The French care a lot about their champagne. But don’t let them hear you call any old sparkling wine by that name—the real champagne, their official Champagne Committee will tell you, only comes from the Champagne region of France, where producers pioneered a unique technique in the late 1600s.
All this is to say that names and geography matter. When products from a specific part of the world gain global prominence, they can bring in billions of dollars in profit for local producers, which means jobs, regional investment, and taxable income for governments.
At their core, these products represent intellectual property—decades of agricultural know-how, a unique climate, or painstaking investment have set them apart from every other product like them around the world. Governments often seek to protect those products through geographical indications (GIs), which are labels that identify the products as coming from a specific place and possessing “qualities or a reputation” that stem from that location.
That’s why an agreement signed today between the European Union and China to mutually recognize 200 European and Chinese GIs (pdf) is important. Chinese authorities recognized champagne as a GI in 2013 and 10 other European GIs before that, but this marks the first large-scale agreement between the two nations on GIs, as well as “the first significant bilateral trade agreement signed between the EU and China,” ahead of negotiations for a major investment agreement.
What products made the list? On the Chinese side (pdf):
- 27 types of tea
- Eight kinds of mushroom
- Four kinds of rice and two kinds of rice-based alcohols.
On the European side (pdf):
- Four kinds of vodka—Lithuanian, Swedish, Finnish, and Polish
- Greek chewing gum
- A spirit that comes from four different EU countries.
And half of the products on the EU’s list come from just two member states: France and Italy.
Europe is a major global exporter of famous agricultural goods, and there’s a lot at stake for them in this agreement—if it works. According to the European Observatory on infringements of Intellectual Property Rights (pdf, p. 23), the European spirits and wine sector alone loses 6,049 job and €2.4 billion ($2.8 billion) in direct sales a year due to counterfeits. Meanwhile, China is the third largest market for EU agri-food products, and it’s growing fast, thanks to a wealthy middle-class.
But merely agreeing that a given product is geographically indicated doesn’t mean that all counterfeiting will stop. And the EU-China agreement isn’t final yet. It still has to be agreed on by the European Parliament—an institution that isn’t exactly known for its sympathies to China these days. Still, officials believe it will come into force in 2021, with a further planned 175 GIs added by 2025.