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Voluntary standards, certification, and accreditation in the global organic agriculture field: a tripartite model of techno-politics


This article analyzes the institutionalization of the global organic agriculture field and sheds new light on the conventionalization debate. The institutions that shape the field form a tripartite standards regime of governance (TSR) that links standard-setting, certification, and accreditation activities, in a layering of markets for services that are additional to (and inseparable from) the market for certified organic products. At each of the three poles of the TSR, i.e., for standard-setting, certification, and accreditation, we describe how the corresponding markets were constructed over time and the role of the different actors in their evolution. We analyze the politics at stake among the actors at each pole, their competing or cooperative interests and visions, and the tensions between them in the promotion of markets. Through the lens of the TSR heuristic, we show that the institutionalization of the organic field beginning in the 1990s and its de facto inclusion in the broader sustainability field beginning in the 2000s contribute to a progressive distancing between the organic movement and its initial political project of alterity, to which public and private actors both contribute actively. As a set of interlinked market institutions, the TSR orients and narrows the scope of debate, which becomes restricted to “market-compatible” dimensions and objects. We conclude that the TSR is a promising heuristic for analyzing contemporary global regulation.

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  1. 1.

    Although the EU has set up its standards 10 years earlier, the US and the EU regulatory regimes are very similar and tend to converge (Winickoff and Klein 2011; Arcuri 2015) and examples from the US might fit our demonstration in a similar way. A comparison between the two cases could certainly be an argument for another paper, but due to space constraints, we focus mainly on the global level from the EU entry point.

  2. 2.

    The IFOAM Family of Standards are supposed to have a “sound and credible criterion to ensure organic integrity of products” (IFOAM website, accessed 26 November 2014).

  3. 3.

    IFOAM is an umbrella structure representing the actors of the organic field (farmers, processors, certifiers, consultants, etc.). The only condition to be a voting member in this organization is to have the main part of its activities in the organic sector (Geier 2007).

  4. 4.

    OECD is the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, which gathers the economically most advanced countries in the world. Non-OECD countries are mostly developing countries.

  5. 5.

    IFOAM website, accessed 13 June 2014.

  6. 6.

    World Health Organization.

  7. 7.

    The standard-setting process was highly influenced by the content of the EU regulation. The discussions were focused on scientific details and legal aspects (lists of additives, proportions, claims, etc.) rather than on the philosophy of organic farming.

  8. 8.

    Grolink is a Swedish consultancy specialized in organic farming.

  9. 9.

    Migros is a Swiss retailer, well known in the mainstream agriculture community for its advocacy for more sustainable practices in the name of consumers.

  10. 10.

    Although initially food safety oriented, Global Gap now presents itself as a sustainability standard and includes social and environmental aspects: “We’re a global organization with a crucial objective: safe, sustainable agriculture worldwide” ( Global GAP is a subscriber member to the ISEAL Alliance.

  11. 11.

    Internal communication, 14 November 2014. See:

  12. 12.

    Some association-based certifiers are still active but they are generally more territorially rooted and still defend a mission-based vision of their activities in the organic field (Garcia-Papet 2012).

  13. 13.

    In 2005, Ecocert created the “ Filiale Ecopass” (“Ecocert Environment” since 2012), specialized in environmental certification for firms and cooperatives, and a “Filiale Ecocert Greenlife” in 2008, specialized in inspections and certification for eco-products (e.g., cosmetics, textiles, detergents, air deodorizers).

  14. 14.

    Regulation (EC) No 765/2008 paragraphs 14 and 19.

  15. 15.

    Among the list of 48 EU recognized CBs in May 2014, there are seven American, five Italian, three Argentinean, three German, and three Indian (EU website, 13 June 2014).

  16. 16., accessed 13 June 2014.

  17. 17.

    Interview with IOAS and Accreditation Services International (ASI), Bonn, Germany 30 June 2012.

  18. 18.

    Despite these tensions, IOAS is approved by the EU to conduct accreditation assessments in third-countries (e.g., they accredit CBs for ISO 17065 plus EU organic in New-Zealand, India, Turkey, Brazil, USA, and Canada).

  19. 19.

    Nuremberg, 14 February 2014.

  20. 20.

    See, accessed 23 October 2015 and interview with IFOAM CEO, 5 October 2015.



Accreditation Body


Certification Body


European Union


Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations


International Accreditation Forum


International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements


International Organic Accreditation Service


International Social and Environmental Accreditation and Labelling Alliance


International Organization for Standardization


Participatory Guarantee System


Standard Development Organization


Tripartite Standard Regime


United Nations Conference on Trade and Development


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The empirical work presented in this paper has benefited from a research grant by the French National Research Agency (ANR-11-CEPL-0009) and from funding from the Institute for Research, Innovation and Society (IFRIS). The authors thank the three anonymous reviewers for their advice on an earlier version of this paper.

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Correspondence to Eve Fouilleux.

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Eve Fouilleux and Allison Loconto contributed equally to the paper.

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Fouilleux, E., Loconto, A. Voluntary standards, certification, and accreditation in the global organic agriculture field: a tripartite model of techno-politics. Agric Hum Values 34, 1–14 (2017).

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  • Tripartite Standard Regime
  • Standards
  • Organic
  • Conventionalization
  • Certification
  • Accreditation
  • Regulation