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Standard Research Grant: Contending with Metrics in the Corporate Food Supply Chain


General Audience Summary <br/><br/>This research project studies food supply chains with a focus on the shift from certifiable standards of food quality and safety to metrics of ecological efficiency; the shift may be characterized more abstractly as a move away from ensuring compliance to promoting ongoing measurable improvement. The primary goal of the project is to understand the driving forces and implications of this shift. It will test two related hypotheses. First, that the shift aims to produce common global knowledge about what sustainability means in food supply chains, including how it can be measured and improved, and that it does so in order to address growing concerns about sustained access to agricultural raw materials. Second, the need to promote measurable improvement requires global food companies to contend with the local environments, practices, and knowledge of suppliers in new ways, and that doing so has the potential to reshape corporate food supply chain governance on a global scale. Reflexive engagement with pertinent supply chain actors will encourage broadened perspectives on all sides. The results of the study will be widely disseminated in both scholarly and trade publications and presentations, which will further enhance the prospects for positive change.<br/><br/>Technical Summary <br/><br/>Employing multi-sited ethnography and drawing together scholarship on supply chains, standards, and corporate knowledge production, the project will examine the emergence of metrics-based governance both in multi-stakeholder initiatives and in the corporate food supply chains where mid-level sustainability managers work to enlist a wide range of other actors in their efforts to measure and achieve improvement. The project includes a pilot study of dairy farmers, who have become central targets of industry projects to assess and improve. The PI has existing contacts and has recently established access to the Sustainability Consortium, which will greatly facilitate carrying out the project. The project brings researchers in STS and political ecology into closer conversation and it does so in a new empirical terrain. While both fields have explored the production and governing power of standards, this project brings them together to analyze the rise of outcome-based metrics as tools of private food governance. The project draws insights from STS to examine how meanings and metrics of sustainability are co-produced in different social settings, and to trace how they are deployed and perhaps contested across space and supply chains. Following political ecology, the project analyzes the emergence of metrics-based governance in light of broader political-economic and environmental conditions. In doing so, this research considers how the situated, sociotechnical work of making metrics actionable, particularly at the farm level, could in itself lead to changes in how governance works.

Freidberg, Susanne
Dartmouth College
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