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


Georgina Holt and Virginie Amilien

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1Articles of this special issue highlighted several different but complementary aspects linked to local and locally made products. The first part of the conclusion is directly oriented towards the concept of local food, its use and definition: local food is obviously a pluri-dimensional concept. The second part looks at the conceptual frameworks employed to deconstruct and understand the meaning of local food by various authors. In the third and final part we look again at the impact on and independence from the main food industry of alternative local food systems and suggest in more detail some future research needs.

Putting local on the map

2The aggregated local food community today can trace its heritage to a range of social movements and private initiatives largely inspired by spiritual and ideological belief systems that have in the post war period co-evolved in diverse yet related forms in the US, Europe and Japan (Map 1.)

Map 1. A historical geography of initiatives founding demand for local food consumption, and contributing to conceptions of local food, in the 21st century

Map 1. A historical geography of initiatives founding demand for local food consumption, and contributing to conceptions of local food, in the 21st century

CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture); EO (Ecological and Organic agriculture).
Sources: Soil Association, Fair Trade Federation and Slow Food organisation websites; Holt, 2003 and 2006.

3An umbrella definition of local foods based on this range of initiatives unanimously places ‘small farms’ at the centre. Many of these initiatives also share an aim to disengage from mainstream supply routes, in what is perceived as an over industrialised world, and exploitative, ‘imperialist’ trade rules. From this point we can subdivide the core of local into those initiatives primarily concerned with a local economy and those less concerned with distance than with rules of trade or rules of production and consumption. In the first subset we find Bioregions and Box schemes; and with the added remit to preserve traditional crop varieties and quality of produce, Slow Food; and with the added remit to link with biodynamic philosophy and for consumers to invest in farms, CSA. In the second ‘export’ subset we find fair trade, focusing as it does, on developing, or third world, countries; and, with a specific relationship to soil and climate at the place of origin, terroir products. And finally with the added remit to understand ecological systems and amid the controversy over ‘conventionalisation’, organic / ecological agriculture is placed as a member of both subsets.

Small farms

Local economy, Healthy eating:

Exportable produce:

Bioregions, Box schemes

+ ‘development’: Fair trade

+ tradition, crop varieties, food quality: Slow

+ tradition, soil, climate, food quality: Terroir

+ biodynamic / organic, ethnic crops: CSA

Org, EO + systems

Drawing boundaries around culture

4The idea of localisation/place/space in « local » is actually better visible in terms of a value set than in geographical terms, and it is the reason why local as a concept has to be reconsidered. Several authors underlined how the concept of local depends on cultural values, which is particularly obvious in comparisons between north and south European mentalities. Geographical closeness and rural development are more important in Northern countries, and in the UK for example, local food is usually associated with freshness and a guarantee against “risk food”, as noted by Georgina Holt.

5Studying local food with an ethnographic glance at regulations and legislations, Laurence Bérard and Philippe Marchenay make a distinction between local food and localised food products and production, such that local food is locally-made while localised food has a cultural identity. But the local has also to be seen in relationship, and not in opposition, to the mainstream context: not only local and global but also, traditional and innovative are attributes that build on and through each other. Proposing a methodological framwork for local food products, Hielke S. van der Meulen distinguishes between the following different product categories: farm-house, farmers-group, region-label, regional-typical, artisan and appropriated, and between the attributes of territoriality, typicity, traditionality and communality. By assessing products based on a combination of these dimensions, a “score”, expressing the degree and mode of ‘origin’, can be derived for food products.

6In spite of these complexities and complementarities, the second part of this conclusion draws attention to the commonality of structures highlighted in this issue. First, several theoretical approaches actually distinguish between different degrees and types of closeness, whether associated to place, culture, trade, symbols or identity.

  • Looking at local foods in a market place perspective, Angela Tregear identified three types of system – direct produce, close typicity and distant speciality;

  • Analysing local food from a symbolic angle, Gianluca Brunori proposed to divide between local, locality and localist foods;

  • Observing local food from a consumer point of view, Virginie Amilien, Fatiha Fort and Nicolas Ferras propose to understand local food as a chameleon concept, changing its meaning with ‘conventions’ – as a function of two axes, nature to culture and experienced reality to hyper reality.

7A second common framework is derived from the concepts of embeddedness, territorialisation and patrimonialisation of local food products. These frameworks enable local foods to be depicted as created out of dynamic processes shaped through social actors (producers, consumers and other stakeholders) who wish to emphasize the connection between a product and a place, often in order to add value in the marketplace, as presented by Roberta Sonnino. But once more, to be understood holistically, the embedded local product must be seen in relationship, and not in opposition, to the mainstream context as noted by Atle Hegnes: “regulation is part of a transnational system promoting ‘deterritorialisation’ of trade in order to achieve ‘reterritorialisation’ of food products.”

8A third common structure is that of political order: several articles underline the central role that stakeholders and agricultural policymakers have on the production of, and access to, local food products. One of the most challenging visions in this respect is proposed by Georgina Holt who directly associates local food and sustainable food, while Gun Roos, Laura Terragni and Hanne Torjusen look at local food as a possible tool in active consumption policy.

9Part of Roos et al.’s thesis is to understand the concept of local-in-the-global with which consumers are confronted. In Figure 2 below, we see that, building on the earlier categorisation of local into ‘local economy’ and ‘exportable’ – two possibilities for local-in-the-global emerge. The first, delineated by a red oval, builds on links between slow food, terroir and fair trade based on the shared ideology of food quality ‘through’ tradition. A second embryonic development of local-in-the-global, depicted by the green oval, arises from the union of eco-local food systems with fair trade (and terroir) within the auspices of ethics or ethical consumerism, a term that originated in the context of labour ‘entitlements’ in international development but, at least in the UK, has become a by-word for environmental ‘lifestyle’ attributes (including vegetarianism) also (see for instance, BBC Newsnight’s ‘Ethical Man’1). We can expect therefore that the extent to which these two models for local-in-the-global merge or remain discrete will depend on the extent to which slow and terroir foods embrace the preoccupation with health and welfare more prevalent in northwest European countries and depicted in Figure 2 by the blue oval.

Figure 2: Building synergies to create local-in-global (local products in global supply chains)

Figure 2: Building synergies to create local-in-global (local products in global supply chains)

10It is worth mentioning also that within CSA (Community-supported agriculture) in the US, there is increasing interest in the cultivation of ethnic vegetables, to meet the significant demand for these from ethnic communities, raising the possibility for yet another understanding of hybridised or ‘multicultural’ consumption trends – that of global-in-local.

11In this third, and last, section we emphasize the importance of practices and habits in local food systems, both at production and consumption levels. In this strategic dimension, we turn to the power structures that carve out the demand profiles of national populations through education, incentives and fiscal policies. By highlighting the importance of power and institutional control in shaping the interfaces between production, distribution, consumption and marketing, this special issue opens the way to asking, to what extent can local food challenge the organisation and distribution of power in the food sector (and in social organisation), and change consumer culture?

12This has indeed been a topic of hot debate in the mainstream media in recent months. An editorial in The Economist in December 20062 suggested that although democracy through the ballot box, the ‘electoral’ vote, in developed nations has fallen sadly in recent decades, sales of organic, fair-traded and local food – each with its own political agenda – are growing fast3. Thus ‘free market democracy’ enables citizen-shoppers to express political opinions, concern for the environment and support for poor farmers, every time they buy groceries. Whilst this may be seen as free market philosophy working as intended by neo-conservative think tanks, at the same time, the very premise of free market philosophy is starting to waver under criticism. Dissenters from the free market ideology point to the non-universality of consumer ‘self-interest’, the premise upon which ‘game theory’ was transposed to economic policy4 – and yet the market has demonstrated responsiveness to the ‘ethical consumer’ purchasing lobby. Ironically, then, it is the re-emergence of altruism in capitalist societies that now demonstrates the very principle of the free market.

13However set against the neo-liberal agenda to vote ‘at retail’, there are secondary criticisms that, inevitably, the very nature of the global market, the regulatory and monetary structures, into which such purchasing efforts ‘feed’, distort the purchasing intention, so that whilst ethical shopping “might reduce Western guilt, it does little to reduce Third World poverty5. If such a sense of fatality were to take hold in the consumer imagination, the rapid rate of increase in ethical food shopping could be affected, especially if ‘green taxation’ is introduced as a further pressure on voting power in the ‘free’ marketplace.

14It is out of this political quagmire that local foods emerge as a hybrid of conventional ‘left’ and ‘right’ political philosophies. On the one hand, neo-socialist policies favour relocalisation and advocate government intervention in the market to prevent over-exploitation of land, labour and health, by the ‘invisible hand of the marketplace’, and on the other hand, libertarian policies, whilst not encouraging government intervention, are also well disposed towards relocalisation as a vehicle to reinstate a sense of ‘responsibility’ in the population – an aim that the local food concept of ‘citizen’ fulfils.

15Where relocalisation policies may come into conflict with ‘local food ideologies’, is in respect to organic production methods. A recent academic report for the UK Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, concluded that by shopping locally and buying organic food, ‘eco-conscious’ consumers may not be minimising the effect of their consumption on the environment as much as they believe6. And a survey in France shows that whilst organic farms and various eco-labelling programmes provide some environmental benefits, they do not necessarily perform better than conventional farms on all environmental measures.7 However, the danger of attempting to measure minute interactions between agriculture and the environment, and even more to pose local as an alternative to organic, is that the value of ecological science, as a paradigm shift in scientific and social thinking, becomes overshadowed, in countries without a terroir tradition, by political exploitation of vague concepts of community and tradition. The impact in countries with a strong tradition of terroir and / or ‘food culture’ is likely attenuated by a common understanding of ‘living’ as opposed to re-invented food traditions. For example, farmers’ markets in the UK are not the continuation of a vibrant rural tradition, as they are in France – and yet neither do they reflect ‘urban’ social realism, as found in the multicultural profile of supermarket customers.

16Thus, in one sense, since the publication of ’Small is Beautiful’ (E.F. Schumacher, first published 1973), ‘small’ does seem to have ‘come of age’. But underlying the rapid adoption of local food by Europe’s intellectual elite, brews a tension between egalitarianism and time. Ethical consumerism as social symbol sits in awkward juxtaposition to a rising Gini coefficient throughout the developed world8. Ethical products, local, fair, terroir, are a premium market. Therefore, changing consumer purchasing patterns may be a slow process if citizen ‘responsibility’ is not accompanied by incentivisation policies. This then leads on to prospects for further research.

Research agenda for local food anthropology

17What strategies are (urban) local authorities pursuing to facilitate consumer access to local foods? Through:

  • Relations with local producers

  • Public sector catering

  • Consumer information

  • School education

18How do power relationship work within local and collective projects on food? Through:

  • Relations between actors

  • Evolution and changes within conception of local foods

  • Governance and conventions

19What central government policies facilitate relocalisation and (urban) consumer access to local markets? Through:

  • Devolution of power

  • Decentralisation of infrastructures

20Which specific consumer groups are most likely to adopt positive buying patterns for?

  • Terroir products

  • Eco-products

  • Fair traded products

  • Locally made products

21Which specific consumer groups are most likely to invest in community agriculture?

22What impact will the growing cyber culture (e.g. ‘Second Life’) have on urban realities of the ‘rural’?

23What role do networks such as Local Harvest9 (in the US) and Slow Food play in sustaining demand for local food?

24What commonalities and synergies can be found between ‘sustainability’ networks such as Local Harvest and ‘food quality’ networks such as Slow Food?

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1 -45k-
3 Voting with your trolley, Editorial, Dec 7th 2006, The Economist.
4 Acclaimed TV producer Adam Curtis’s The Trap is a series of BBC, UK, films that analyse the contemporary view of freedom as arising from mathematical models of human behaviour, which filtered into economic thought following a trend in thinking in the 1960s and 70s including Richard Dawkin’s treatise on the ’Selfish gene’ and John Nash’s application of mathematical formulae to Game Theory.
5 Nathalie Rothschild - Sp!ked - 2 March 2007 (Rothschild, 2007), online
7 Nguyen, G., Dobbs, T.L., Bertramsen, S.K. and Legagneux, B. (2005) ‘French quality and eco-labelling schemes: do they also benefit the environment? International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability, 167–179.
8 Roach, S. (2006) Globalization’s New Underclass: China, the US, Japan and the Changing Face of Inequality,
9 Local Harvest maintains a public nationwide directory of small farms, farmers markets, and other local food sources.
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List of illustrations

Title Map 1. A historical geography of initiatives founding demand for local food consumption, and contributing to conceptions of local food, in the 21st century
Caption CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture); EO (Ecological and Organic agriculture).Sources: Soil Association, Fair Trade Federation and Slow Food organisation websites; Holt, 2003 and 2006.
File image/jpeg, 80k
Title Figure 2: Building synergies to create local-in-global (local products in global supply chains)
File image/jpeg, 36k
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Electronic reference

Georgina Holt and Virginie Amilien, « Conclusion », Anthropology of food [Online], S2 | March 2007, Online since 20 April 2007, connection on 05 December 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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About the authors

Georgina Holt, Reading, UK

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Virginie Amilien

SIFO, National Institute for Consumption research, Oslo, Norway

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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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