Agroecology and Geographical Indications at the WTO and in the EU Between Magic and Rationality: ‘Reinventing’ Marketing Designations to Preserve Rural Economy, Cultural Heritage and the Environment

  • Rocco Palma
Part of the LITES - Legal Issues in Transdisciplinary Environmental Studies book series (LITES, volume 2)


Agro-ecology and Geographical Indications (GIs) share the underlying assumption that traditional agriculture, as opposed to agro-alimentary industry, is the most effective production paradigm to keep balanced levels of production while preserving economic value, culture, traditions and the environment. The EU and some DCs and LDCs promote GIs at the WTO (TRIPS Council) as cultural and environment-friendly marketing tools to foster sustainable development and traditional agriculture, also protected as ‘cultural expression’ and ‘intangible heritage’ by the UNESCO Conventions. US, Canada, Australia and some DCs oppose this view claiming that GIs effectiveness as ‘cultural guardians’ and ‘income generators’ or ‘environmental tools’ is unproven. GIs did not prevent in the 1990s both the abandonment of traditional grapes in Tuscany to align local wines to international taste (‘Supertuscans’) and the rise of Australian wine exports at the expense of the European ones. However, a rigorous legal and economic assessment shows that GIs are designations used in global markets to distinguish ‘niche’ products with an essential link with the terroir and that they command an ‘extra-price’ from consumers in exchange for ‘quality’. Thus, economic success and, eventually, traditions and biodiversity preservation are not a legal automatism but depend on public recognition. The decrease in EU world wine exports of the 1990s might be also related, more than to the failure of GIs provisions, to the surge of new wine-producing countries and the wave of Wine Trade Agreements signed by the EU (Australia, Chile, South Africa), providing for the prohibition of free-riding on EU famous names and forcing the use of local designations. A sample review of ‘quality regulations’ of selected EU GIs provides evidence of some excellent standards designed to protect traditions and the environment, but this is not always true. As the normative demand for traditional and environmental standards appears not to be strictly binding in EU GIs law but rather a ‘non easily enforceable’ invitation to act, CSR incentives at EU or Member States level may enhance voluntary adoption of best practices, so as to increase cultural, social and environmental added value in GIs quality regulations (but also geographical collective marks), together with greater coordination of public policies that have a bear on GIs earning potential. This may prove effective also in exceptional cases as part of the policies to face plant epidemics (such as the ‘Xylella’ bacterium in the South of Italy), environmental accidents or excessive urbanization and depletion of agrobiodiversity and as a tool to ease coordination and restructuring of production to face increased competition on the global markets, while counterbalancing negative perceptions by the public.


Agro-ecology Intellectual property Geographical indications and appellations of origin PDOs PGIs European Union Terroir theory Traditional agriculture Traditional knowledge Cultural expressions Intangible heritage Cultural diversity Agrobiodiversity Non-trade concerns and general interests WTO TRIPS UNESCO WIPO Wine and free trade agreements CSR Soft law 


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© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Rocco Palma
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Economic StudiesCatholic University of Sacred HeartRomeItaly

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