Ethics and sustainable agri-food governance: appraisal and new directions


Gianluca Brunori, University of Pisa, Italy

Francesca Galli, University of Pisa, Italy

James Kirwan, University of Gloucestershire, UK

Damian Maye, University of Gloucestershire, UK

Tiina Silvasti, University of Jyvaskyla, Finland



The working group aims to develop theoretical and methodological debate on the role of ethics and responsibility in the governance of the agri-food system as drivers for greater sustainability. The WG falls mainly into the second perspective of the call.


An increasing number of observers are aware that market institutions based on the concept of 'homo economicus' do not lead necessarily to sustainability. In order to better pursue sustainability, economic actors should follow rules of behaviour that take into account the unintended consequences of economic action. In this respect, ethical values are gaining importance as drivers of change in the agri-food system. For example, consumers are increasingly motivated by non-utilitarian values, with firms trying to gain consumers' trust by associating their products and brands with these values. More and more competition between firms is based on ethical values, rather than simply on product quality. Values are also increasingly a prerequisite to gaining a 'licence of operation' based on public legitimation. Ethical values are also increasingly recognized by public policies as drivers for transitions to greater sustainability and transformation, as regulation alone is deemed insufficient or ineffective.


These processes have already created a range of 'ethical foodscapes', but much more can be envisaged in the future, including the ethics that underpins techno-scientific innovation. Firstly, ethical issues have been embodied into grassroots initiatives that reframe consumers' behaviour and experiment with concrete alternatives to the conventional food system. Secondly, ethics are increasingly taken into consideration as a source of brand legitimation and reputation. As a result, quality systems and governance arrangements are being continuously updated so as to account for new and more advanced ethical criteria. Thirdly, ethics is at the centre of the growth of hybrid arrangements between civil society organizations, private enterprises and public administrations in response to emerging societal needs. A good example of this is food assistance. Here the objectives of recoverability for social purposes interact with the environmental benefits linked to surplus food / waste reduction. Several actors in the food system are implicated in the governance of food assistance: retailers and food producers enhance their social responsibility by getting involved in food recovery and donation; citizens and third sector organizations play a key advocacy role while developing relevant initiatives for food recovery and distribution; while policy actors are increasingly asked for the fulfillment of welfare and the right to food.


Nonetheless, the increasing importance of ethics raises a fundamental problem: in a globalized and fragmented world, a multiplicity of ethics may coexist, not necessarily in harmony with each other. How can food system actors be encouraged to develop ethical values and negotiate these ethics amongst each other? What governance arrangements will allow for and facilitate the development of, and participation in, ethical values?



The working group will host both empirical and theoretical papers. Authors will have 10-15 minutes for presentation and 5 minutes for discussion. Papers should try to respond to these questions:

  • How are ethics embodied in food systems and to what extent do they contribute to their evolution?
  • How will ethical values be developed in the coming years?
  • What conceptual frameworks can inform analysis of ethics and agri-food governance?
  • What are the key ethical issues / modes of agri-food practice (e.g. food waste, lab meat technologies, ethics of eating, ethics of producing, ethics of care/giving) that are likely to affect debates about agri-food system sustainability over the coming years?
  • Will a set of 'universal' ethical values emerge, or will different ethical framings produce their own food subsystems and values?
  • What will be the role of consumers, CSOs and public administrations in the development of ethical values?
  • What are the implications for management systems and corporate governance? How might an 'ethical' company be defined, both now and in the future?
  • How do ethics transform hybrid arrangements between public administrations, 'third sector' and private companies?
  • What are the implications for the governance of the agri-food system as a whole?
  • What are the implications for the regulation of the markets for food?

Chairs of the Working Group will encourage participants to discuss the papers in the light of these questions. The proposers are also planning to invite a 'senior' speaker who will synthesize the working group papers under a theoretical perspective.