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World Development Vol. 32, No. 5, pp.

725–743, 2004
Ó 2004 Published by Elsevier Ltd.
Printed in Great Britain 0305-750X/$ - see front matter

The Globalization of Organic Agro-Food Networks

Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO, USA
Summary. — This article analyzes the booming world trade in organic agro-foods such as tropical
products, counterseasonal fresh produce, and processed foods. Research focuses on expanding
South–North networks linking major US and European markets with major production regions,
particularly in Latin America. Employing a commodity network approach, I analyze organic
production, distribution, and consumption patterns and the roles of social, political, and economic
actors in consolidating international trade. Organic certification proves central to network
governance, shaping product specifications, production parameters, and enterprise participation.
My analysis identifies key contradictions between mainstream agro-industrial and alternative
movement conventions in global organic networks.
Ó 2004 Published by Elsevier Ltd.

Key words — organic, globalization, trade, commodity chains, certification, regulation

1. INTRODUCTION between European countries, and exports from

Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa to
Over the past two decades the organic agro- the top markets. The second strand is com-
food system has been transformed from a prised of periphery-core, or South–North,
loosely coordinated local network of producers trade and involves a growing number of pro-
and consumers to a globalized system of for- duction sites, most importantly in Argentina,
mally regulated trade which links socially and Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and other
spatially distant sites of production and con- Latin American countries which ship to major
sumption. Global organic sales are estimated at Northern organic markets. This article focuses
roughly US$20 billion per year and are growing on the understudied South–North trade, since
at close to 20% annually in major North this best captures the increasing social and
American and European markets (Yussefi & spatial distance inherent in the global organic
Willer, 2003). Though organic products make agro-food system.
up a minor share of the world food market, the This investigation utilizes a commodity net-
proliferation of certified commodities and their work approach to unravel the multifaceted,
increasing availability in mainstream super- uneven, and often contested dimensions of
markets have made organics the fastest growing globalization within the organic agro-food
segment of the food industry. Escalating sector. This approach follows the lead of
demand for organic foods in the global North commodity chain research in analyzing global
has fueled burgeoning imports of tropical commodity flows and firm relations linking
products, counterseasonal fresh produce, and production, distribution, and consumption. Yet
commodities produced locally but in insufficient it responds to recent calls for a more nuanced
quantities. Though scholars and policymakers analysis of the institutions and relations of
have remarked on the rising international power, emphasizing the role of social and
organic trade, it has to date received little aca-
demic analysis.
This article helps address this lacuna, ana-
lyzing the economic, social, and political glob- * This article has benefited from the constructive com-
alization of organic agro-food networks. The ments of the editor and anonymous journal reviewers
new international organic trade has two central and from research funded by The John D. and Catherine
strands, both supplying key markets in the T. MacArthur Foundation, Program on Global Security
global North. The largest strand is character- and Sustainability. The views presented here are the
ized by inter-core country trade, dominated by responsibility of the author alone. Final revision accep-
US exports to Europe and Japan, trade ted: 21 November 2003.

political, as well as economic, actors and commodity or set of related commodities.

actions in constructing, maintaining, and There are four complementary traditions, each
potentially transforming organic networks. of which highlights critical facets of producer
Affirming the importance of this broadened consumer networks: commodity systems ana-
approach, I find that social movements and lysis focuses on national labor organization and
state actors have been as important as eco- relations (Friedland, 1984), commodity chain
nomic firms in fueling and regulating the analysis focuses on worldwide temporal and
South–North organic trade. My analysis illu- spacial relations (Hopkins & Wallerstein,
minates key contradictions within the global 1986), filiere analysis focuses on national
trade in ‘‘certified organic’’ commodities political regulation and institutions (Lauret,
between mainstream market conventions–– 1983), while value chain analysis focuses on
rooted in efficiency, standardization, and price international business organization and profit-
competition––and alternative movement con- ability (Porter, 1990). 1 Gereffi (1994) outlines
ventions––linked to personal relationships of one of the most coherent and well-known
trust, ecological diversity, and social justice. I approaches. His global commodity chain
conclude that while globalization has to date framework analyzes (a) the interlinking of
extended market conventions more rapidly products and services in a sequence of value-
than movement commitments, promising new added activities, (b) the organizational and
initiatives are revitalizing movement norms and spatial configuration of enterprises forming
practices in global organic networks. production and marketing networks, and (c)
Given the relatively recent and rather unex- the governance structure determining resource
pected growth in the organic trade, there are allocation along the commodity chain. The
currently few sources of comparable interna- strength of commodity studies is well demon-
tional data upon which to base this analysis. strated in analyses of the global economic
National and international organizations structure, spatial configuration, and social
responsible for collecting agricultural produc- organization of agro-food (Bernstein, 1996;
tion, agro-food trade, and food consumption Dolan & Humphrey, 2000; Gibbon, 2001a;
figures have traditionally not distinguished Hughes, 2000; Ponte, 2002a, 2002b; Raynolds,
organic from conventional commodities. This 1994; Talbot, 2002) and manufacturing net-
analysis must thus piece together a wide range works (Dicken, 1998; Gereffi & Kaplinsky,
of data. While the paucity of crossnational data 2001; Gereffi & Korzeniewicz, 1994; Henderson
means that this should be viewed as an & Dicken, 2002).
exploratory study, sufficient information is now Much of the commodity chain literature
available to permit analysis of the general focuses on the governance structures defining
parameters of production, distribution, and the intercountry and interfirm distribution of
consumption in the South–North organic financial, material, labor, and organizational
trade. Key sources used in this study include resources. Research demonstrates how lead
United Nations reports, national government firms set and enforce production processes and
documents from around the world, organic schedules, product quantities and specifica-
industry group and movement organization tions, and firm participation (Humphrey &
publications, and the growing secondary liter- Schmitz, 2001). Governance structures prove
ature. Data from written sources are supported particularly important in shaping the opportu-
through the author’s ongoing research on nities for product upgrading and the barriers to
organic coffee and banana production in Latin entry for firms across the commodity chain
America and the Caribbean. (Dolan & Humphrey, 2000; Fitter & Kaplin-
sky, 2001; Gibbon, 2001a; Kaplinsky, 2000;
Talbot, 2002). Gereffi (1994, 1999) identifies
2. GLOBAL ORGANIC COMMODITY two ideal types of governance in the manufac-
NETWORKS turing sector: traditional ‘‘producer driven’’
chains where the concentration of capital and
A vibrant development studies literature proprietary knowledge allows producers to
pursues related, though somewhat varied, dominate the industry and increasingly preva-
commodity frameworks which analyze the lent ‘‘buyer driven’’ chains where brand-name
interconnected processes of raw material pro- distributors dominate the industry via their
duction, processing, shipping, distribution, control over the design process and market
marketing, and consumption embodied in a access.

Recent studies extend Gereffi’s producer/ requirements in restricting access to interna-

buyer driven analogy into the agro-food sector, tional markets (Reardon, Codron, Busch, Bin-
suggesting that powerful buyers increasingly gen, & Harris, 2001).
govern enterprise participation, production A number of authors broadly aligned with
processes, and product specifications in inter- the commodity chain tradition have recently
national supply chains (Dolan & Humphrey, called for a more nuanced analysis of gover-
2000; Fold, 2002; Gibbon, 2001a, 2001b; Ponte, nance which identifies different sources, forms,
2002a; Talbot, 2002). While studies of lead and levels of control across the commodity
firms in agro-food networks have proved chain (Dolan & Humphrey, 2000; Fold, 2002;
insightful, they frequently challenge a simple Ponte, 2002a; Raikes et al., 2000; Smith et al.,
dichotomous characterization of producer vs. 2002). Responding to this call, I develop a
buyer driven chains. First, the nature of lead commodity network approach which provides
firms appears to vary significantly. Among a less structuralist view of the complex relations
commodity chains which can be characterized linking production and consumption. A com-
as ‘‘buyer-driven,’’ some are driven by large modity network approach grows out of the
supermarket retailers, but others are dominated global commodity chain tradition and main-
by processors, global branders, or international tains the critical analytical focus on issues of
traders (Dolan & Humphrey, 2000; Gibbon, governance. Yet as outlined below, it draws
2001a; Ponte, 2002a). Second, agro-food com- also on contributions in consumption studies,
modity networks are often characterized by network analysis, and convention approaches.
important internal variations, with different While a commodity network framework is
types of enterprises dominating different seg- developed here in relation to recent innovations
ments or different regional strands within a in the agro-food literature, there are parallel
given commodity chain (Fold, 2002; Ponte, debates going on in the industrial literature and
2002b; Talbot, 2002). 2 And third, the amount some key insights are clearly anticipated in
of control lead enterprises exert over condi- early commodity studies. 3
tions across agro-food commodity chains is Though one of the major strengths of the
variable, with some chains being much commodity chain framework lies in the
more strongly ‘‘driven’’ than others (Dolan & injunction to analyze relations from production
Humphrey, 2000; Gibbon, 2001a; Ponte, to consumption, few studies give serious
2002a). attention to actors and actions in the realm of
Analysis of commodity chain governance consumption. To challenge this historically
traditionally gives primacy to economic actors, productionist bias in agro-food studies, Mars-
treating political conditions as contextual den and his colleagues have called for a
(Kaplinsky, 2000). Gereffi (1995) notes that the ‘‘political economy of consumption’’ which
institutional framework established by national reorients analysis from ‘‘commodity chains’’ to
and international policies shapes the capacities ‘‘food supply chains’’ (Marsden, Munton,
of lead firms. Yet within the agro-food sector–– Ward, & Whatmore, 1996; Marsden, Banks, &
one of the most highly regulated sectors in the Bristow, 2000). The pursuit of a more balanced
global economy––political forces are much analysis of production and consumption rela-
more than contextual. As Ponte (2002a, 2002b) tions is linked to an appreciation of the sym-
argues, political regulation is central to agro- bolic as well as material construction of
food chain governance and guides both the commodities (Appadurai, 1986). Fine (1994),
intercountry and interfirm distribution of for example, explores the cultural as well as
financial, technical, and other resources. material relations embodied in the system of
Research documents the importance of inter- mainstream food provisioning. Developing
national and national polices in regulating these ideas further, scholars have analyzed how
world trade, governing both the composition of particular food categories, such as organic
agro-food exports from the global South foods, are ideologically and materially con-
(Gibbon, 2001a, 2001b; Mather, 1999) and structed as ‘‘specialty foods’’ oriented toward
their entry into markets in the global North ‘‘specialized consumers’’ (Morgan & Murdoch,
(Dolan & Humphrey, 2000; Fold, 2001; Ray- 2000; Murdoch, Marsden, & Banks, 2000).
nolds & Murray, 1998; Stevens, 2001). The Analysis of mainstream and specialized food
intersection of political and economic forces in networks highlights the potentially important
chain governance is clearly evidenced in the role of individual and collective consumers, as
rising importance of standards and traceability well as economic and political actors, in

shaping meanings and practices across agro- existing structural feature of commodity
food networks. chains, but as the relations through which key
Moving from the language of commodity actors create, maintain, and potentially trans-
‘‘chains’’ to commodity ‘‘networks,’’ as I do in form network activities.
this article, helps portray the complex web of Recent work on conventions can help frame
material and nonmaterial relationships con- such an analysis of governance, highlighting
necting the social, political, and economic how social, political, and economic actors
actors enmeshed in the life of a commodity. As engage and enforce particular ideas and prac-
a number of authors suggest, forgoing the tices across commodity networks. Convention
‘‘chain’’ analogy helps avoid an overly struc- theory originates in the French literature (Al-
tural conceptualization of production, distri- laire & Boyer, 1995; Boltanski & Thevenot,
bution, and consumption as a linear sequence 1991; Eymard-Duvernay, 1995; Sylvander,
of economic activities (Hughes, 2000; Smith 1995; Valceschini & Nicolas, 1995a) and has
et al., 2002). Network analysis builds on Pola- recently contributed to agro-food studies
nyi’s (1957) argument that market activities are available in English (Daviron, 2002; Murdoch
never purely economic but are embedded in et al., 2000; Ponte, 2002a; Raynolds, 2002).
social norms and institutions which mediate This framework focuses on (i) the norms and
their effects. In the current era, informational values shaping divergent assessments of qual-
flows are seen as critical in shaping our ‘‘net- ity, (ii) the qualifications, rules, and procedures
work society’’ (Castells, 1996). Research in coordinating exchange relations, and (iii) the
economic sociology analyzes how individuals, organizational forms which correspond to and
firms, government authorities, and nongovern- uphold particular qualifications (Allaire & Bo-
mental organizations (NGOs) are involved in yer, 1995; Boltanski & Thevenot, 1991). Anal-
economic transactions and how these different ysis of conventions––the constellations of ideas,
actors both shape and are shaped by network practices, and institutions comprising and
relations (Granovetter, 1985). The network guiding relations of production, exchange, and
concept is increasingly used in studies of the consumption––is theoretically compatible with
horizontal and vertical relations among global and complementary to an analysis of agro-food
manufacturing firms (Henderson et al., 2002). networks and their governance. 4
Within agro-food studies, network analysis Thevenot distinguishes between (1) commer-
often draws on less structuralist actor network cial conventions, based on price, (2) domestic
approaches (Latour, 1993; Law, 1994). As conventions, based on trust and drawing on
Whatmore and Thorne (1997, p. 89) suggest, attachments to place and tradition, (3) indus-
this perspective provides ‘‘an understanding of trial conventions, based on efficiency and reli-
global networks as performative orderings ability linked to formal testing and standards,
(always in the making), rather than systemic and (4) civic conventions, based on evaluations
entities (always already constituted).’’ Analysis of general societal benefits. These four ideal
focuses on how localized actors maintain agro- types can help identify the differences between
food networks across time and space (Lockie & socio-economic modalities (Boltanski &
Kitto, 2000). A network approach appears Thevenot, 1991). Yet in actuality these con-
particularly critical in analyzing agro-food stellations of quality assessment, enterprise
commodity areas which are strongly influenced character, and network coordination are con-
by consumer groups and deeply embedded in tinuously negotiated and may compete even
nonmarket norms, such as expanding interna- within a given sphere (Allaire & Boyer, 1995;
tional networks for socially and environmen- Eymard-Duvernay, 1995). As Raikes et al.
tally ‘‘friendly’’ food, timber, and flowers (2000, p. 408) suggest, commodity networks
(Barrientos, 2000; Blowfield, Malins, Maynard, ‘‘may be considered to be more or less coherent
& Nelson, 1999; Hughes, 2001; Raynolds, or articulated, depending upon the extent to
2000). But while actor network analysis usefully which a single quality convention reigns.’’
describes how networks are discursively and Convention research in the agro-food sector
materially maintained, it typically obscures focuses on the decline in the Fordist regime of
network politics. I suggest that agro-food net- mass production/consumption and the post-
work analysis can refine its political edge by Fordist ascendance of ‘‘quality’’ in governing
increasing its attention to governance––the production and consumption (Ponte, 2002a;
analytical core of commodity chain analysis–– Valceschini & Nicolas, 1995a). In convention
where governance is understood not as a pre- terminology, this turn toward quality, as

opposed to quantity, challenges the dominance initiatives have promoted what convention
of ‘‘commercial’’ principles rooted in price in theorists refer to as domestic and civic con-
coordinating agro-food networks. Quality ventions, based on personal trust, local
dynamics fuel the rise of divergent standards knowledge, ecological diversity, and social jus-
and the differentiation of food products (Da- tice, directly countering traditional industrial
viron, 2002; Ponte, 2002c; Valceschini & Nic- and commercial conventions based on effi-
olas, 1995b). Though product differentiation ciency, standardization, and price competition
can be achieved while upholding the ‘‘indus- (Arce & Marsden, 1993; Miele, 2001; Murdoch
trial’’ norms, practices, and enterprises which et al., 2000). Over recent decades Northern
comprise the modern agro-industrial system, organic initiatives have been consolidated and
research suggests that some specialty food institutionalized, often reasserting mainstream
networks may uphold ‘‘domestic’’ conventions agro-industrial conventions which threaten the
rooted in personal trust and attachment to movement’s alternative principles, enterprises,
place––i.e., locally grown and regional appel- and exchange relations (Guthman, 1998; To-
lation systems––or ‘‘civic’’ conventions rooted vey, 1997).
in assessments of broad social or ecological The consolidation of organic meanings and
benefits––i.e., fair trade and organic systems practices was extended internationally with the
(Ponte, 2002a; Raynolds, 2002). Convention 1972 founding of the International Federation
studies argue that these alternative modalities of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM)
are likely to be repeatedly challenged by by groups from Great Britain, France, Sweden,
entrenched traditional commercial and indus- South Africa, and the United States. IFOAM
trial conventions (Sylvander, 1995). established a singular organic definition based
To date no major study has analyzed the on farm management practices involving the
ideas, practices, and institutions which com- use of natural methods of enhancing soil fer-
prise and coordinate the increasingly global tility and resisting disease, the rejection of
organic agro-food network. It is to this task synthetic chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and
that I turn, pursuing the commodity network pharmaceuticals, and the protection of eco-
approach developed here to explore how key systems. 5 Acceptance of this organic definition
social, political, and economic actors initiated, has spread with IFOAMs recent expansion to
maintain, and could potentially transform the include members from 100 countries. IFOAMs
substantial trade in organic commodities pro- roots remain visible in its European head-
duced in the global South for consumption in quarters and the continued domination of its
the global North. executive board by Northern affiliates, but 75%
of its 750 individual and institutional members
are now based in the global South (FAO,
3. THE INSTITUTIONALIZATION AND 1999a). Though its current policies reflect
REGULATION OF THE GLOBAL entrenched Northern priorities, IFOAMs
ORGANIC TRADE democratic structure allows its new Southern
membership to influence the organization’s
The organic concept has hybrid international future (IFOAM, 2003a).
roots: its key principle––that healthy ecological IFOAM, like many national organic groups,
systems promote agriculture––is often attrib- embodies sharp contradictions between its
uted to a British writer reflecting on Asian original movement-oriented and more recent
peasant farming. Yet organic meanings and market-oriented organic norms and practices. 6
practices have been defined largely in the global IFOAM (2003a) maintains its holistic move-
North. Methods of organic, or what the ment-oriented mission: ‘‘Our goal is the
Europeans call ecological, farming were ini- worldwide adoption of ecologically, socially
tially developed by isolated individuals and and economically sound systems that are based
groups in Europe, North America, and Japan. on the principles of Organic Agriculture.’’ But
Northern movements in the 1960s popularized its ‘‘major aims and activities’’ include key
organic ideas, criticizing the destructive nature market-oriented functions such as establishing
of agro-industrial practices and creating local international organic standards and certifica-
production/distribution/consumption systems tion procedures and promulgating the interna-
linking small-scale organic farms, distribution tional equivalency of organic quality claims.
via food cooperatives, box schemes, and farm- IFOAMs role in the governance of organic
ers markets, and wholesome diets. Diverse local agro-food networks hinges largely on its

international promotion of certification systems standards and consumer/movement groups

established by Northern producers and orga- fighting to maintain organic principles. 7
nizations to regulate organic quality and con- Arguments regarding the importance of inter-
solidate markets (Allen & Kovach, 2000; national equivalency in bolstering US exports
Guthman, 1998). IFOAM’s (2003b) efforts to dissipated pressures to undermine organic
define and enforce ‘‘certified-organic’’ quality standards (Chapman, 2000; Zygmont, 2000a)
specifications bolster industrial and commercial and the 2002 US federal rules largely uphold
conventions at the expense of organic move- EU and IFOAM criteria. Japan, Canada,
ment-oriented domestic and civic values, prac- Australia, New Zealand and many other
tices, and institutions on three major fronts. Northern countries have recently established
First, IFOAM promotes the codification of similar standards, harmonizing rules and pro-
formal written standards which restrict organic cedures across the world’s major organic mar-
practices in accordance with generalized rules kets (Campbell & Liepins, 2001; Zygmont,
rather than socio-ecological sustainability cri- 2000b).
teria. Organic standards are defined largely In 1999 the United Nations Codex Alimen-
through the specification of acceptable and tarius Commission reasserted at an interna-
unacceptable agricultural production inputs, tional level the authority of standards,
undermining more holistic civic or locality monitoring, and certification in governing
specific organic norms and practices. Second, organic agro-food networks. Codex’s organic
IFOAM upholds rigorous third-party moni- standards largely follow EU and IFOAM
toring which enforces uniform practices across specifications (Schmid, 2000). Codex promotes
organic networks and elevates industrial claims technical production norms and industrial
of scientific measurement and objective over- verification procedures, defining organic as a
sight over domestic forms of network coordi- ‘‘labelling term that denotes products that have
nation based on trust and local knowledge. been produced in accordance with organic
IFOAMs industrial style verification, auditing, production standards and certified by a duly
and documentation procedures are widely constituted certification body or authority’’
applied, even beyond the 59 IFOAM accredited (FAO/WHO, 2001). This definition ignores the
organic certification agencies which certify a organic movement’s civic and domestic princi-
third of world trade (Van Elzakker, 2000). ples and affirms the position of commercial and
Third, IFOAM extends traditional commercial industrial conventions in shaping global
conventions by promoting the superiority of organic norms, enterprises, and exchanges.
‘‘certified-organic’’ labeled products over all Codex unifies the global market and promotes
other (naturally occurring or industrially trade by requiring that its 160 member coun-
derived) foods, cementing a singular organic tries accept imports certified as organic
quality claim which can be advertised to cap- according to Codex guidelines, irrespective of
ture price premiums and market shares. national regulations. Table 1 outlines organic
Initially promulgated by IFOAM and standards institutionalized by IFOAM, major
national private voluntary certification organi- Northern governments, and now Codex.
zations, organic standards, inspections, and In the global South interest in regulating
certifications are increasingly regulated by organic quality claims has come largely from
government authorities. European govern- producers seeking access and legitimacy in
ments established laws regulating organic cer- Northern markets. Producers in Latin America,
tification and labeling in the 1980s (Michelsen, Africa, and Asia have joined with exporters and
2001; Tovey, 1997). The European Union (EU) certifying organizations to form organic trade
harmonized these regulations, setting organic associations which work with Northern dis-
criteria for crop and livestock production fol- tributors to create South–North trade circuits
lowing IFOAM standards (Barrett, Browne, (Scialabba, 2000). Many of these individuals
Harris, & Cadoret, 2002). In the United States, and groups have joined IFOAM to enhance
states also became involved in organic certifi- their position in Northern markets. Since
cation as the market expanded in the 1980s internationally traded items lose their valuable
(Guthman, 1998; Klonsky, 2000). Conflicts organic labels if they do not adhere to import
between market and movement orientations country or Codex standards, organic trade
have been clearly evident in the recent effort to associations in the South have typically sup-
formulate US national organic standards, with ported local certification systems which apply
agro-industrial interests lobbying for weak Northern standards.

Table 1. Basic organic standards

Conversion At least a 1 year conversion period before start of annual production cycle; 2 years for
Certification and Initial inspection followed by annual visits to each farm unit by monitors from
monitoring accredited certifying organization
Documentation Map and list of registered fields. Complete records of farm input use and yields
Planting material Must be chemically untreated; no genetically modified organisms (GMOs)
Fertilizers Organic soil enhancing processes must be used. No synthetic fertilizers or sewage sludge
Plant and disease Use of synthetic herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides prohibited except those on
control approved list
Livestock Feed must be 100% organic; use of antibiotics prohibited. Some restrictions on animal
Transport and Chain of custody must be maintained: no co-mingling with non-organic products
Processing No irradiation. Synthetic additives can be used from approved list
Labeling Products labeled organic must have >95% organic inputs
Sources: IFOAM (2003a), FAO/WHO (2001) and FAO/ITC/CTA (2001).

Six Asian and two Latin American countries ment regulations bolster the authority of
in the global South have already instituted organic certification systems and consolidate
national organic standards; many other coun- the world market for certified products. Certi-
tries are now developing standards (Herrmann, fication systems set and enforce production and
2003). Organic policies in most Southern product specifications in countries of the global
countries share three major goals: (a) securing a South exporting organics to Northern markets.
place for traditional exports in the face of Quality dynamics are, as convention theory
increasingly competitive international markets, suggests, pivotal in shaping the South–North
(b) offsetting declining prices for primary organic trade. Despite the organic movement’s
exports by tapping lucrative new markets for historical commitment to domestic and civic
labeled commodities, and (c) preserving foreign values, rooted in personal trust, local knowl-
exchange by reducing imports of expensive edge, ecological diversity, and social justice,
agro-chemicals. Many governments in Latin organic certification appears to reassert indus-
America (e.g., the Dominican Republic, Mex- trial and commercial quality conventions,
ico, Costa Rica, Chile, and Argentina) and based on efficiency, standardization, bureau-
some in Asia and Africa (e.g., Turkey, Tunisia, cratization, and price competitiveness. Under-
Egypt, Ghana, India, and Korea) directly or standing how these competing conventions are
indirectly subsidize organic exports (Scialabba, negotiated and embodied within the norms,
2000). The Argentinian government has gone practices, and institutions which comprise
furthest to bolster exports by instituting Euro- global organic networks requires more detailed
pean organic rules and gaining designation as analysis of consumption and production
the only Southern country on the European spheres.
Union’s six member list of ‘‘third-countries’’
permitted access to the EU market without
additional inspections (Zygmont, 2000b). 4. ORGANIC DISTRIBUTION AND
This brief analysis of the institutionalization CONSUMPTION
of the global organic sector points to the
intersecting roles of social movement groups, The world market for certified organic foods
economic firms, and legal authorities in gov- is estimated to be worth US$23–25 billion in
erning organic agro-food networks through 2003 and is growing at roughly 19% per year
powerful certification systems based on formal (Kortbech-Olesen, 2003, p. 21). Though
standards, monitoring, and labeling. Developed organic products make up a minor share of the
first in the global North, IFOAM has taken the world market, soaring sales particularly in the
lead in advancing ‘‘certified-organic’’ standards United States and Europe have made organics
and monitoring procedures in international the fastest growing segment of the global
arenas. National and multinational govern- food industry (FAO/ITC/CTA, 2001). The

South–North trade in certified organic com- Table 2. Major international organic markets
modities is experiencing, and is projected to Country Estimated Annual growth
continue to experience, the most rapid growth retail sales 2003 rate of retail
(FAO, 1999a). Organic consumption and dis- (US$1,000,000) sales (%)
tribution trends in major Northern markets are
clearly shaping the rise, configuration, and United States 11,000–13,000 15–20
future trajectory of global organic networks. Germany 2,800–3,100 5–10
Global organic market growth is consumer United Kingdom 1,550–1,750 10–15
led and can be attributed largely to increasing Italy 1,250–1,400 5–15
France 1,200–1,300 5–10
demand among a growing number of Northern
Canada 850–1,000 10–20
consumers concerned about health and, to a
Switzerland 725–775 5–15
lesser degree, environmental issues (ITC, 1999;
Netherlands 425–475 5–10
Kortbech-Olesen, 2002). Initially the domain of
Japan 350–450 –
a counterculture minority, organic consump-
World total 23,000–25,000
tion has spread to a larger, more mainstream,
population seeking to avoid pesticides and Source: ITC, 2003 data cited in Kortbech-Olesen (2003,
other food contaminants. In the 1990s organic p. 24).
sales soared as consumer confidence in agro-
industrial foods was eroded by (a) proliferating
pharmaceuticals, like recombinant bovine US$12 billion) and the highest current growth
growth hormone (Bgh) and genetically modi- rates (reaching 20% annually). One-third of US
fied organisms (GMOs), in dairy and crop consumers currently buy organic products and
production and (b) food scares involving large- organics now comprise 2% of the food market
scale outbreaks of ‘‘mad cow’’ disease and (Haumann, 2003). Organic sales in the United
dioxin and E. coli food contamination (DuPuis, States have extended in recent years beyond the
2000). Consumer distrust of conventional food so-called ‘‘true naturals’’ or ‘‘hippie activists’’
supplies remains high, particularly in Europe to include a much larger group of affluent and
(Miele, 2001). Around the world people buy well educated ‘‘health seekers’’ (Hartman
organic food because they see it as safer for Group, 2000). Canada has recently joined the
themselves, for farmers, and for the environ- ranks of major organic markets, with growth
ment (FAO, 2000). Though organic certifica- trends similar to those in the United States.
tion is not based on explicit health claims, the Japan also has an important emerging organic
majority of consumers identify organic labels as market.
symbols of food safety and quality. For exam- Organic products were once largely produced
ple, 80% of US shoppers report purchasing locally, but despite impressive growth in
organics for health reasons; 67% cite additional domestic production, demand in North Amer-
environmental concerns (OTA, 2001). ica and Europe far outstrips supply. Though
European organic markets have expanded preferences for local organic food persist,
the most rapidly over the past decade due to Northern countries are increasing their reliance
relatively high consumer consciousness, mas- on organic imports, particularly from the
sive food scares, and popular rejection of global South (FAO/ITC/CTA, 2001). As mar-
GMOs. Europeans currently consume half of kets have grown, the range of organic items
all the organic products sold worldwide (Willer demanded has increased: moving beyond local
& Richter, 2003, p. 79). As noted in Table 2, seasonal produce and bulk grains, to include a
Germany has the largest market, followed by wide array of tropical products (such as bana-
the United Kingdom, Italy, and France. nas, coffee, tea, cocoa, and spices), counter-
Though organic growth has begun to slow in seasonal produce (such as apples, pears, lettuce,
the most mature markets, European sales are and asparagus), frozen and canned produce,
still rising by 10% per year. Organics have meat, eggs, milk, cheese, and processed foods
acquired the greatest market share (over 2% of (such as baby food, pasta, ketchup, and fruit
food sales) in Switzerland, Denmark, and drinks). European organic imports are high,
Austria. With per capita expenditures of US$72 comprising 70% of sales in the United King-
per year, the Danes lead the world in organic dom, 60% in Germany and the Netherlands,
purchases (Willer & Richter, 2003, p. 80). The and 25% in Denmark (Lohr, 1998, p. 1126).
United States has by far the largest national Europe imports large quantities of organic
market for organic products (valued at roughly tropical products, counter-seasonal produce,

and grains from the global South, with addi- handle fully 96% of organic sales in the Neth-
tional imports from other Northern countries erlands. Farm stalls and box schemes are
(Zygmont, 2000b). The United States is both a flourishing in many parts of Europe and
major organic exporter and importer: exporting account for over a quarter of the German
goods to Europe, Canada, and Japan and organic market. Yet mainstream supermarkets
importing tropical and counterseasonal prod- are clearly increasing their hold over European
ucts from the global South (Haumann, 2003). organic markets (Willer & Richter, 2003).
Due to limited domestic production, Canada Supermarkets dominate sales in Switzerland
and Japan rely heavily on organic imports. and the United Kingdom and control 90% of
In recent years, mainstream distributors have sales in Denmark. Supermarkets also appear to
greatly increased the availability of domestic be taking the lead in developing organic mar-
and imported organic commodities throughout kets in Canada and Japan (Kortbech-Olesen,
the North, with supermarket sales representing 2003).
the most dynamic area of market growth (Yu- The mainstreaming of organic foods in
ssefi & Willer, 2003). Once supplied only by Northern markets has critical implications for
alternative movement venues such as farmers the governance of domestic and international
markets, box schemes, and small food coops, supply networks, delimiting acceptable pro-
organic products have made dramatic inroads duction processes, product specifications, and
in conventional distribution channels. Most types of enterprise participation. Organic items
major supermarket chains and many institu- sold in alternative outlets continue to come
tional suppliers now offer organics, taking largely from small, often local, producers ori-
advantage of their popularity and their 20–40% ented toward domestic and civic movement
price premiums (FAO/ITC/CTA, 2001, p. 6). values (DeLind, 2000; Marsden et al., 2000).
Yet as noted in Table 3, distribution patterns But organic items sold in mainstream markets
remain varied. In the United States, 62% of are typically sourced via conventional distri-
organic sales are handled by natural food bution chains which uphold industrial and
stores. Though this category includes numerous commercial conventions rooted in efficiency,
food coops, sales are concentrated in a few big standardization, and price competitiveness
upscale chains like Whole Foods and Wild (Dimitri & Richman, 2000). The power of
Oats. Conventional supermarkets are also supermarkets to dictate terms for food suppli-
augmenting their sales and now hold a third of ers––including organics––is greatest in the
the US organic market. Farmers markets and United Kingdom where three retailers control
other direct sales outlets are thriving, but they the market (Dolan & Humphrey, 2000). Tesco
account for only a fraction of US sales (Dimitri and Sainesbury each command over 30% of
& Richman, 2000). In Europe, movement-ori- organic sales (Morgan & Murdoch, 2000;
ented outlets continue to play a more important Rowan, 2000). Since both market largely via
role (FAO/ITC/CTA, 2001; Miele, 2001). Small house-brand lines, these UK retailers virtually
alternative shops remain very popular and rule their national and international organic
supply networks: ‘‘not only dictating product
specifications and quality but also the planting,
Table 3. Organic distribution systems in major markets harvesting, packaging, transportation, and
Country Conven- Natural Direct
delivery of products’’ (FAO/ITC/CTA, 2001, p.
tional food and and
196). Organic chain of custody requirements
super specialty other facilitate distributor control upstream to the
markets (%) stores (%) sales (%) point of production and aid broader retailer
efforts to impose traceability regulations in
United States 31 62 7 international food markets (Reardon et al.,
Germany 26 46 28 2001). In the United States, where food retail-
Great Britain 74 15 11 ing is not so clearly monopolized, supermarkets
Italy 23 60 17 vie with powerful agro-food corporations for
France 38 46 16 control over mainstream organic supply net-
Switzerland 57 21 22 works. Transnational corporations like Heinz,
Netherlands 2 96 2 Gerber, and General Mills have recently
Denmark 90 2 8 become major players in the organic food
Source: Hamm and Michelsen (2000) and OTA (2000) industry (Rowan, 2000). Agro-industrial cor-
data cited in Willer and Yussefi (2001, pp. 71, 85). porate products, often disguised using bought

out ‘‘natural sounding’’ brand names, are promote domestic and civic conventions and
increasingly found in mainstream US retail supply small quantities of nonstandardized
outlets alongside house-brand organic lines. wholesome foods. In sum, what we appear to
Though US-based agro-food corporations and be seeing is a bifurcation between market- and
retailers do not have as much control over their movement-oriented organic distribution sys-
supply networks as UK supermarkets, follow- tems and consumers.
ing conventional business practices, they typi-
cally bypass local organic sources and establish
strategic alliances and supply contracts with 5. ORGANIC PRODUCTION AND TRADE
national and international producers and
shippers to ensure large, continuous, and Over the past decade, production of certified
inexpensive organic supplies (Dimitri & Rich- organic commodities has grown rapidly
man, 2000). throughout the global South, with 90 countries
While Northern organic market growth has now producing organic goods in commercial
been fueled by mounting consumer distrust of quantities, the vast majority for export (ITC,
the agro-industrial food system, that growth 1999). Escalating organic demand, particularly
has paradoxically fostered the rise of conven- in Europe and North America, has generated a
tional agro-industrial norms, practices, and dynamic South–North trade worth an esti-
market relations in national and international mated US$500 million in 1997 (Blowfield et al.,
organic networks. Dominant agro-industrial 1999). The South–North organic trade is
production and retail corporations control growing, and is expected to continue to grow,
growing mainstream organic markets, uphold- at over 20% per year (FAO, 1999a, 1999b).
ing industrial and commercial conventions in Consumption preferences and institutional
the establishment of large-volume, highly regi- relations in the North configure the shape and
mented, long-distance supply networks and the trajectory of certified organic export sectors in
sales of standardized (often processed) prod- the global South, in many ways reproducing
ucts for affluent consumers. Formal legally conventional global trade patterns and
sanctioned organic certification standards and inequalities.
monitoring procedures help tighten corporate Table 4 outlines the geographic spread and
control across commodity networks, while composition of organic production in the
organic labels facilitate sales in anonymous global South. Eighteen African and Middle
retail venues. But despite the mainstreaming of Eastern countries engage in organic production
organics in major markets, movement oriented and, as in other high-value sectors, virtually all
organic distribution systems appear to be certified output is exported to Europe or the
thriving. Dedicated consumers continue to United States. Uganda and Turkey lead the
support alternative organic networks which region in certified area and producer numbers:

Table 4. Organic production and export characteristics in regions of the global South
Africa and Middle Easta Asiab Latin Americac
Number of organic 18 20 23
producer countries
Organic hectares 254,826 583,192 4,886,967
Number of organic 57,510 60,404 110,661
Major commodities Cotton, dried fruit, fresh Tea, cotton, coffee, herbs, Coffee, cocoa, sugar, tea,
fruits & vegetables, herbs, spices, rice, fresh fruits & cotton, fresh & processed
spices, coffee, cocoa, ses- vegetables, soybeans, hon- fruits & vegetables, grains,
ame, honey, sugar, nuts, ey, nuts, sugar soybeans, nuts, honey,
tea, oil crops herbs, spices, oil crops,
Sources: Compiled from CEDOPEX (1999), ITC (1999) and Yussefi and Willer (2003).
Does not include South Africa.
Includes the former Soviet Union and Papua New Guinea; but not Japan, Australia, or New Zealand.
Includes South and Central America, Caribbean, and Mexico; but not Cuba.

Uganda is a major producer of organic fresh in Latin America’s top producer countries. 8
fruits and vegetables and coffee; Turkey is the Argentina has the greatest organic area––with
world’s largest supplier of organic cotton three million certified hectares (1.89% of its
(Marquardt, 2001; Walaga, 2003). With pro- farm land)––and certified land has grown 550
duction in 20 countries, Asia surpasses Africa fold over the past decade (Lernoud, 2003).
and the Middle East in the number of organic Brazil and Mexico also have large and rapidly
hectares and enterprises. China and the Uk- expanding certified areas, representing 0.08 and
raine, followed by India and Indonesia, are the 0.13% of their cultivated land. Organic acreage
major organic producers. Again the vast is smaller in Central America and the Carib-
majority of organic products are exported to bean, but it represents a larger share of farm
Europe, Japan, and the United States (in that area in Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic,
order), though domestic markets are emerging. Guatemala, and El Salvador (2.00%, 0.40%,
China is a major diversified organic supplier 0.33%, and 0.31% of acreage respectively).
with annual sales worth US$15 million; India is While 85% of Argentina’s organic land is in
a key exporter of organic spices and tea (Ma- large expanses of animal pasture (Foguelman &
suda, 2000; Thiers, 2002). Montenegro, 1999), smaller crop enterprises
Latin America represents the hub of certified predominate in the rest of the region, explain-
organic production in the global South, with ing why the majority of organic producers are
roughly as many organic hectares and produc- found in Mexico, Peru, Brazil, and the
ers as Asia, Africa, and the Middle East com- Dominican Republic.
bined. Latin America has 21% of the world’s Over 80% of Latin America’s organic output
certified land (4.9 million hectares) and 19% of is exported, reproducing the region’s historical
the world’s organic enterprises (110,000 pro- dependence on agro-export markets and vul-
ducers). Table 5 outlines sectoral characteristics nerability to global market fluctuations. Data

Table 5. Latin American certified organic production and exports

Country Certified Certified Exports Major export commoditiesc
hectaresa growersa (US $)b
Argentinad 3,192,000 1,900 20,000,000 Pears, apples, corn, soybeans, wheat
Brazile 275,576 14,866 Soybeans, sugar, oranges, coffee, tea
Mexicof 143,154 34,862 70,000,000 Coffee, bananas, apples, vegetables, sesame
Peru 84,908 19,685 Coffee, cotton
Paraguay 61,566 2,542 Soybeans, sugar
Bolivia 19,634 5,240 Cocoa, coffee, nuts, grains, dried fruit
Dominican 14,963 12,000 21,000,000 Bananas, coffee, cocoa, mangos, coconuts
Guatemala 14,746 2,830 Coffee, bananas, cashews, fruits, vegetables
Costa Ricah 8,974 3,569 Bananas, coffee, blackberries, sugar, palm
Nicaragua 7,000 2,000 Coffee, cotton, neem, beans
El Salvador 4,900 1,000 Coffee
Chilei 3,300 300 4,000,000 Asparagus, kiwis, raspberries, pumpkins,
Sources: CAPOC (2001), CEDOPEX (1999), Crucefix (1998, p. 6), FAO (2000), FAS/USDA (1999), FAS/USDA
(2000a), Foguelman and Montenegro (1999), Fonseca and Wilkinson (2003), Garcia (1997), ITC (1999), ProChile
(2001) and Yussefi and Willer (2003).
Area figures and producer numbers are from Yussefi and Willer (2003).
Exports figures are from listed country sources.
The top five exports are from Crucefix (1998, p. 6) and listed country sources.
Additional data come from CAPOC (2001) and Foguelman and Montenegro (1999).
Additional data come from FAS/USDA (1999) and Fonseca and Wilkinson (2003).
Additional data come from FAS/USDA (2000a).
Additional data come from CEDOPEX (1999) and FAO (2000).
Additional data come from Garcia (1997).
Additional data come from ProChile (2001).

on export earnings are incomplete, but Mexico mentation, auditing, and certification proce-
appears to lead the way with US$70 million in dures. Organic certification imposes
revenues. In terms of their contribution to the bureaucratic and industrial conventions which
national economy, organic exports are the most typically counter the traditional norms and
significant in the Dominican Republic, where practices of peasant producers.
they represent 10% of agro-export and three The work and expense of organic certifica-
percent of total export earnings (CEDOPEX, tion creates a major barrier to entry for small-
2001). In Argentina organic export earnings are scale Latin American producers wishing to
less important in both absolute and relative enter organic export networks and take
terms. Breaking somewhat with the region’s advantage of the 30–40% organic price premi-
historical reliance on US markets, most Latin ums (Crucefix, 1998). Certification standards
America organic exports go to fill mounting and procedures reflect their Northern origins
demand in Europe and only secondarily to the and are difficult to maintain under Southern
United States. 9 conditions (Barrett et al., 2002; Mutersbaugh,
Latin America exports a broader array of 2002). First, because organic production
organic products than any other region (see methods and standards fail to address tropical
Tables 4 and 5). Coffee is the region’s best agro-ecological realities. Second, because the
established and widely grown organic com- extensive farm level records required for certi-
modity, but the fastest growth appears to be in fication are burdensome for farmers who are
newer exports of organic fresh fruits and veg- typically only semi-literate. Third, because farm
etables, meat and dairy products, and process- inspections are expensive since farmers often
ing ingredients (FAO/ITC/CTA, 2001). have small, dispersed, un-mapped holdings. To
National organic export composition follows ensure that organic certification meets interna-
conventional agro-export patterns: Argentina, tional requirements, most certification in Latin
Brazil, and Chile ship large quantities of America is carried out by foreign agencies,
counterseasonal fresh produce, soybeans, and amplifying the costs. 10 IFOAM has developed
grains; Mexico, Costa Rica, El Salvador, an internal control system for small-scale pro-
Guatemala, Nicaragua, and the Dominican ducer groups using (a) local teams to commu-
Republic export large volumes of coffee and nicate criteria, assist in record keeping, and do
bananas. Yet many countries have acquired a yearly plot inspections and (b) monitors from
much stronger position in the organic trade accredited certifying agencies to oversee local
than they hold in overall world markets: Mex- controls and do annual spot visits to a sample
ico produces roughly a third of the world’s of parcels. But even using this system, organic
organic coffee (Rice, 2001); the Dominican certification is much more onerous and expen-
Republic produces more than half of the sive for producers in the South than in the
world’s organic bananas (CEDOPEX, 1999); North, with certification costs often represent-
Brazil and Paraguay together supply almost ing 5% of farm sales (Rundgren, 2000).
three-quarters of the world’s organic sugar Research in Mexico finds that for poor coffee
(Buzzanell, 2000). Upholding conventional producers to participate in organic networks
trade patterns, most Latin American organic they must have strong cooperatives able to
agro-foods are exported in unprocessed bulk collectivize the work and costs of certification
form, so that the substantial profits derived (Bray, Plaza Sanchez, & Contreras Murphy,
from processing and packaging accrue to 2002; Mutersbaugh, 2002; Nigh, 1997; Rice,
enterprises in Northern consuming countries. 2001) and that often these cooperatives use
It is often assumed that small-scale producers resources derived from their involvement in
will be the ones to participate in expanding social movement-based Fair Trade networks to
organic export sectors, due to organic farming’s pay for certification (Raynolds, 2002).
labor-intensive nature and compatibility with Despite the affiliation between peasant
traditional peasant practices (Crucefix, 1998). farming practices and those of organic farming,
Most peasant farmers in Latin America follow large-scale commercial producers benefit from
basic organic production expectations and important socioeconomic advantages in pro-
avoid applying expensive agro-chemicals, ducing certified commodities. As a result
making it relatively easy to meet organic con- organic, like conventional, agriculture in Latin
version requirements (Meier, 1999; Nigh, 1997). America appears to involve a large number of
But farm output cannot be exported as organic small farms and a small number of large cor-
unless producers uphold official organic docu- porate enterprises. Organic farming is the most

concentrated in Argentina, where economies of oriented Fair Trade organic banana networks
scale are accentuated in beef production and (Raynolds & Murray, 1998).
where foreign investment is high (FAS/USDA, Review of existing data on organic produc-
2000b). The largest 3% of enterprises control tion in the global South suggests that the
23% of Argentina’s organic acreage (Foguel- composition and trajectory of this sector is
man & Montenegro, 1999). The Mexican fundamentally driven by consumer preferences
organic sector is much less concentrated due and institutional relations in the North. Legally
largely to the importance of small-scale upland sanctioned certification rules and procedures
coffee production. Ninety-five percent of Mex- play a critical role in governing enterprise
ican producers are small growers who together participation and production processes, con-
cultivate 89% of the organic area (FAS/USDA, structing significant barriers to entry for poor
2000a). In the Dominican Republic, small-scale Southern producers. The rise of mainstream
producers dominate production of organic retailers and food corporations in organic
bananas, coffee, and cocoa (El Exportador, markets is encouraging the growth of large
1999). scale corporate producers that uphold indus-
The rising importance of mainstream retail- trial and commercial conventions in meeting
ers and food corporations in Northern organic mounting product volume and standardized
markets is reinforcing the position of big pro- quality expectations. In the face of increasing
ducers in Latin America able to guarantee large competition, the position of small-scale peasant
continuous supplies of standardized goods. producers that uphold civic and domestic
Since organic goods increasingly enter the same norms, values, and conventions appears to
commercial networks as their conventional depend in large measure on their integration
counterparts, they are similarly affected by into social movement oriented Fair Trade dis-
economies of scope and scale. Small-scale pro- tribution networks and alternative Northern
ducers entering organic export networks are sales outlets.
subject to tighter control by distributors than
producers of nonorganic items given the lack
of local market alternatives, small number of 6. CONCLUSIONS
organic distributors, and rigorous chain of
custody requirements. Small-scale producers This study demonstrates the strength of a
of bulk commodities––such as coffee and commodity network framework in analyzing
cocoa––typically sell to export companies that the ideas, practices, and institutions which
can fill large orders by consolidating supplies. comprise and coordinate the increasingly global
While most Mexican small organic producers organic agro-food sector. This approach
enter these bulk commodity export networks maintains the global commodity chain frame-
(FAS/USDA, 1999), some have been able to work’s traditional strength in analyzing com-
engage in specialty coffee networks maintained modity flows and firm relations across
by Fair Trade groups (Raynolds, 2002). Export production, trade, and consumption (Gereffi,
supply networks in organic fresh fruits and 1994), yet responds to recent calls for a more
vegetables are the most tightly controlled since trenchant analysis of relations of governance
packing, shipping, and retailing must be care- (Dolan & Humphrey, 2000; Ponte, 2002a;
fully integrated to ensure product quality at the Smith et al., 2002). Drawing on contributions
point of sale. Stringent supply chain require- in consumption, network, and convention
ments are bolstering concentration in many studies, a commodity network approach
segments of the organic produce trade (FAO/ sharpens analysis of (a) the power of symbolic
ITC/CTA, 2001). This is clearly evident in the and discursive, as well as material, relations in
organic banana sector where quality expecta- configuring producer/consumer transactions,
tions––based largely on uniformity and (b) the multiple social and political, as well as
appearance––are increasing and price compe- economic, actors and actions which comprise
tition is on the rise. Global branders such as and control commodity networks, and (c) the
Dole Foods are taking advantage of their quality conventions which shape meanings,
standardized quality, market position, and govern exchanges, and concentrate power in
vertically integrated structure to capture commodity networks.
growing mainstream organic markets, but as in A commodity network framework provides
the coffee sector smaller producers continue to analytical purchase on the multiple institu-
predominate in alternative social movement tions and power relations which shape the

South–North organic trade through horizontal This study demonstrates the utility of con-
and vertical ties. My findings bolster arguments vention theory concepts (e.g., Boltanski &
for moving beyond a buyer/producer driven Thevenot, 1991) in analyzing the quality norms,
dichotomy to analyze variations in the nature rules, and institutional arrangements fueled by
of lead firms, in regional trade circuits, and in the global expansion in certified organic mar-
the forms and extent of regulation (Dolan & kets and the resilience of the organic move-
Humphrey, 2000; Gibbon, 2001a; Ponte, ment’s founding principles. Early organic
2002a). In the organic trade, the participation initiatives embodied domestic and civic values
of firms––along with production and com- of trust, place-based knowledge, ecological
modity characteristics––is governed in large diversity, and social justice, upheld through
measure by certification institutions and networks involving small-scale organic farms,
requirements. Organic certification involves face-to-face exchanges, and conscientious con-
powerful relations of control initiated largely sumers. As the South–North organic trade has
by Northern social movement groups and grown––increasing the geographic and social
legally sanctioned by national and multi- distance between producers, distributors, and
national government authorities. As conven- consumers––these alternative values, institu-
tion theory suggests the power of certification is tions, and exchanges have been increasingly
rooted in the politics of ‘‘qualification’’ challenged by commercial conventions rooted
(Thevenot, 1995), the ability to define quality in economic competition. Organic certification
attributes, measures, and rewards. In the global strengthens this challenge through the imposi-
organic trade, Northern-based certification tion of industrial norms of bureaucratic effi-
systems cement a singular definition of certi- ciency embodied in standards, auditing, and
fied-organic quality, impose rigorous produc- labeling. The rise of commercial and industrial
tion and documentation requirements on conventions is clear in organic distribution and
Southern producers, and bar noncompliant consumption––where the fastest growth is in
producers from lucrative export networks. mainstream retailing, based on large-volume,
In short, certification represents a powerful regimented, supply systems––and in organic
new form of network governance which is production and trade––where the fastest
rooted in social, legal, and bureaucratic insti- growth is in large-scale corporate entrants
tutions, yet serves in many ways to accentuate pursuing organics as a high-value niche market.
traditional economic inequalities between firms Yet my research finds that organic civic and
and countries. Onerous and expensive organic domestic values are also thriving, as evidenced
certification requirements create significant in the proliferation of alternative organic retail
barriers to entry for poor Southern producers outlets, in the rising number of conscientious
and encourage the concentration of organic consumers purchasing organics, and in the
production and price premiums in the hands of small-scale producers which continue to domi-
large corporate producers. Powerful corporate nate many organic commodity areas. These
retailers and branders also benefit from organic findings reaffirm the theoretical importance of
certification, since chain of custody and docu- analyzing quality as a contested terrain nego-
mentation requirements facilitate their control tiated within and between commodity networks
over suppliers and organic labels facilitate their (Murdoch et al., 2000; Ponte, 2002a; Raikes
participation in mainstream markets. These et al., 2000; Sylvander, 1995).
conclusions appear to apply also to proliferat- In policy terms, this study points to ways in
ing certification systems in the international which the organic movement’s founding qual-
trade of marine products, timber, flowers, ity conventions can be re-asserted in organic
apparel, footwear, textiles, and other items networks. While much of the literature on the
(Barrientos, 2000; Gereffi, Garcia-Johnson, & preservation of organic movement values
Sasser, 2001; Hughes, 2001). As in organics, adopts a localist stance, this article suggests
these Northern initiatives (i) reproduce global that movement norms can be extended glob-
inequalities, through the imposition of new ally by linking small-scale peasant producers
qualifications and auditing systems on South- and conscientious consumers. In the realm of
ern producers and (ii) deepen firm inequalities, production, barriers to entry for peasant pro-
through the imposition of certification costs on ducers––who often already uphold organic
producers and the concentration of market movement values––should be reduced by
advantages in the hands of corporate enter- shifting certification costs downstream and
prises. empowering local producers to fulfill moni-

toring tasks. In the realm of consumption, the global representation and demonstrated ability
mounting consumer consciousness which is to shape the organic trade, it may be well
driving the growth of the organic trade should positioned to further promote these values, but
be tapped and movement values encouraged. to do so it must move beyond standard-based
The viability of these changes is already being certification to promote conventions rooted in
demonstrated in Fair Trade networks (Ray- society-wide benefits. If successful, organics
nolds, 2002). Producers, consumers, and could provide useful lessons for newer certifi-
IFOAM acknowledge the convergence cation initiatives which espouse progressive
between the holistic social and ecological val- goals but similarly undermine these values
ues of the Fair Trade and organic movements through their industrial and commercial prac-
(IFOAM, 2003c). Given IFOAMs increasing tices.


1. For analysis of the similarities and differences fertility is seen as the key to successful production.
between these schools of thought, see Friedland (2001), Working with the natural properties of plants, animals
Raikes, Jensen, and Ponte (2000), and Smith et al. and the landscape, organic farmers aim to optimise
(2002). quality in all aspects of agriculture and the environ-
2. The risks in overgeneralizing the nature of chain
governance is evident in characterizations of agro-food 6. It is beyond the scope of this paper to detail the
chains as retailer-led which draw exclusively on British historical tensions between market and movement ori-
data (e.g., Dolan & Humphrey, 2000; Marsden, Flynn, entations within IFOAM, but these tensions clearly
& Harrison, 2000), downplaying the more limited power revolve (as convention theory suggests) around compet-
of food retailers in other national markets. ing definitions of organic quality.

3. For example, Hopkins’ and Wallerstein’s (1986) 7. For example, agro-industries tried unsuccessfully to
conceptualization of commodity chains as comprised of have genetically modified organisms, sewage sludge, and
temporally and spatially overlapping labor processes nuclear irradiation allowed under the US Organic Foods
anticipates elements of network theory. Similarly, filiere Production Act.
analysis like convention analysis focuses on the ratio-
nalities and institutions organizing commodities (Raikes 8. Since no official data are available for most coun-
et al., 2000; Wilkinson, 1997). tries, Table 5 presents data from sample surveys and
producer group estimates. Appropriate caution should
4. For further discussion of the lineage of convention be taken in drawing conclusions from this table.
theory and its links to commodity chain and related
frameworks, see Raikes et al. (2000) and Wilkinson 9. Though only 11% of Argentinian and 26% of
(1997). Dominican organic exports go to US markets, 70% of
Chilean exports do (CAPOC, 2001; CEDOPEX, 1999;
5. IFOAM (2003a) gives this definition: ‘‘Organic ProChile, 2001).
agriculture is an agricultural system that promotes
environmentally, socially and economically sound pro- 10. Though low, the number of accredited organic
duction of food, fibre, timber, etc. In this system soil certifiers located in the South is increasing.


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