Opening up food system transitions: Exploring diversity and contributions of producer organizations, value chain actors and intermediaries

Annemarie Groot Kormelinck

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


Opening up food system transitions

Food systems are undergoing different transitions to produce more healthy and nutritious food, and become more inclusive, resilient and environmentally sustainable. Although food system transitions are considered multi-actor processes in which diverse types of actors need to collaborate and coordinate, different scholars address the need to improve the conceptualization of actors in transitions. The aim of this thesis is to open up food system transitions by generating insights on actors from an organizational perspective. An organizational perspective allows to go beyond narrow views on actors and improves understanding of the diversity and complexity of actors in transitions. The main research question of this thesis is:

How do actors (re)arrange their organization, activities and relations in food systems that undergo transitions?

The theoretical aim is to bridge transition research (notably the multi-level perspective) with economic and sociological organizational theories, in particular transaction cost economics and alternative food networks. Qualitative empirical data has been collected on producer organizations and value chain actors in three commodity food systems in Uruguay that undergo different transitions.

Conclusions and contributions

To answer the main research question, this thesis shows the diversity in the way in which food system actors (re)arrange their organization, activities and relations to respond and contribute to different transitions within and across niche and regime food systems. The thesis shows what transitions imply for actors, internally within their organization, but also externally in coordinating with other actors in the value chain and the institutional environment.

By improving the understanding and conceptualizing of actors in transitions through taking an organizational perspective, three contributions are made to the literature. What the contributions have in common is the need to go beyond simple binary viewpoints in gaining a better understanding of real-life complexity of actors in transitions.

First, this thesis contributes to transition research and the multi-level perspective by showing the need for more nuance in studying niches and regimes and by including mutual niche-regime linkages. The chapters on producer organizations demonstrate that niche and regime producer organizations overlap in certain organizational characteristics. In addition, actors within regimes and within niches show considerable organizational diversity, thus they cannot be treated as a homogenous group of actors. Furthermore, niche and regime producer organizations make use of similar public support structures, and support each other in facilitating transitions across niche and regime. Rather than conceptualizing transitions as occurring in static and binary spheres, more dynamic interactions of niches and regimes need to be captured as to fully understand the complexity of transitions.

Second, this thesis contributes insights from combining economic and sociological organizational theories to improve the conceptualization of actors in transitions. This thesis shows that transaction cost economics is useful to study economic coordination of actors. Transaction cost economics provides explanations for differences in economic coordination across producer organizations and among multiple value chain actors in regimes and niches. What transaction cost economics can contribute to transition research and the multi-level perspective is its ability to specify how incremental and radical changes in regimes and niches affect transaction characteristics, which alter organizational structures for multiple actor coordination. This thesis also shows that the theory of alternative food networks is useful to understand multi-dimensional organization of actors in food system transitions. For instance, the theory is used to understand organizational differences among niche producer organizations resulting from different sustainability objectives, and to study multiple interactions of niche and regime producer organizations. This thesis also aims to contribute by arguing the need to go beyond economy-sociology binary viewpoints to understand the complexity and diversity of certain actors in food system transitions, such as producer organizations. Only the combination of organizational theories allows to study both the broad range of organizational characteristics and the roles of producer organizations in food systems.

Third, this thesis contributes to the conceptualization of different actors in food system transitions. This thesis adds insights to the conceptualization of businesses in transitions by showing their interdependencies and thus the need for coordination through organizational arrangements in value chains. In addition, the thesis yields insights into the conceptualization of producer organizations as (potential) transition intermediaries, which contributes to both literature on producer organizations and vastly expanding field on transition intermediaries. As a final contribution, this thesis shows that the diversity and complexity of producer organizations can only be understood when they are conceptualized as configurations of business and grassroots actors.

Recommendations for policy and practice

This thesis provides the following recommendations for policymakers and practitioners on how actors in transitions may best be supported.

Producer organizations are recommended to acknowledge their potential to fulfil various roles in food system transitions and make their contributions more explicit. In addition, producer organizations are recommended to start dialogues externally with government and others actors, and internally among members to create a shared vision about the roles to play in transitions. Both managers and members are encouraged to seek external training and advice as to gain the proper knowledge and skills to fulfil different roles in transitions.

Value chain actors are encouraged to optimize their coordination in organizational arrangements, in which particularly foreign retailers may harmonize their specific requirements with current quality standards. Value chain actors are recommended to design their bilateral organizational arrangements by taking interdependencies among all value chain actors into account, whereby particularly processors may provide additional coordination to upstream producers, for instance to communicate retailer-specific requirements, establish proper incentives to make necessary investments, and provide capacity support to enable compliance.

Finally, policymakers are recommended to promote a broad landscape of different types of producer organizations that fulfil distinct but complementary roles within and across niches and regimes – for instance by implementing different public regulations, and establishing financial, technical and capacity development support. Second, policymakers are recommended to provide tailored support to value chain actors as to facilitate supply to domestic and global value chains with differentiated safety, quality and sustainability requirements – for instance by supporting different domestic value chains and promoting successful supply to global value chains.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Bijman, W.J.J., Promotor
  • Trienekens, Jacques, Promotor
Award date15 Jun 2022
Place of PublicationWageningen
Print ISBNs9789464471380
Publication statusPublished - 15 Jun 2022


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