Author: Marsha Simone Cadogan, Bsc. LLB. LLM. PhD (Intellectual Property Rights Law)
Avocado and vanilla have a few things in common: their markets experience price fluctuations, are continuously in short supply and are sourced primarily from overseas markets. Madagascar is the leading exporter of vanilla worldwide; the spice accounted for over U.S $800 million of the country’s export in 2018. In 2018, almost half the whole avocados exported globally came from Mexico. These markets are not without their challenges. In Madagascar, premium prices for vanilla are not guaranteed over the long term – volatile markets mean that when prices plummet, small-scale farmers and other stakeholders (especially those at the lower end of the supply chain) are likely to bear the brunt of the impact from the fallout. The avocado industry in Mexico is challenged by corruption, which creates a challenge for farmers and suppliers of the product. Unstable markets impact job prospects, innovation, a country’s economic vitality and many social welfare goals.
Is there any role for geographical indications (GIs) in these industries? Can GIs help stabilize market conditions or create sustainable employment for small and medium-scale farmers in these countries, impacting long-term socioeconomic welfare? A geographical indication is a form of intellectual property right in the form of a symbol or word that conveys to the consumer that there is a strong and traceable relationship between the product (or service) and its place of origin. The connection can be related to the product’s quality, characteristics or reputation with the specific natural or human factors in the product’s country. Well-known GIs include Feta cheese from Greece, Canadienne Cow Cheese from Quebec, Kobe beef from Japan, Canada’s Canadian Club Whisky, Scotch Whisky from Scotland, Argan oil from Morocco and Jamaican Jerk from Jamaica. The appeal of GIs is that when interpreted liberally, it provides significant protection to rightsholders, preventing all other competitors from using the GI name on their products. When this works, it allows the IP rightsholder (the producers etc.) significant advantages in their consumer markets, especially if consumers are particularly fond of the product (or service).
Can GI registration stabilize avocado and vanilla markets?
The short answer is no. But a GI strategy may make a difference in the long-term stability of both products, both as domestic IP assets in their respective countries and as products that consumers globally are interested in because there is a more pronounced connection between these products and where they are from. It may lead to farmers becoming essential stakeholders in the vanilla and avocado supply chains by owning IP rights to govern the commercialization and management of their products. Because GIs are collective rights, no person owns the IP. Still, ownership is shared among a specific producer group (or sometimes a government body), with the notion that the IP is exploited for the benefit of its members (this aspect has governance challenges).
A GI strategy involves:
Because no two economies are alike, each GI strategy needs to be firmly grounded in its jurisdiction’s IP, business, social and cultural eco-system dynamics. For Madagascar’s vanilla industry, this may include building ties between the traditions of the vanilla bean farmers in the growing and harvesting of the product with broader cultural practices in the farming communities. The idea is that this should be conveyed to the consumer as a point of differentiation between the country’s product and its competitors. This long-term strategy makes sense since other vanilla bean producers are slowly gaining entrance into global markets. A GI strategy also calls for sound environmental practices that produce crops sustainably while maintaining a solid reputational link between the product and its territory.
One of the most relevant criteria for a successful GI product is how its home legislation protects GIs. Although there is interest in GI protection in Madagascar, it is at a minimum level and no specific legislation deals with GIs. Mexico has two legislation related to product and place, its appellation of origins law and its recently enacted law on protecting GIs.
Whether these two foods – vanilla and avocados – are strong candidates for GI protection comes down to the level of interest that domestic stakeholders have in the product and whether the proper infrastructure (legal, financial, and innovation linkages) is present over the long-term to support these industries in global consumer markets.
For more on geographical indications (commercialization and management) in the food and other industries see:
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