Ages;’ as such, it has both ‘economic and cultural meanings’ that provide it with a significant development potential for producers willing ‘to promote […] a specialized and territorially “concentrated” production and a strong cooperation with Maremma’s local institutions – especially the township of Campagnatico.’

7Two months after the conference Anna became president of the Associazione Crocus Maremma, which at the time comprised 20 people willing to start cultivating saffron in the area. The establishment of this Association empowered both the village of Campagnatico and its producers. In fact, the new product immediately became a selling point for a village that is working to attract rural tourists and their money. At the same time, saffron also has something new to offer to small farmers willing to detach themselves from conventional agriculture. In addition to providing a net profit of € 20-25/gram (depending on whether the farm is organic), saffron creates new forms of cooperation that, for these producers, have a value that goes beyond economics. As one of them explained:

‘We can no longer support our families through conventional cultivations, as it used to be for my father and grandfather. The price of wheat is the same now as it was twenty years ago. […] We are all farmers in search of something new to have a new economic outlet but also to get together again, as it used to be.’

8Getting together’ is in reality a necessity for saffron producers. In fact, the spice involves an entirely artisanal production process: as Anna described it, after picking up the flowers early in the morning and leaving them to open on a table covered with a cloth, the three pistils must be detached manually one by one and must subsequently left to dry, before they can be grounded to produce the saffron powder. The labor-intensiveness of the process poses significant limits to the total amount of spice an individual farm can produce. To deal with the demands of a rapidly expanding market, producers must join forces and develop collaborative relationships. For this reason, in April 2004 the Association decided to welcome fifteen new producer-members.

9Although beneficial in marketing terms, this development is creating new structural challenges to the saffron network. In fact, most of the new producers are concentrated around the nearby town of Manciano, which is providing a strong support to the saffron business. As the spatial boundaries of the networks are moving away from Campagnatico, the Mayor is withdrawing his institutional support. In November 2004, for its annual show the Association received from the township as little as € 250 as a contribution to its overall expenses and no logistic support.

10In responding to pressures from the Manciano producers to remove the name of Campagnatico from the Association’s logo, Anna struggles to protect the temporal and spatial boundaries of the network:

‘When they ask: “How are we going to justify that we cultivate saffron in Manciano?”, I say: “Come on guys, the name of Campagnatico is a crucial aspect that is important to you as well, because we must have a place of birth”. […] Even though saffron is now produced throughout the Maremma, the idea came from here. […] We can’t move away from Campagnatico because this is where the history of saffron is. […] There is the history, the ruins and the memories of those two witnesses, all precious things that we cannot abandon.’

11New development strategies have been designed to bind the local in time and space. On the one hand, Anna and the core members of the network are planning to produce a DVD and a book that will tell their story of where, how and when a product has been made local. On the other hand, they are planning to turn the Association into a Consortium. For Anna, this would have three important benefits. First, it would legally allow producers to collectively organize the marketing of saffron. Second, it would provide an opportunity to more formally involve other local and regional institutions (such as, for example, the Province of Grosseto and the Chamber of Commerce) capable to improve the organization of the saffron economy. Third, and perhaps most crucially, the establishment of a Consortium would help Anna to redefine the network’s membership rules. By restricting access to what she calls ‘real’ (as opposed to ‘hobby’) farmers, Anna and her core allies would be able to exclude producers who create territorial tensions, thereby re-balancing the geographical distribution of the network and strengthening its social cohesion. They could, in a word, regain control over the configuration of this emerging local food network.

Quality, regionality and traceability: the Steve Turton meats network

12Like all people in the meat sector, in the late 1990s Steve Turton, a master butcher from Exeter, had to confront the BSE crisis. Throughout the UK, the crisis triggered significant developments in the food sector: in fact, consumers’ requests for safe products led to a new emphasis on locality and traceability.

13In the South West of England, a region widely known in the UK for its local food products, Turton was one of the earliest food entrepreneurs to capitalize on the new opportunities. In 1997, at the height of the BSE crisis, he started manufacturing Westaways sausages, today the largest regional brand in the UK. After supplying corner shop delis for about one year, Turton started working with supermarkets, and his business expanded so much that Steve decided to sell his butcher shop and to concentrate on sausages.

14In those years, regionality was increasingly becoming a ‘watchword’ also for supermarkets, and Sainsbury’s, one of the leading retailers in the UK, decided to develop its regional food offer. At the Devon County Show, Rachael, Sainsbury’s Trade Development Manager, came into contact with Turton, who recalls:

‘She said their meat counters were not performing, and I said “you know why? ... Because they are crap!”. I said: “They are not going anywhere. One: your product mix is exactly the same as you got on the shelves, you got no differentiation with that offer, and second you got lousy people behind your counters”. […] Her comment was: “Do you think you can do better?”, and me being a prat I said yes.’

15Nine months later, Westaways sausages had made their way into the first Sainsbury’s store, and after another year Turton was involved in a three-month pilot scheme with the supermarket. Once they realized that Turton was selling 200% above their own leading brand, Sainsbury’s proposed to Turton to manage also a meat counter in their stores, which started running first as ‘Steve Turton Selection at Sainsbury’s’ and, subsequently, as ‘Sainsbury’s in Partnership with Steve Turton.’

16It was at that point that Steve began to construct a discourse, based on the ideals of regionality and traceability, that aimed to territorially embedded his product. To Steve, regionality is not just a ‘massive selling point’ in a region, like the South West, where consumers increasingly demand local food; it also means sustaining producers ‘beyond what farmers’ markets can do for them’- and, through them, a region ‘that has given me all of my life’. Traceability, in turn, is directed to consumers; it is meant to reassure them by building the ‘integrity’ of the product, as Turton explained.

17In a general sense, it can be said that the values of regionality and traceability were crucial to the emergence and development of Turton’s network. Steve purposefully searched for suppliers located within the boundaries of the South West region and, at the same time, capable to meet stringent traceability standards. As he explained while describing the meat counters he currently manages in 15 Sainsbury’s stores around the South West:

‘Effectively that’s a totally regional offer, 100% traceable meat, we have spent 85,000 quid on our traceability system here to trace the meat right the way through to the shop. So when a customer goes to a store, they can actually find out where the meat came from, and that has been solely driven by regionality.’

18In practice, these regionality and traceability requirements have allowed Turton to create a large network of suppliers that he manages either personally, as it is the case with two dedicated farmers who directly sell their meat to him, or indirectly through the mediation of two local wholesalers. All but 12 of Steve’s 154 suppliers sell their meat to these wholesalers. Each carcass comes in with a label that includes the name of the farmer, the address and the reference number for the animal – all information that is attached also to the cuts and to the bags of minced meat. In this context, the wholesaler then functions not only as the transfer of the meats, but also of the identity and knowledge concerning the meat itself. Interestingly, in this process the identity of the wholesaler remains anonymous.

19Along with regionality and traceability, a constructed notion of ‘quality’ is equally crucial for Turton to maintain control over his constantly expanding network. In his words: ‘Just by sticking a West Country label on it doesn’t make it good. It can be West Country, but it’s got to be backed up by the product as well’.

20To achieve quality, which Turton defined as ‘no waste on the plate and an enjoyable meal’, his suppliers are expected to provide U3 and U4 meat, a specification that refers to the amount of fat cover. In practice, this requirement allows Turton to continue to carefully select his suppliers and, simultaneously, their animals. In describing her first encounter with Turton, Jilly, one of his core suppliers, recalled:

‘I wanted him to buy my cattle… So we went down to the shed and when we got out we put our eyes on these three really lovely South Devon Cross-Blonde bulls. […] He said “I really like them, I’ll have all of them then”.’

21Similarly, the Southwest Chairman of the National Beef Association, another key supplier to Turton, explained:

‘With Steve Turton we are visiting the farm, we are discussing what we are going to breed, how we are going to feed it, when we are going to produce it…it’s a partnership arrangement, I just have to fit with his philosophy…I got two of the best eating quality breeds, and he’s looking for eating quality, so we fit.’

22In short, Turton’s discourse on regionality, traceability and quality has been instrumental for Steve to construct a place, to anchor selected suppliers to that place and, subsequently, to maintain control over a growing network that is projected to sell as much as £ 20 million of local meat by the year 2010.

Embeddedness, power and place. A comparative analysis

23The two networks represent attempts to create new territorial platforms of action and ‘actor-space’ – in a word, to empower a place. In this context, embeddedness is first and foremost dependent on the development of innovative discourses of ‘localness’ and quality. Crucial in this respect is the role of the ‘ecological entrepreneur’ (Marsden and Smith, 2005), an individual actor, such as Anna or Turton, who initiates the process of embeddedness by recasting bio-local/regional reconnections. In Tuscany, saffron is constructed as a product perfectly suitable to the Maremma’s soil. As one producer stated: ‘Both the climate and the soil are perfect here. For every bulb I planted last year, I have obtained three or four new ones this year. […] Saffron is clearly something related to my territory.’ Similarly, in the South West of England the occurrence of a biosecurity crisis (the BSE) raised the need to emphasize the peculiar qualities of locally-grown stocks and products. To ‘empower’ their place, Turton and the core members of his network have to project a new sense of bioregionalism. In their discourse, beef breeds become characterized by spatially unique characteristics that are inextricably and exclusively linked to the spaces governed by the network itself. In this case, then, ‘the identity of the network is grounded within a revised and exclusive symbiosis of nature, animals and actors – in a sense, a new type of hybridity’ (Sonnino and Marsden, 2006b: 327).

24In short, the two case studies show that embeddedness is not a given condition. Food products become embedded through a process of mobilization of values and meanings that construct a place as the ‘local.’ In the case of saffron, the localization process is about creating a discourse that roots this product in time and space. In the leaflets, as well as in the narratives of Anna and her core allies, the product acquires a cultural capital through the invention of an exclusive link between its ‘authenticity’ and the Campagnatico territory, climatic conditions and history. Similarly, in the case of Turton meats, the relocalization process involves establishing a unique link between the product and its bio-region. Turton’s meat is exclusively linked to the South West not just because it is ‘fully traceable’ back to the area comprised within the boundaries of the region. It also comes local breeds that are raised, as we have seen, on the basis of a specific knowledge that is supposed to provide their meat with a unique type of ‘quality’ – a type of knowledge that belongs to Turton himself and that he personally transfers to the core members of his network. In the process of embedding, the two food networks find a shared identity that cements the converging interests of different stakeholders – or, in simple terms, their desire to recapture rural space.

25The analysis also shows that embeddedness involves a contested and complex process of negotiation. The network’s exclusive connection with a place and a product must continuously be defended and re-invented. In this sense, the two networks are facing two different kinds of threats. In the case of Turton, the process of territorial embeddedness has already been formalized through the creation of a ‘quality’ brand. The main threat to the sustainability of the network comes from the competition of the powerful retailer-led ‘own brand’ culture as well as of other ‘quality’ suppliers. In the context of this competition for ‘biogeographies of distinction’ (Sonnino and Marsden, 2006b: 329), Turton chooses to emphasize asymmetrical forms of knowledge and power within the network. In fact, this network is characterized by a ‘one-way’ form of traceability that allows the tracing of goods back down the food chain but not necessarily up, through it, to the point of sale. Thus, knowledge and power about food and practices are not equitably and symmetrically distributed; Turton’s suppliers have little or no knowledge of where their products go. In this case, it is a major function of the ecological entrepreneur to manage these asymmetrical relationships ‘in ways which continue to mobilize the network as a whole, as well as the individual actors within them’ (Sonnino and Marsden, 2006b: 328).

26In the case of saffron, by contrast, the process of embeddedness has not been formalized through branding. The ‘local’ that social actors are attempting to empower is still a fluid and contested social space that embodies potentially conflicting interests. At one level, it must include a sufficient number of producers who can create a market for the new product. In this sense, the local identifies with the entire Grosseto Province, bringing together a dispersed group of farmers willing to distance themselves from conventional agriculture. At another level, however, the local must be sufficiently circumscribed to be governed and protected through specific forms of political support. In this sense, the local coincides with Campagnatico, a small town interested in developing saffron as an ‘image’ product to attract tourists and investment7. In the context of a local that has no territorial integrity, embeddedness becomes essentially a matter of creating relations that bring together different needs and ‘scales of practice’ (Amin, 2004:34). These involve not just social relationships that cut across space; they can also include historic relationships that cut across time. By re-assembling distant memories and historic evidence from the past, in southern Tuscany the ecological entrepreneur and her core allies create a discourse that establishes a unique connection between the town’s territory (and jurisdiction) and the ‘authenticity’ of the emerging product.

Some conclusions

27The process of embeddedness analyzed here goes well beyond the development of a reactive ‘defensive localism’ (Winter, 2003). Despite the significant differences between Italy and the UK with regard to their dominant food cultures (Sassatelli and Scott, 2001), in both cases embeddedness involves a highly proactive form of bioregionalism that emphasizes the unique ecological and historic qualities of a place. However defined, such place, which in one case identifies with the territorial jurisdiction of a small town and, in the other, with an entire administrative region, creates a network whose identity is grounded on a new symbiosis between food and the land, producers and consumers, tradition and authenticity.

28There are two main lessons to learn from this research. First, this study shows that local food systems emerge through a dynamic process of manipulation of space. Far from being a fixed, neatly bounded geographical entity, place emerges as a socio-cultural construction that participants in the local food networks may have to constantly negotiate and re-define (as it happens particularly in the case of saffron) to protect the identity of their products. In this context, the local emerges primarily as a ‘relational space’8, a space of interrelated scales and interdependent subjects where ‘the social, economic, political and cultural inside and outside are constituted through the topologies of actor networks’ (Amin, 2004:33). Becoming embedded in this kind of space involves the development of new cultural, ecological and political relations and conventions – in a word, of new networks but also of a new bioregional discourse. Theoretically, this raises the need for an actor-oriented approach that critically investigates the role played by notions such as ‘localness’ and ‘territoriality’ in the development of local food networks and in the distribution of power within and between them.

29Second, at a more practical level, this study also emphasizes the inherent fragility of local food networks. In both cases analyzed, balancing cooperation and competition is a constant and active part of network maintenance. The case of saffron, in particular, shows that maintaining the boundaries of the network may be complicated by a dialectical tension between embedding and disembedding forces. In fact, producers are under pressure to increase their output, if they want to raise the profile and profitability of their product. For them, this has implied enlarging the boundaries of the local to allow new members into the network -- a move that is threatening the territorial configuration and internal cohesion of the network and that is creating a danger of absorption into the logic of an economy of scale9.

30In an era of major restructuring of the European farming and food sectors, linked to the emerging paradigm of multifunctional agriculture, initiatives like the ones examined here require political and institutional support on both economic and socio-cultural grounds. In fact, in addition to producing significant value-added gains in revenues, local food products can have an intrinsic value for those involved with them. As the analysis has shown, they provide a strategy for farmers to remain on the land and for producers to regain some power and control over their productive relations. Innovative forms of supply and demand management (such as, for example, new types of branding and enlightened public procurement policies) are necessary to consolidate the market for local food products and, more generally, to turn the contemporary political rhetoric on sustainable agri-food and rural development into practice.

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Amin, A., 2004, “Regions Unbound: Towards a New Politics of Place.” Geografiska Annaler, 86: 33–44.

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1 Harvey, 1996: 208
2 See Morgan et al., 2006
3 More details in Sonnino and Marsden, 2006a
4 Fieldwork was conducted between 2004 and 2005 and it was based on two research methods. First, to identify the discourse built around the two products, I analyzed all promotional and marketing materials produced by the two networks. In addition, I engaged in informal interviews with a range of actors involved in the two emerging economies. Second, to identify the different strategies and goals associated with the development of the two products, I conducted in-depth interviews with 6 core members of the two networks. These were structured around seven key themes: 1) initiative (how and why did the network emerge?); 2) networking (what kind of political institutional, societal and spatial linkages do different actors have with one another and with the larger society, economy and polity?); 3) power (are the two networks effectively empowering producers vis-à-vis retailers and the conventional food market?); 4) local vs. locality food (what is the real and potential spatial range of the market for these two products?); 5) quality (how is this notion constructed and negotiated by the two networks?); 6) political/institutional support (is the political/institutional context effectively supporting these developments?); 7) sustainability (what are the threats to the resilience of these networks?). All interviews were taped, transcribed and later analyzed with reference to the research questions.
5 More info in Sonnino, 2004
6 As Marsden (2003) defines it, in Europe the post-productivist countryside has emerged out of the growing perception of rural areas as consumption spaces to be exploited by the urban populations. The region of Tuscany has always supported this development model, as showed by the recent (and continuous) development of agritourism.
7 Sonnino, 2007
8 Boggs and Rantisi, 2003
9 More information in Sonnino, 2007
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Electronic reference

Roberta Sonnino, « The power of place: embeddedness and local food systems in Italy and the UK », Anthropology of food [Online], S2 | March 2007, Online since 20 April 2007, connection on 24 March 2017. URL :

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About the author

Roberta Sonnino

School of City and Regional Planning, Cardiff University

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Licence Creative Commons
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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