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.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
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.
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).
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).
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.
IFOAM website, accessed 13 June 2014.
World Health Organization.
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.
Grolink is a Swedish consultancy specialized in organic farming.
Migros is a Swiss retailer, well known in the mainstream agriculture community for its advocacy for more sustainable practices in the name of consumers.
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” (http://www.globalgap.org/uk_en/who-we-are/about-us/). Global GAP is a subscriber member to the ISEAL Alliance.
Internal communication, 14 November 2014. See: http://unfss.org/work-areas/working-groups/working-group-on-enhancing-interoperability-of-vss/
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).
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).
Regulation (EC) No 765/2008 paragraphs 14 and 19.
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).
http://www.etko.org/Akreditasyon.aspx, accessed 13 June 2014.
Interview with IOAS and Accreditation Services International (ASI), Bonn, Germany 30 June 2012.
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).
Nuremberg, 14 February 2014.
See http://www.ifoam.bio/en/value-chain/participatory-guarantee-systems-pgs, accessed 23 October 2015 and interview with IFOAM CEO, 5 October 2015.
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
Abbott, K.W., and D. Snidal. 2001. International “standards” and international governance. Journal of European Public Policy 8(3): 345–370. doi:10.1080/13501760110056013.
Arcuri, A. 2015. The transformation of organic regulation: The ambiguous effects of publicization. Regulation and Governance 9(2): 144–159. doi:10.1111/rego.12066.
Balfour, E.B. 1977. Towards a sustainable agriculture: The living soil. Paper presented at the IFOAM international scientific conference, Sissach, Switzerland.
Bartley, T. 2007. Institutional emergence in an era of globalization: The rise of transnational private regulation of labor and environmental conditions. American Journal of Sociology 113(2): 297–351. doi:10.1086/518871.
Bartley, T. 2011. Transnational governance as the layering of rules: Intersections of public and private standards. Theoretical Inquiries in Law 12(2): 517–542.
Bernstein, S. 2011. Legitimacy in intergovernmental and non-state global governance. Review of International Political Economy 18(1): 17–51.
Besson, Y. 2011. Les fondateurs de l’agriculture biologique. Albert Howard, Rudolf Steiner, Maria & Hans Müller, Hans Peter Rush, Masanobu Fukuoka. La Pensée Ecologique. Paris: Sang de la Terre.
Boström, M. 2006. Regulatory credibility and authority through inclusiveness: Standardization organizations in cases of eco-labelling. Organization 13(3): 345–367. doi:10.1177/1350508406063483.
Busch, L. 2007. Performing the economy, performing science: From neoclassical to supply chain models in the agrifood sector. Economy and Society 36(3): 437–466.
Busch, L. 2011. Standards: Recipes for reality. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Büthe, T., and W. Mattli. 2011. The new global rulers: The privatization of regulation in the world economy. Oxford and Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Callon, M. 1991. Techno-economic networks and irreversibility. In A sociology of monsters: Essays on power, technology, and domination, ed. J. Law, 132–163. London: Routledge.
Callon, M., and F. Muniesa. 2005. Peripheral vision: Economic markets as calculative collective devices. Organization Studies 26(8): 1229–1250. doi:10.1177/0170840605056393.
Campbell, H., A. Murcott, and A. MacKenzie. 2011. “Kosher” in New York City, “halal” in Aquitaine: Challenging the relationship between neoliberalism and food auditing. Agriculture and Human Values 28(1): 67–79. doi:10.1007/s10460-010-9260-3.
Cleaver, F. 2002. Reinventing institutions: Bricolage and the social embeddedness of natural resource management. European Journal of Development Research 14(2): 11.
Cochoy, F. 2002. Une sociologie du packaging ou l’ane de Buridan Face au Marché. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
Coleman, W.D., and A. Reed. 2007. Legalisation transnationalism and the global organic movement. In Law and legalization in transnational relations, ed. C. Bruetsch, and D. Lehmkuhl, 101–120. London: Routledge.
Courville, S. 2003. Social accountability audits: Challenging or defending democratic governance? Law and Policy 25(3): 269–297. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9930.2003.00151.x.
Dabbert, S., C. Lippert, and A. Zorn. 2014. Introduction to the special section on organic certification systems: Policy issues and research topics. Food Policy 49(Part 2(0)): 425–428. doi:10.1016/j.foodpol.2014.05.009.
Darnhofer, I., T. Lindenthal, R. Bartel-Kratochvil, and W. Zollitsch. 2010. Conventionalization of organic farming practices: From structural criteria towards an assessment based on organic principles. A review. Agronomy for Sustainable Development 30(1): 67–81. doi:10.1051/agro/2009011.
De Wit, J., and H. Verhoog. 2007. Organic values and the conventionalization of organic agriculture. NJAS—Wageningen Journal of Life Sciences 54(4): 449–462. doi:10.1016/S1573-5214(07)80015-7.
DiMaggio, P.J., and W.W. Powell. 1983. The iron cage revisited: Institutional isomorphism and collective rationality in organizational fields. American Sociological Review 48(2): 147–160.
Dingwerth, K., and P. Pattberg. 2009. World politics and organizational fields: The case of transnational sustainability governance. European Journal of International Relations 15(4): 707–743. doi:10.1177/1354066109345056.
Djama, M., E. Fouilleux, and I. Vagneron. 2011. Standard-setting, certifying, and benchmarking: A governmentality approach to sustainability standards in the agro-food sector. In Governing through standards, ed. S. Ponte, P. Gibbon, and J. Vestergaard, 184–209. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Fligstein, N. 1996. Markets as politics: A political-cultural approach to market institutions. American Sociological Review 61(4): 656–673. doi:10.2307/2096398.
Fligstein, N. 2001. The architecture of markets: An economic sociology of twenty-first-century capitalist societies. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Fligstein, N., and L. Dauter. 2006. The sociology of markets. IRLE Working paper no. 145-07.
Fouilleux, E. 2012. Sustainable voluntary standards: Towards privatized regulation in the food and farm sector? In Development, the environment, and food: Towards agricultural change?, ed. P. Jacquet, R. Pachauri, and L. Tubiana, 215–225. New Dehli: A Planet for Life Series, TERI Press.
Fouilleux, E. 2013. Normes transnationales de développement durable. Formes et contours d’une privatisation de la délibération. Gouvernement et Action Publique 1: 9–119.
Freyer, B., and J. Bingen. 2014. Re-thinking organic food and farming in a changing world. Dordrecht: Springer.
Garcia-Papet, M.-F. 2012. Le marché des certificateurs de l’agriculture biologique. In L’alimentation sous contrôle. Tracer, auditer, conseiller, ed. L. Bonnaud, and N. Joly, 109–123. Dijon: Educagri Editions/Editions QUAE.
Geier, B. 2007. IFOAM and the history of the International Organic Movement. In In organic farming. An international history, ed. W. Lockeretz, 175–186. Boston: CAB International.
Gibbon, P., and S. Ponte. 2008. Global value chains: From governance to governmentality? Economy and Society 37(3): 365–392.
Glasbergen, P., F. Biermann, and A.P.J. Mol. 2007. Partnerships, governance, and sustainable development: Reflections on theory and practice. Northampton: Edward Elgar.
Guthman, J. 2004. Agrarian dreams: The paradox of organic farming in California. California studies in critical human geography. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Hargrave, T.J., and A.H. Van de Ven. 2006. A collective action model of institutional innovation. Academy of Management Review 31(4): 864–888. doi:10.5465/amr.2006.22527458.
Hatanaka, M., and L. Busch. 2008. Third-party certification in the global agrifood system: An objective or socially mediated governance mechanism? Sociologia Ruralis 48(1): 73–91. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9523.2008.00453.x.
Hatanaka, M., C. Bain, and L. Busch. 2005. Third-party certification in the global agrifood system. Food Policy 30(3): 354–369.
Hatanaka, M., J. Konefal, and D. Constance. 2012. A tripartite standards regime analysis of the contested development of a sustainable agriculture standard. Agriculture and Human Values 29(1): 65–78. doi:10.1007/s10460-011-9329-7.
Henson, S., and J. Humphrey. 2010. Understanding the complexities of private standards in global agri-food chains as they impact developing countries. Journal of Development Studies 46(9): 1628–1646. doi:10.1080/00220381003706494.
Henson, S., and T. Reardon. 2005. Private agri-food standards: Implications for food policy and the agri-food system. Food Policy 30(3): 241–253.
Hoffman, A.J. 1999. Institutional evolution and change: Environmentalism and the US chemical industry. The Academy of Management Journal 42(4): 351–371.
IFOAM. 2013. Best practice guideline for agriculture and value chains. Public version 1.0. IFOAM Orgnics International: Bonn.
IFOAM. 2014. Membership vote on motions to the IFOAM norms. http://www.ifoam.org/sites/default/files/ifoam_norms_motions_membership_vote_2014.pdf. Accessed Apr 28 2014.
Jaffee, D., and P. Howard. 2009. Corporate cooptation of organic and fair trade standards. Agriculture and Human Values 27(4): 387–399.
Katto-Andrighetto, J. 2012. A retrospective on the organic guarantee system. In Organic without boundaries. IFOAM celebrating 40 years, 1972–2012, ed. IFOAM, 18–21. Bonn: International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements.
Lawrence, T.B., and N. Phillips. 2004. From Moby Dick to Free Willy: Macro-cultural discourse and institutional entrepreneurship in emerging institutional fields. Organization 11(5): 689–711. doi:10.1177/1350508404046457.
Leroux, B. 2011. Les agriculteurs biologiques et l’alternative: Contribution à une anthropologie politique d’un monde paysan en devenir. Paris: EHESS.
Levi Faur, D., and S.M. Starobin. 2014. Transnational politics and policy: From two-way to three-way interactions. In Jerusalem papers in regulation & governance working paper no. 62. Jerusalem: The Hebrew University.
Lockeretz, W. 2007. Organic farming: An international history. Cambridge: CABI.
Loconto, A., and L. Busch. 2010. Standards, techno-economic networks, and playing fields: Performing the global market economy. Review of International Political Economy 17(3): 507–536.
Loconto, A., and E. Fouilleux. 2014. Politics of private regulation: ISEAL and the shaping of transnational sustainability governance. Regulation and Governance 8(2): 166–185. doi:10.1111/rego.12028.
Loconto, A., J.V. Stone, and L. Busch. 2012. Standards, certifications, and accreditations. In The Wiley-Blackwell encyclopedia of globalization, ed. G. Ritzer, 2044–2051. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell.
Marx, A., and J. Wouters. 2014. Competition and cooperation in the market of voluntary sustainability standards. In UNFSS discussion papers. Geneva: United Nations Forum for Sustainability Standards.
Mattli, W., and T. Buthe. 2003. Setting international standards: Technological rationality or primacy of power? World Politics 56(1): 1–42.
McDermott, C.L. 2012. Trust, legitimacy and power in forest certification: A case study of the FSC in British Columbia. Geoforum 43(3): 634–644. doi:10.1016/j.geoforum.2011.11.002.
Muniesa, F., Y. Millo, and M. Callon. 2007. An introduction to market devices. The Sociological Review 55(s2): 1–12. doi:10.1111/j.1467-954X.2007.00727.x.
Murray, D.L., and L.T. Raynolds. 2000. Alternative trade in bananas: Obstacles and opportunities for progressive social change in the global economy. Agriculture and Human Values 17(1): 65–74.
Mutersbaugh, T. 2005. Just-in-space: Certified rural products, labor of quality, and regulatory spaces. Journal of Rural Studies 21: 389–402.
Nature et Progrès. 2011. Nature et Progrès pourquoi? http://www.natureetprogres.org/nature_et_progres/natureetprogres.html. Accessed 18 Dec 2011.
North, D.C. 1990. Institutions, institutional change, and economic performance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
O’Rourke, D. 2006. Multi-stakeholder regulation: Privatizing or socializing global labor standards? World Development 34(5): 899–918. doi:10.1016/j.worlddev.2005.04.020.
Ponte, S., and E. Cheyns. 2013. Voluntary standards, expert knowledge and the governance of sustainability networks. Global Networks 13(4): 459–477. doi:10.1111/glob.12011.
Ponte, S., and P. Gibbon. 2005. Quality standards, conventions, and the governance of global value chains. Economy and Society 34(1): 1–31.
Power, M. 1997. The audit society: Rituals of verification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Prakash, A., and M.K. Gugerty. 2010. Trust but verify? Voluntary regulation programs in the nonprofit sector. Regulation and Governance 4(1): 22–47. doi:10.1111/j.1748-5991.2009.01067.x.
Reinecke, J., S. Manning, and O. von Hagen. 2012. The emergence of a standards market: Multiplicity of sustainability standards in the global coffee industry. Organization Studies 33(5–6): 791–814. doi:10.1177/0170840612443629.
Rip, A. 2010. Processes of entanglement. In Débordements: mélanges offerts à Michel Callon, ed. M. Akrich, Y. Barthe, F. Muniesa, and P. Mustar, 381–392. Paris: Transvalor - Presses des Mines.
Rosset, P.M., and M.A. Altieri. 1997. Agroecology versus input substitution: A fundamental contradiction of sustainable agriculture. Society and Natural Resources 10(3): 283–295. doi:10.1080/08941929709381027.
Schmid, O. 2007. Development of standards for organic farming. In Organic farming. An international history, ed. W. Lockeretz, 152–174. Boston: CAB International.
Schmidt, V.A. 2008. Discursive institutionalism: The explanatory power of ideas and discourse. Annual Review of Political Science 11(1): 303–326. doi:10.1146/annurev.polisci.11.060606.135342.
Tamm Hallstrom, K., and M. Boström. 2010. Transnational multi-stakeholder standardization: Organizing fragile non-state authority. Northampton: Edward Elgar Pub. Inc.
UNCTAD. 2009. Comparative study on the GLOBALGAP fruit and vegetables standard and the EU organic agriculture regulation. In Ad Hoc expert meeting on facilitating access of small organic farmers in developing countries to supermarket shelves Geneva, 10–11 December 2009. Geneva: United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.
UNCTAD, FAO, and IFOAM. 2012. Proceedings of the global organic market access (GOMA) conference. In Let the good products flow! Global organic market access in 2012 and beyond, eds. S. Doyran, N. El-Hage Scialabba, A. Leu, U. Hoffmann, S. Twarog, and O. Kung Wai. 13–14 February 2012, Nuremberg Messe, Nuremberg, Germany: UNCTAD, FAO, and IFOAM.
Verbruggen, P. 2013. Gorillas in the closet? Public and private actors in the enforcement of transnational private regulation. Regulation and Governance 7(4): 512–532.
Willer, H., and J. Lernoud. 2015. The world of organic agriculture: Statistics and emerging trends, 2015. IFOAM, FiBL: Bonn.
Winickoff, D.E., and K. Klein. 2011. Food labels and the environment: Towards harmonization of EU and US organic standards. In Transatlantic regulatory cooperation: The shifting roles of the EU, the US, and California, eds. D. Vogel, and J.F.M. Swinnen, 229–248. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing.
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.
Eve Fouilleux and Allison Loconto contributed equally to the paper.
Rights and permissions
About this article
Cite this article
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). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10460-016-9686-3
- Tripartite Standard Regime