Euromontana and the partnership of the 2002-2004 project have been involved in the survey not only to provide accurate data on the quality of mountain agro-food products at European level, but also to contribute to the emergence of relevant tools for the development of mountain areas via their food products.
As part of partnership meetings and encounters with independent practitioners and experts on the occasion of two seminars, it has been possible to identify needs and submit tools to:
- disseminate information, exchange experiences and cooperate on mountain products ;
- promote and leverage mountain quality food products.
In the latter part of the project, a synthesis was drawn up, listing not only project outcomes but also issues that deserve further research, thereby pointing to possible project follow-up.
Dissemination of Information, Exchange of Experiences and Cooperation
The European Mountain Product Website
Mountains and their agro-food products attract growing attention and many regional, national and transnational projects, research efforts and surveys are being undertaken in Europe. While networks and coordination initiatives may exist within individual mountain massifs or regions, there is unfortunately a lack of exchange of information among these at European level. In 2003, an inventory of available internet-based resources on mountains showed that technical provision was limited, resource centres scarce and specialised conceptual websites on mountain products non-existent.
Encouraged also by a growing awareness of the issue among European authorities following the informal ministerial meeting in Taormina (November 2003), where the representatives of the Member States of the European Union agreed that “there [was] a need to strengthen cooperation among the Member States on behalf of and among European mountain areas”, Euromontana decided to include in project outcomes the future development of a European internet-based tool.
Website and User Characterisation
The different discussions held as part of the project have provided the general framework for the development of this website dedicated to the exchange of information about and cooperation on mountain food products. The stakes are to stimulate initiative and creativeness among mountain area stakeholders and to improve efficiency and effectiveness in handling issues shared by European mountain areas. To this end, a number of proposals were made, including:
- to provide access to a European network of experts, practitioners, researchers, technicians and political players;
- to facilitate and promote cooperation by identifying dedicated conferences, seminars and workshops as well as regional, national or European projects and innovative schemes;
- to provide information on state-of-the-art research, relating in particular to regional/local agro-food production systems and their close link with mountain areas and environments.
While the target audiences of this website are essentially professionals (scientists, development practitioners, businesspersons and professional agents of (non) governmental organisations), it is accessible to all internet users. The site itself should initially be available in eight different languages (the languages of the countries involved in the original project, i.e. French, English, Spanish, Italian, Greek, Romanian, Polish and Norwegian) while more specific data will be posted in the original language plus English (and possibly French where possible). Depending on the type of information sought, access is provided from the “data” or “news” tabs of the site tree.
For the purpose of compiling this vast database, Euromontana invites contributions by all site users who wish to share information, news or web publications.
Obviously, cooperation can but be improved by this effective and innovative access vehicle to different professional contacts at European level. However, web-based interaction is inadequate of it is not closely associated with study visits, conferences and personal contacts among practitioners as well as with the stakeholders of local initiatives and products. Therefore, exchange and consultation over the internet are also expected to structure the development of conferences and study visits.
The European Charter for Mountain Quality Products
In addition to the conclusions and recommendations formulated by Euromontana and the Steering Committee of the project, it was suggested to draw up a European Charter for Mountain Quality Products.
Several realisations are possible about mountain products in Europe:
1/ The vast majority of EU Member State lack a definition of “mountain products” and where they exist (France and Italy), such definitions are unfortunately heterogeneous.
2/ In a sense, a promise is made to consumers whenever the term “mountain” is used in association with a food product. Consumer expectations should not be frustrated, and they are currently high, as consumers have a largely positive bias towards the term “mountain”.
3/ Mountain area food and agro-food products cost more in terms of both production and distribution. It is therefore essential, within the present economic context, to create additional value added for mountain productions.
4/ Farming contributes to the preservation and development of mountain area heritage in terms of biology, the environment, culture, landscape, traditions, etc.
Proposal for a “European Charter for Mountain Quality Food Products”
Early in its work and as a complement to its surveys, the project Steering Committee expressed a desire to consider drawing up a European Charter for Mountain Products. In both the short and long terms, such a Charter would provide a tool to bring national and local situations in Europe closer together and create synergies between them, and should serve the development of mountain products according to the principles it specifies. The aim of the Charter is to become a reference system in Europe about mountain products and their value for producers, consumers and society.
When it was presented at the Final Conference in Cordoba in June 2004, the Charter—along with its principles—met with unanimous support from the audience.
The 2005 Charter contains several sections, i.e.:
- Rrinciples, which the Charter is intended to promote compliance with (five principles),
- List of signatories.
The five essential principles are:
1/ raw materials must originate from mountain areas;
2/ processing must take place in mountain areas;
3/ production must mainstream social, environmental and sanitary concerns;
4/ production must contribute to the preservation and development of mountain area biodiversity and heritage;
5/ producers must provide assurances of permanent transparency in consumer information.
From project results…
With this survey programme, Euromontana and its partners sought both to identify intrinsic quality in mountain products and investigate its sources. In the final analysis, there was unanimous agreement among the partnership to recognise that while intrinsic quality exists and is identifiable in every food, it is impossible to precisely describe per se (“more natural”, “more traditional”, “healthier”, “better”, etc.). However, the sources of quality do form a far more homogeneous construct, resulting either from natural conditions prevailing in the mountain environment or from humans and their practices, some of which date back to ancient times. Besides, the results of the survey show that, along with promoting and leveraging food products with consumers, these two factors are the key to success in local/regional initiatives.
… To New Factors Supporting Promotion and Value Added Strategies
Indeed, looking at local practices, many cultivation and breeding techniques which impact positively on intrinsic product quality also have positive side effects (also called positive externalities), reflecting the multifunctional nature of mountain farming.
What are those positive externalities, actually? Can they be identified, measured, costed? Once these questions are answered, at least partly, it would be interesting to share initial results with both extremes of the chain, i.e. producers and consumers.
As far as producers are concerned, do they systematically reckon with the (positive or indeed, negative) impact of their practices? Do they know why they perpetuate certain age-old techniques? How can they communicate positively about their work and mountains? Using what notions? This goes in the direction of renewed ownership of mountain-specific practices.
As for European consumers, it has become vital to address them directly. What are their expectations in terms of mountain product “quality”? Are they only looking for intrinsic quality as such or is it something that in their opinion also includes such important features as landscapes, the environment, biodiversity and other notions? Would they be prepared to pay more for this level of quality? While consumers are the keystone of any product segmentation initiative, we should not forget how complex interaction with European consumers can be.
These discussions and surveys would contribute to the clarification of communication about mountain quality products.