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Systemic ethics and inclusive governance: two key prerequisites for sustainability transitions of agri-food systems


Food retailers are powerful actors of the agro-industrial food system. They exert strong lock-in effects that hinder transitions towards more sustainable agri-food systems. Indeed, their marketing practices generally result in excluding the most sustainable food products, such as local, low-input, small-scale farmers’ products. Recently in Belgium, several initiatives have been created to enable the introduction of local products on supermarket shelves. In this article, we study three of those initiatives to analyse if the development of local sourcing in supermarkets opens up an opportunity for a transition towards more sustainable agri-food systems. We conceptualise transitions as a shift in governance and ethical values and adopt a pragmatist approach of ethics combined with the systemic perspective of transition studies, to evaluate the impact of these initiatives. Our analysis shows that they mainly contribute to the reproduction of the incumbent agri-food system. It also highlights that first, to be a driver for sustainability transitions, food ethics need to be systemic i.e. relate to a systemic understanding of problems and perspective of sustainability, including social justice. And second, it highlights that governance arrangements involving not only representative organisations of the various agri-food and non-agricultural actors, but also actors upholding ethical values that are currently missing in conventional supply chains and representing excluded and marginalised interests, favour the uptake of such systemic ethics by incumbent actors. Hence, systemic ethics and inclusive governance are key features for initiatives to contribute to a sustainability transition.

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Fig. 1


  1. Multiple variants of these two paradigms can be found in political discourses and the scholarly literature. For instance, Levidow (2015), focusing on farming practices, knowledge and innovation systems, refers to life science (bioeconomy and sustainable intensification) versus agroecology, whose underlying economic models correspond to the agro-industrial versus the integrated territorial paradigms.

  2. By value, we understand an “enduring belief that a specific mode of conduct or end-state of existence is personally or socially preferable to an opposite or converse mode of conduct or end-state of existence” (Rokeach 1973, p. 5).

  3. This follows a global tendency (Costa et al. 2018).

  4. As defined by van der Ploeg et al. (2008, p. 11): « market governance refers to the institutional capacity to control and strengthen markets and to construct new ones. This is related to the way in which specific supply chains are organized, how the total realized value is shared (between actors but also spatially) and how the potential benefits of collective action are delivered (Saccomandi 1998) ».

  5. An option illustrated by a proposal of the European Commission (2018) for a Directive on unfair trading practices in business-to-business relationships in the food supply chain.

  6. Keeping in mind that articulating local and global is not necessarily the solution to overcoming the conventional/alternative divide (Brunori and Galli 2016).

  7. For a general history of food ethics, see Zwart (2000).

  8. Translation by the authors.

  9. We had initially targeted the three largest corporations in Belgium, but exploratory work revealed that one of them had no specific programme for local sourcing.

  10. Except for consumers, whose values and practices were assessed indirectly, based on data collected from the other actors.

  11. Many union’s members were invited: the small number of participants shows how profound the mistrust was.

  12. To all hypermarkets. Franchised stores are managed independently.

  13. Apart from barcodes, no other requirements are imposed on farmers in the scheme. Anyone meeting the criteria defining a « local producer » (criteria discussed below) may participate in the initiative.

  14. Both in Hainaut and Liège, word-of-mouth caused the Provinces to be frequently contacted directly by producers wishing to work with supermarkets.

  15. One example is the airing in November 2013 on the Belgian television of a documentary about how industrial bread, mostly imported from abroad, is manufactured. This generated a strong demand for local bread, as we were told by an artisan baker who was approached by several corporate retailers following that episode.

  16. According to the provincial officers, with a majority of F1 retailers but a minority of discount corporate retailers.

  17. LAGs are composed of public and private, social and economic actors, and manage the funds related to LEADER programmes (EU programmes for rural development). The LAG “Culturalités en Hesbaye Brabaçonne” gathers municipal, provincial and regional public authorities; local cultural centres and institutions; agricultural, rural and economic development associations mostly focused on tourism; private entrepreneurs including farmers.

  18. Source: Nielsen, Grocery Universe 2017—Belgium.



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We acknowledge co-funding of this research from the Belgian Science Policy Office, under the project FOOD4SUSTAINABILITY (contract BR/121/A5) and from the European Commission, under the project GENCOMMONS (ERC Grant Agreement 284). We also wish to thank the editors of this special issue for giving very useful comments on an earlier version of this paper.

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Correspondence to Sibylle Bui.

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Bui, S., Costa, I., De Schutter, O. et al. Systemic ethics and inclusive governance: two key prerequisites for sustainability transitions of agri-food systems. Agric Hum Values 36, 277–288 (2019).

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  • Sustainability transitions
  • Governance
  • Agri-food system
  • Food ethics
  • Local food
  • Retail corporations