Desperately seeking happy chickens: Producer dynamics and consumer politics in quality agricultural supply chains

Elizabeth Carter (2020)

International Journal of Social Economics. Online first. Open Access

Abstract. The purpose of this paper is to understand why the quality markets are expanding in some areas of food production, while struggling in others. Across agricultural markets in advanced industrialized economies, there are movements toward quality production and consumption. The author argues that the quality turn in beer, coffee, wine and other transformed artisanal food production are fundamentally different from the quality movements in primary food products. The heart of that difference lies in the nature of the supply chain advantages of transformed versus primary agricultural products. The author applies convention theory to explain the dynamics within transformed agricultural quality markets. In these producer-dominant markets, networks of branded producers shape consumer notions of product quality, creating competitive quality feedback loops. The author contrasts this with the consumer-dominant markets for perishable foods such as produce, eggs, dairy and meat. Here, politically constructed short supply chains play a central role in building quality food systems. The emergence of quality in primary food products is linked to the strength of local political organization, and consumers have a greater role in shaping quality in these markets. Quality beer, coffee, wine and other transformed products can emerge without active political intervention, whereas quality markets for perishable foods are the outcome of political action.

Extract. “Where is the consumer? Convention theory and supply chain politics. Producers must effectively convey product differentiation to consumers for quality markets to exist (Akerlof, 1978). This is a critical issue in the food sector, where consumers lack the ability to determine characteristics such as local, organic, free-range, bio-dynamic, fair trade or other values by taste or by appearance (so-called “credence goods”). Agricultural products may be deemed as “quality” on the basis of a range of criteria: place of production, environmental standards, specific flavor or texture profiles, freshness, rarity. Some market tools to address information gaps include regulation, branded products, trusted retailers or short supply chains. Different qualitative features may be prioritized by different clusters of producers and consumers. Quality parameters can and do shift over time and space, and qualities may be overlapping, competing and even contradictory. The économie des conventions (EC, or convention theory) has become a popular framework to understand these shared, intersubjective understandings of quality, especially within the realm of food production. At the core of EC is the issue of quality uncertainty and the subsequent coordination that arises to evaluate the value of an object. In other words, a convention is a collective form of quality evaluation that emerges to solve problems of coordination and exchange, or “systems of reciprocal expectations about the behavior of others” (Thorsøe et al., 2017). Conventions are, thus, routinized principles for the organization of production, created by repeated behavior of producers, providing collective schemata for the perception of quality […].”

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