Geographical Indication status will protect the Karoo Lamb name for everyone in the Karoo

The Home of Karoo Lamb Chops, by Just-Ice on Flickr Commons

Some of the commentary against the GI registration argues that it is likely to impact on livelihoods of people in the Karoo. The contrary is however more relevant. It is designed to protect the livelihoods of people in the Karoo, JOHANN KIRSTEN writes.

The article entitled Controversial bid for Karoo lamb to be certified gears up published in Daily Maverick on 9 August 2019 requires sober reflection. In typical journalist style, some sensation is made from the content of an email sent around by Gordon Wright from Graaff-Reinet. Tony Jackman’s reporting of a “controversial bid”, “many objections” and “hijacking of the Karoo lamb brand” does not reflect factual and honest reporting.

One comment on the Karoo Lamb Geographical Indication (GI) application hardly warrants generalisation about a decade of scientific research on this issue. I would like to put the real facts in perspective so that readers of Daily Maverick can make up their own minds.

The comments and remarks contained in Mr Wright’s email refer to the application to register Karoo Lamb as South Africa’s first Geographical Indication (GI). This application followed 13 years of research and piloting with the idea of managing a regional or “collective” brand. This new application was made according to the prescripts of the new regulations related to the registration of GIs in South Africa which was recently published in the Government Gazette of 22 March 2019. These set of rules present also one of the last pieces in the puzzle to ensure the implementation of the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) between South Africa and the European Union signed in 2016.

I have over the years admired Gordon Wright for his cooking philosophy which builds on the principle of honesty, local sourcing and ethical foods. He has over the last few years championed the cause of the Karoo food cuisine and heritage in cookbooks such as Karoo Food and Veld to Fork. With such an impressive track record it is expected that an initiative to protect the name Karoo Lamb from being misused, would be supported.

Some of the commentary against the GI registration argue that it is likely to impact on livelihoods of people in the Karoo. The contrary is however more relevant. It is designed to protect the livelihoods of people in the Karoo. The only livelihoods that will be impacted on will be those people who make a living out of the Karoo name by selling products not really from the Karoo and in the process undermines the reputation and identity of the Karoo name and thereby taking away livelihoods from Karoo people.

There are a number of people that will lose out when the GI rules are gazetted and are the ones most likely raising “objections”. They are:

    1. Those outside the Karoo region claiming that their lamb is from the Karoo.

    2. Those, that very well know that the true identity and reputation of Karoo Lamb is the grazing on the Karoo veld, but then sell “Karoo Lamb” from pastures and feedlots. They are fraudsters and need to be banned from using the Karoo name.

    3. Those that do not have traceability systems (or verification systems) similar to the Wine certification system in place to verify the origin of the animals.

    4. Those with slaughtering and processing facilities that do not comply with minimum government hygiene regulations.

Many of the criticisms to this application are rather unfortunate because it shows a clear misunderstanding of the nature and characteristics of provenance foods in Europe and the GI system that protect these origin-based foods in Europe. I was therefore particularly surprised by some of the arguments against this application especially from people who all enjoy the many famous European GIs such as Parmigiana Reggiano, Parma Ham, Balsamic Vinegar, etc.

The main issue that all these products (and Karoo Lamb and Rooibos) have in common is that the rights to their name belong to all the people from the specific region and the idea behind a GI registration is to protect the rights of the people from the region as a collective – not for any specific individual or company – but for everyone. This is why it is NOT A BRAND – it is an intellectual property (IP) right belonging to the region. This right does not belong to individuals, and the whole process of the GI application is to protect the right of a geographical region (Parma, Champagne, Karoo) from individual exploitation by people not from the region, or fraudsters within the region.

A name such as the Karoo evokes images of quality and wholesomeness, a value that can be profitably used to sell cookbooks, products, experiences, etc. But nowhere is there a verification process to ensure that the name is not misappropriated, and the IP of the region not manipulated to lay claim to products from the region when it is not. It is the same worry when someone sells you Parma Ham made in Benoni or a counterfeit Rolex watch. That is precisely how people feel if they buy Karoo Lamb (which evokes the image of free-range on Karoo bossies) that was raised outside the Karoo region, or in feedlots or on lucerne pastures. They will feel cheated.

These principles and arguments should resonate well with someone who believes in ethically sourced and origin-based foods. So, let us now try to provide more context and information by addressing each of the incorrect points raised in the Daily Maverick article:

  1. This is not an application by academics and attorneys – it was done on behalf of all Karoo farmers, abattoirs by the not for profit organisation “Meat of Origin Karoo” (MOOK) representing more than two million hectares of Karoo farms. These more than 200 farms are signed up to ensure that their collective identity as Karoo lamb producers are protected against opportunists and that the name is not misused and misappropriated by corporates and individuals trying to make a quick buck from the Karoo reputation.

  2. MOOK is affiliated with AGRI-Northern Cape and also has the blessing of AgriSA, RPO and the Red Meat Research and Development Trust (RMRDT) who also funded further research on elements of putting the GI rules in place.

  3. Our team worked over many years with the Western Cape, Northern Cape, Eastern Cape governments, Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF), and the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) to put the rules and systems in place that will grant the Karoo a GI status. Most of the research on sensory attributes, chemical analyses and the production practices of Karoo Lamb were done by the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) and highlighted the distinctive characteristic of Karoo Lamb versus those lambs raised on planted pastures, feedlots and regions like Free State, Overberg and The Kalahari.

  4. Throughout the whole decade-long process, we were supported by the European Union (EU) and as a result the name Karoo is already protected in the EU through their multilateral register of GIs (other examples are Ceylon Tea, Columbian Coffee).

  5. In addition, because the GI legislation took about five years to be completed the Karoo farmers had to resort to a certification scheme which they funded by means of membership fees. This scheme is currently the only Karoo Lamb quality indication audited by South African Meat Industry Company (SAMIC) and registered with the Trademark division of the Companies and Intellectual Property Commision (CIPC). The certification scheme is in fact the pilot – which is now in its eighth year of operation – for the GI scheme for Karoo Lamb. 

  6. All farmers in the Karoo qualify to participate (provide they do not have pastures or feedlots) and already many emerging farmers are signed up and benefit from the R3/kg premium above the commodity price of lamb.

  7. The whole idea is to be innovative and take Karoo Lamb out of the low-level commodity market in which producers have no control over quality, price and standards. This should ensure greater value for the producers in the Karoo region.

  8. This is not a hijack as Jackman’s article claims. On the contrary, this process is aimed at preventing people not living up to the reputation and practices of Karoo Lamb to hijack the Karoo’s name and reputation. There are many examples of people in the Karoo that has hijacked the Karoo name for personal gain without supporting the integrity and honesty of maintaining Karoo lamb production practices. The production practices and supply chain structure of Karoo Lamb is open for opportunistic behaviour and a considerable amount of cheating takes place in the market. The fact is the Meat Regulations of SA and the Consumer Protection Act specify that you cannot make any claim about origin or quality without a registered AND audited protocol.

  9. This reality is a huge cost for all producers and retailers wanting to differentiate themselves. The whole idea of the Karoo Lamb GI is to reduce the audit costs of individuals and also to allow them to continue to use their own trademarks such as “Taste of the Karoo” or “Laingsburg Karoo Lamb” as long as they comply with the rules that will be gazetted. The collective will take care of the audited costs and therefore the process should reduce the audit costs and bring about huge benefits to everyone in the Karoo.

  10. The rules for Karoo lamb allow for supplementary feeding in times of drought but it still prohibits feedlot practices and pasture raising. These practices unfortunately do not provide Karoo Lamb with its unique identity and sensory attributes. The practice of feedlots and pasture grazing can in any case take place in any other region and are therefore not unique to the Karoo. The regional identity of Karoo Lamb is obtained from the natural grazing and is therefore central to the philosophy of “origin-based foods”.

  11. The best thing of being true to the Karoo philosophy is our ability to say Karoo Lamb is “in season”. This implies that there is now enough grazing to be able to produce “real” Karoo Lamb. This is similar to the practices of the famous Lamb GI in Mont Saint Michel in France, Agneaux Prés-Salés du Mont Saint Michel”. These lambs are only produced when they are able to graze on the salt bushes of the plain between the mainland and Mont Saint Michel. The process is strictly monitored to make sure that no lambs are marketed before the critical six-week period of grazing on these bushes.

I hope this context and explanation helps to reduce the considerable misunderstanding of the GI concept. We need a mind shift from individual IP to collective IP because the Karoo identity is something that belongs to us as South Africans and all communities in the Karoo. In order to protect it from misappropriation and food fraud we need to collaborate and not accuse. DM

Tony Jackman replies: Having invited Professor Kirsten to reply to our story, and having undertaken to publish the views of himself and others that may be contrary to the opinions reported, I am disappointed that he should impugn both my profession and my journalistic ethics. Professor Kirsten may recall that it was he, in fact, who first brought this issue to our attention when he submitted a piece about it which he requested we run anonymously.


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