Governance in the global agro-food system: Backlighting the role of transnational supermarket chains

Agriculture and Human Values 22 (3):291-302 (2005)
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With the proliferation of private standards many significant decisions regarding public health risks, food safety, and environmental impacts are increasingly taking place in the backstage of the global agro-food system. Using an analytical framework grounded in political economy, we explain the rise of private standards and specific actors – notably supermarkets – in the restructuring of agro-food networks. We argue that the global, political-economic, capitalist transformation – globalization – is a transition from a Fordist regime to a regime of flexible accumulation. We also argue that the standard making process of this new regulatory regime is increasingly moving from the front stage – where it is open to public debate and democratic decision-making bodies – to the backstage – where it is dominated by large supermarket procurement offices. We assert that transnational supermarket chains are increasingly controlling what food is grown where, how, and by whom. We also contend that the decision-making processes of transnational supermarket chains are typically “black-boxed.” The Euro-Retailer Produce Working Group is presented as a case of private governance by transnational supermarket chains. We conclude by examining the limitations and long-term efficacy of a system of private governance in the global agro-food system.



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