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From fair trade to responsible soy: social movements and the qualification of agrofood markets

  • Communication
  • Economics


The explosive growth of food commodity markets in the wake of massive, sustained demand from the ‘emerging economies’ might seem to mark a rupture with the niche quality markets which many authors have identified as the dominant tendencies in agrofood since the 1980s and a return to the mass markets of yesteryear. In this paper it is argued, however, that the distinguishing characteristics of special quality markets, and particularly the role of new social movements in their construction, are now being extended to the marketing of basic food commodities. Rather than a return to the commodity economy, therefore, we are witnessing a struggle to incorporate the values associated with fair trade, organics, and sustainability as benchmarks for global commodity trade in food, feed, fuels, and forestry products. I illustrate these tendencies through a discussion of the fair trade and responsible soy movements, representing the niche quality and the resurgent commodity markets, respectively, illustrating not only their similar dynamics but also their continuity in terms of leading actors and networks. Brazil provides a privileged vantage point for analysing this interface between global commodity markets and social movements. The strategic role of networks, in which civil society organisations and social movements are key both for the definition and the subsequent functioning of these markets points to the considerable weakening and possible demise of the traditional commodity economy. I draw attention, however, to the North – South and particularly European roots of these tendencies whose survival power is threatened as the axis for trade and investment shifts increasingly South – South with China as its principal driving force.

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