Imagine walking into a market with shelves stocked full of food products labeled as made in Baja Arizona. There’d be packages of velvet mesquite pod flour, beer made with White Sonora wheat, whiskey made with barley malted over mesquite wood smoke, sourdough bread made with heritage grains, olive oil smoked with pecan wood, and soup mixes with dried cholla cactus flower buds and tepary beans.
A compilation of currently available artisanal products made with native plants and desert heirlooms shows an impressive list of options that few Tucsonans have fully explored—more than 100 artisanal products made by more than 40 producers, some of them indigenous food products made in Baja Arizona’s indigenous communities the same way they have been for thousands of years.
Place-based food labeling would empower consumers to support local food producers in ways that rebuild our food economy while allowing more income to remain in our community. It would help construct a local food system based on a shortened, transparent food chain with more alternatives to the dominant food system. And it would strengthen our sense of place and identity by encouraging recovery of traditional food knowledge and reinvention of our farming and food traditions.
Research has shown that local food economies that successfully compete against the industrial, globalized dominant food system tend to reconnect local producers and consumers, and to protect and promote traditional ingredients and production techniques in a specific region. An important lesson from communities that have successfully rebuilt their local food systems is that relocalizing food involves relocalizing knowledge. Local traditional knowledge of how to grow food and local food culture has been largely lost in the wake of globalization of the food economy. This knowledge can be recovered and rebuilt through the expertise of the keepers of artisanal food traditions, their oral histories, innovative contributions of new producers, and sharing knowledge of food provenance, quality, and preparation through face-to-face interactions between producers and consumers.
In Baja Arizona, our local food system has been largely disrupted since the railroad arrived in 1880, connecting us to the global industrial economy and its nonlocal products. But we are rediscovering that many of our traditional food ingredients, food production techniques, and food knowledge and culture have survived despite the pressures of the dominant food system.
Parma, Italy, never lost those local connections, and has become an international success story of how to build a local food economy through place-based branding of food quality and authenticity through the second pattern. Parma was also designated a UNESCO City of Gastronomy in December of 2015, and six Tucsonans traveled there last spring to learn from a city with a highly developed local food economy that flourishes in the face of competition from the global food system.
Parma has built its economy on the reputation of its food quality and authenticity through place-based branding of its Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, Prosciutto di Parma ham, and other traditional food products. Italy is a leader in the European Union (EU) with 269 Geographical Indications (GIs) of food origins—the most for any EU nation. Italy’s GI-classified agricultural and food products are diverse and include varieties and versions of extra-virgin olive oils, aged balsamic vinegars, cheeses, lemons, tomatoes, grains, dry-cured hams, beef from indigenous cattle breeds, and others—each produced in an identified zone. With 43, Parma is Italy’s epicenter of food GIs.
Established in 1963 in Europe based on existing national systems of denominations of origin, GIs are place-based food labels that define the geographical origins, and traditional cultural identities, of agricultural and food products. Based on the concept of terroir, with both environmental and cultural dimensions, they seek to recognize and promote traditional local ingredients and artisanal techniques that offer a distinctive “taste of place.” They have been found to simultaneously support rural economic development and conserve valuable crop and livestock varieties and the traditional knowledge associated with them.
GIs protect agricultural and food products as collective intellectual properties and help distinguish distinctive “foods from somewhere” from the undifferentiated and placeless “foods from anywhere” produced by the global food system. This differentiation gives them a competitive advantage—and the region supplying them a monopoly. And this adds value. A 2013 study found that European Union GIs were worth about $71 billion worldwide, and that GI products on average were sold at 2.23 times the price of similar, non-GI products.
“The economic value added by certification labeling passes down the food chain to the producers and ensures the survival of traditional foods and food knowledge that UNESCO calls ‘intangible cultural heritage,’” says Giuseppe Biagini, a part-time Tucson resident and president of the U.S. chapter of the International Traditional Knowledge Institute.
Although 90 percent of GIs are in the EU, developing countries are adopting place-based food labeling to replace the price-support role of agricultural subsidies, foster rural development, and protect local products and traditions. Mexico was the first non-European country to adopt the approach, creating a GI system for tequila in 1974. Brazil, Peru, South Korea, and India passed GI legislation in the 1990s, and Colombia and Chile followed suit in the 2000s.
With all of the apparent benefits, why don’t we have similar types of geographic labeling closer to home? GIs have become a topic of dispute between the EU and the United States in the World Trade Organization, with the EU seeking to have them be legally protected as collective intellectual properties. U.S. resistance is widely perceived to be the result of lobbying by major U.S. food corporations and food industry associations that prefer brands to be privately held and trademarked as properties that can be bought and sold.
While the U.S. food industry does not want to recognize place-based brands, several states, cities, and tribes have developed ecolabeling as a means to the same end. Idaho potatoes, Florida citrus, Vidalia onions, Hatch chiles, Vermont maple syrup, Olathe sweet corn, and Chimayo chili powder are examples of this trend in the United States to link specific foods to culture and locality in the marketplace.
These trademarked labels indicate regions of production of specific crop varieties, but they differ from European GIs because they do not imply any specific methods of production or standards for quality. Kentucky Bourbon—made in the same way since the late 1700s, and with standards of production set by federal legislation in 1964—more closely resembles a GI-protected product.
In Arizona, the nderfunded and poorly recognized Arizona Grown label indicates foods grown anywhere in the state; the Grand Canyon Sweet Onion trademark promotes sweet onions grown across the state; and the Canyon Country Fresh label is used by two dozen restaurants and markets in the northern part of the state to help consumers recognize locally sourced foods. The Sonoita American Viticultural Area (AVA) was established in 1984, and the Willcox AVA was designated in 2016. These labels specify that at least 85 percent of the grapes were grown in the named region.
There are many other opportunities to use this proven approach to benefit our local food economy and food culture. In a 2005 book, Linking Arizona’s Sense of Place to a Sense of Taste: Marketing the Heritage Value of Arizona’s Place-Based Foods, former Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano endorsed the use of collective trademarks, certification marks, brands, and ecolabels to increase the value of Arizona’s place-based heritage foods. In southern Arizona, the nonprofit Santa Cruz Valley Heritage Alliance developed a brand called Santa Cruz Valley Harvest that could be used to mark food packages, grocery displays, farm stands, and restaurant menu items that feature traditional native crops and other locally grown foods tied to the culture and history of the watershed of the Santa Cruz River in eastern Pima County and Santa Cruz County.
Across the United States, and in our own backyard, farmers and artisanal food producers are beginning to recognize the worth of increasing awareness of the connections between place, people, knowledge, and cultural identity through place-based food labeling. Producers and artisans have an opportunity to promote their distinctive place-based food products as the essential tastes of our City of Gastronomy. An initiative to create a labeling system could apply best practices from models such as Parma and existing GI-labeling systems, and adapt them to our particular place through conversations among producers, consumers, chefs, markets, and other community members. This would be just the kind of initiative for sustainable economic development that the UNESCO designation was intended to inspire.
To see a list of more than 100 artisanal food products made with local ingredients, and to submit additional products, visit EdibleBajaArizona.com. ✜
Jonathan Mabry is Historic Preservation Officer and archaeologist for the City of Tucson. He manages heritage-based economic development for the city, and coordinates Tucson’s UNESCO City of Gastronomy designation. Gary Nabhan has worked on community food solutions for a quarter century, and is developing an ethnobotanical nursery and a canning kitchen for shrub beverages in Patagonia. He initiated the City of Tucson’s application to UNESCO. Visit GaryNabhan.com to access his most recent book, Ethnobiology for the Future.