Sustainability gridlock in a global agricultural commodity chain: Reframing thesoy–meat food system

Malika Virah-Sawmy, América P. Durán, Jonathan Michael Halsey Green, Angela M. Guerrero, Duan Biggs, Christopher David West

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Market governance is viewed as a potentially effective mechanism to achieve more sustainable global production-to-consumption systems when state regulation between production and consumption regions is uncoordinated. Through examining a key global food sector, the soy–meat value chain, we assess how effective market governance is. In this sector, numerous supply chain approaches have proliferated ranging from the first deforestation-free supply chain sectoral standard, to eco-labelling, and collective actions on various topics. To assess how effective these policy instruments are, we examine the choices in sustainability made by lead companies in the sector and then analyse how coordinated these initiatives are across the supply chain. We then assess, via a litereture review, which actors are creating ‘rules of the game’ for sustainability, and the impacts of these on coordination and on-the-ground impacts. We show that companies along the soy–meat value chain have made different sustainability commitments probably because they are facing very different risk factors: those upstream such as soy traders are concerned mainly with international pressures associated with deforestation, whilst those further downstream in the supply chain have from very loose to very ambitious sustainability objectives on various topics associated with the sector including animal welfare, climate change and human-health. We found that these supply chain initiatives are not addressing sufficiently the cause and effect of key drivers of sectoral impacts such as land appreciation and the global demand for cheap meat. Further, because the soy–meat sector is vertically integrated both upstream and downstream, this may result in comparable bargaining power among business actors such that none of these actors may be able to impose sustainability norms without inferring cost onto themselves or causing perverse outcomes. A lack of coordination in market governance is translating into a lack of uptake in various instruments (e.g. certification) or transference of cost and responsibilities onto soy producers (e.g. deforestation free standard such as the Soy Moratorium). A perverse outcome of the latter is the displacement of impacts onto other regions and commodities. In light of these challenges in market governance, we encourage more emphasis on network governance, which involves more social interactions that build trust, vision and exchanges of information and resources (e.g. between Brazil and China and Europe), these being more important in early phases of transitions for systems facing sustainability gridlock.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)210-223
Number of pages14
JournalSustainable Production and Consumption
Early online date6 Feb 2019
Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2019


  • Certification
  • Natural resource management
  • Risk
  • Soy Moratorium
  • Supply chain initiatives
  • Zero deforestation

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