Copyright © 2017 by the author(s). Published here under license by the Resilience Alliance.
Eakin, H., X. Rueda, and A. Mahanti. 2017. Transforming governance in telecoupled food systems. Ecology and Society 22(4):32.
Research, part of a Special Feature on Telecoupling: A New Frontier for Global Sustainability
Transforming governance in telecoupled food systems
Hallie Eakin 1, Ximena Rueda 2 and Ashwina Mahanti 1
ABSTRACT. In this paper we analyze how new actors, interests, and resources become salient to food system governance and how the
domain of food system governance transforms as a result. Specifically, we focus on how the boundaries of food systems are redefined
and new institutions are developed through the explicit recognition of distal interactions and feedbacks—telecoupling—operating in
the food system space. Telecoupling can stimulate new forms of governance, such as the development of codes of conduct and
certification schemes, with positive impacts on food and livelihood security; when ignored, telecouplings can exacerbate undesirable
social and ecological outcomes in linked systems. We present a typology of telecoupled food systems, highlighting three dimensions of
distance that can be present in systems that become telecoupled: social, institutional, and physical. We use that typology to explore the
evolution of telecoupling and governance change in two case studies. We associate the tendency for changes in governance that occur
in each case with the nature of “distance” in the systems in question: whether the systems are distal in terms of social and/or institutional
ties, or in the resource base, or some combination of all three dimensions of distance. The challenge of overcoming distance is not the
only issue that affects the possibility of governance change; the cases illustrate that the cultural and economic conditions of the connected
systems, the agency of actors involved, and their political and social relations and networks all come to play in enabling governance
transformation in telecoupled systems.
Key Words: food systems; globalization; governance; Latin America; sustainability; telecoupling
Food systems are inherently global, connected by complex webs
of information, goods, services, and capital (Goodman and Watts
1997). Today more than ever before, local food systems operate
within a regime in which corporate actors play a significant role
(UNCTAD 2009, McMichael 2011), and distal consumers’
preferences and decisions over market dynamics have large local
impacts affecting local ecosystems and livelihoods (Lambin and
Meyfroidt 2011). Although the impacts of food consumption
patterns on the planet have been the subject of considerable
research and attention over the last decades (see, for example,
Rockström et al. 2009, Godfray et al. 2010, Foley et al. 2011) the
ways in which these impacts feed back into food system
governance, institutional arrangements, and ultimately decision-
making is less understood. These feedbacks incorporate not only
the activities and actors involved in food production, processing,
distribution, and consumption, but also the actors, resources, and
values associated with other domains of concern: environmental
conservation, climate change adaptation, human development,
migration, and energy innovation, to name a few.
Responding to the prominent role of these distal connections,
some land-use science researchers have shifted their focus from
territory-based governance to incorporate flow-centered
governance as a driver of land use change (Sikor et al. 2013). This
shift has shed light on large-scale ecosystem changes, and their
impacts on social exclusion and even violence (Franks et al. 2014).
In food systems, one could argue, “flow-centric” governance has
been the norm in most locations since the colonial era, when the
globalization of commodity production was responsible for
significant land use change and livelihood disruption in much of
the world (Byerlee and Rueda 2015). Yet today new actors are
involved in food system flows: supranational organizations such
as the World Trade Organization, a diversity of transnational
corporations beholden to no one nation, as well as highly
organized domestic and international nongovernmental groups
(Ingram et al. 2010). The “flows” that are playing critical roles in
food systems today are not limited to traded food commodities,
but also incorporate other material and nonmaterial flows, such
as humanitarian investments, or human migration, as well as
discourses, ideology, information, technology, and know-how
(Adger et al. 2009, Oosterveer et al. 2014).
Governance can be defined by the actors and organizations that
manage a resource base and define how and what rules of
management should be designed and put in practice (Ostrom
2009). Governance thus incorporates not only the institutions,
the rules, norms, and regulations that structure interactions, but
also the actors involved, and their values, interests, and actions.
The growing connectivity and increased availability of
information that is integral to globalization allows consumers and
civil organizations to demand that their concerns and interests
are incorporated into food system governance. As a result, some
food system actors are working with civil society organizations
to improve production practices and to include ethical
considerations, whether social or environmental, in their practices
or those of their suppliers (Jaffee and Henson 2004, Auld et al.
2009). These new hybrid institutions formed by collaborations
among state, market, and/or civil society organizations provide
novel mechanisms to account for the externalities associated with
supply chain activities (Lemos and Agrawal 2006). The
incorporation of new actors and their concerns challenge the very
boundaries of what might be considered to be the resources,
actors, activities, interests, and values salient to and necessary for
food governance. Thus, adopting the “food system” as the unit
for governance allows for an expansion of the functional scope
of institutions to incorporate the challenges and externalities
associated with the production, distribution, and consumption of
agricultural commodities, and the diverse values of its
stakeholders. Nevertheless, we have relatively little understanding
of the conditions under which such problem-driven institutions
emerge and the feedbacks that stimulate changes in governance.
1School of Sustainability, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona, 2School of Management, Universidad de los Andes, Bogota, Colombia
Ecology and Society 22(4): 32
In this paper, we analyze the conditions under which new actors,
interests, and resources become salient to food system governance
and how the domain of food system governance may change as
a result. Specifically, we focus on the way in which diverse values
and interests held by actors associated with a social-ecological
system linked to food production become the basis on which the
boundaries of the system are redefined and new institutions are
developed. We employ the concept of telecoupling, a concept
borrowed from the natural and physical sciences, as a heuristic to
frame our analysis. In its application to social-ecological systems,
telecoupling has typically referred to systems that are linked, even
though they are physically distant (“tele” referring to “far, or far
off”), which problematizes the understanding of the causal
mechanisms that couple them. Through the lens of governance,
telecoupling brings attention to the latent “ungoverned” causal
interactions and feedbacks between distinct systems, and how
(and whether) the eventual acknowledgement of such interactions
and feedbacks may alter system governance to enhance
sustainability (Eakin et al. 2014a). In this paper, we propose that
telecoupling incorporates the idea of institutional and social
distance as well as physical distance. This expansion of the
telecoupling framework facilitates our analysis of how food
systems evolve to incorporate the interests, actors, and geographic
spaces associated with issues and resources that have traditionally
been considered external to the boundaries of food systems.
TELECOUPLING AND SOCIAL-ECOLOGICAL FOOD
Over the last decades, rural sociologists, geographers, and
anthropologists have brought attention to the complexity of
contemporary food system interactions, arguing that the
reorganization of global capital and investment has
fundamentally restructured our relationship with food, its place
of origin, and its social and environmental impacts (Goodman
and Watts 1997, Clapp 2003, McMichael 2011). Scholars of food
regime theory have argued that we are now in a new era, a new
food regime, in which corporate interests and financial controls
are dominant (see Friedmann 1994, McMichael 2001), but one in
which there are also new dynamics offering both resistance to
corporate food-system control and new economic opportunities
for powerful actors to exert their agendas (McMichael 2009,
Goodman et al. 2010). This new food regime, named “food from
somewhere” by Campbell (2009), is an evolution from the prior
global food regime dominated by generic, substitutable
commodity chains and the “invisibility of origin” of food, i.e.,
“food from nowhere.” Under the emergent “food from
somewhere” regime, efforts are being made to recognize the social
and ecological feedbacks between bases of production and points
of consumption. Nongovernmental organizations, mobilized
consumer groups, peasant movements, or retailers catering to elite
segments of society seek to reconnect food to place and identity
through new instruments of governance: food audits, commodity
traceability, eco-certifications, and labeling schemes. Together
these instruments serve to communicate the ecological and social
consequences of distant food system interactions, in essence “re-
embedding” dispersed transnational food systems into specific
places and cultures (Campbell 2009).
The organization and coordination of the various activities in an
agricultural commodity supply chain, and the implications of
power distribution among actors involved in processes of
production, consumption, and distribution is the central focus of
global commodity value chain analysis (e.g., Gereffi et al. 2005,
Auld et al. 2009, Mayer and Gereffi 2010, Lee et al. 2012, Rueda
et al. 2017). Recent studies on agricultural commodity
roundtables provide some insights into the processes by which
supply chain actors collaborate with NGOs to create a shared
understanding of sustainability, the environmental and social
externalities and spillovers of agriculture (Boons and Mendoza
2010). These multistakeholder initiatives have been evaluated on
their ability to establish legitimacy, accountability, democratic
capability, and problem-solving capacities (Bäckstrand 2006,
Fuchs et al. 2011, Mena and Palazzo 2012). However, the focus
has been on the procedural aspects of multistakeholder
governance rather than the implications of such collaborations
for redefining the functional scope of governance.
For this reason, we turn to a social-ecological systems (SES)
approach, which challenges what might be considered the
boundaries of food system activities, resources, actors, and
impacts (Friis and Nielsen 2017). An SES approach shifts the
framing of research from focusing largely on the economic and
value-chain activities that are explicitly concerned with food, to
the complex dynamics that define the social-ecological systems in
which food activities are embedded (Ericksen 2008). In other
words, it positions food governance within “problem-determined
systems,” i.e., systems whose boundaries are determined by the
issue of concern, rather than “system-determined problems,” i.e.,
a commodity supply chain (Ison et al. 1997, as cited in Ericksen
2008:237). This perspective is thus distinct from other recent food
system analyses in which the commodity chain is the focus of
inquiry, and actors and activities are defined according to their
centrality in the chain (e.g., Newton et al. 2013).
Telecoupling has been employed to explain how multiple (distal)
systems interact, their complex causal pathways and the influence
that seemingly unrelated systems exert on each other (Liu et al.
2013, Eakin et al. 2014a). The concept of telecoupling has also
been recently employed to describe the interdependency among
causal factors in social vulnerability to climatic impacts (e.g.,
Adger et al. 2009, Eakin et al. 2009, Moser and Hart 2015), the
coupled nature of the processes of land use change generally (Liu
et al. 2013, Eakin et al. 2014a) and urbanization specifically (Seto
et al. 2012), and land-use change and food security interactions
(Verburg et al. 2013). Challies et al. (2014) call for enhanced
attention to empirical examples of governance for globalizing
SESs, and highlight the challenges of making normative decisions
about the scales at which systems need to be assessed for their
resilience, vulnerability, and adaptability as well as in defining
socially desirable food and agricultural social-ecological systems.
To date, empirical research using a telecoupling framework has
largely focused on the flow of information, finances, and material
resources across geographically distal systems. Other, more
intangible linkages, such as values, knowledge, social networks,
and institutions are only recently being considered in this
literature (Moser and Hart 2015, Eakin et al. 2014a, Oosterveer
et al. 2014). One untested hypothesis is that the intangible nature
of linkages in telecoupled SES, e.g., new values, political
dynamics, information on the performance of attributes of
interest, may be in part what produces unexpected outcomes: the
sudden recognition that emergent outcomes in one location are
Ecology and Society 22(4): 32
linked to seemingly unrelated policies, investments, and activities
in distant places. These outcomes are then what make the
relationships visible and tractable for social actors and subject to
governance (Eakin et al. 2014a).
The emergence of new forms of governance in food systems that
respond to the linkages described above constitutes the focus of
our analysis. New forms of governance can incorporate new
actors and organizations (and thus new values, priorities,
agendas), novel institutions, and mechanisms of implementation,
as well as new resources or resource system boundaries. The
boundaries of what is governed are defined by the actors and
organizations involved (Ostrom 2009). Food systems, as SESs,
comprise resource system(s), e.g., land, water, vegetation, and
associated biophysical dynamics; units of resources of specific
interest to the food consumers, e.g., corn for food and fuel;
resource users, i.e., producers, distributors, retailers, and
consumers, dispersed across regions, with different incentives and
motivations, and the governance arrangements that link these
system elements. The geographic dispersion and connectivity of
the actors involved in these systems is of particular interest: their
location compounds the challenges of sharing information,
lobbying, and networking that enable new forms of governance
to emerge (Brondizio et al. 2009). Accelerated processes of
globalization and global environmental change have transformed
the dynamics of SES and the attributes of what constitute “good
governance” in the new millennium: local actors have, in many
cases, more influence on global processes than at any point in the
past. In many cases the rules and norms intended for specific
geographies or economies have unprecedented influence on
outcomes at other scales and in other places (Karkkainen 2003,
Young et al. 2006, Adger et al. 2009, Eakin and Wehbe 2009).
In our analysis, we study change (and lack of change) in the
governance of two food systems: maize and coffee, which become
coupled with the global energy and global humanitarian aid
systems, respectively, through the lens of telecoupling. We have
chosen these two cases because of their global importance to
international trade, food security, and sustainability. Both systems
play significant roles in the food security of the poor: maize is one
of the fundamental staples of human diet across the planet and
is still produced by smallholders in most maize-producing nations,
while coffee provides cash income to more than 60 million growers
around the globe. The production of these crops has substantial
impacts on land use and ecosystem conservation in both tropical
and temperate regions of the world. Both crops are also associated
with significant cultural, political, and economic values in the
particular geographies where they are produced and consumed.
We explore the recognition of telecoupling related to these crops
within a similar historical moment in the Americas: the onset of
the neoliberal era of agricultural commerce and the rise of the
“food from somewhere” regime. Although the commodities
produced by these two food systems have been traded at the global
level for centuries, only in recent decades have these systems seen
their boundaries expanded to become telecoupled in unique ways,
as the cases will illustrate. Nevertheless, despite broad similarities,
the evolution of governance in response to the recognition of
telecoupling was quite distinct in the two cases, providing an
opportunity for case comparison.
In undertaking this case study comparison, we do not provide a
comprehensive view of all possible telecoupling types (discussed
below), or derive broad theoretical conclusions regarding how
different forms of telecoupling will determine specific governance
outcomes. Such undertaking would require a larger pool of
examples, beyond the scope of this paper. Instead, we aim to use
the two cases to explore empirically some of the elements that
would appear significant in helping explain the differences
observed in governance outcomes. We draw from a conceptual
framework, described below, which posits that specific phases
occur in the process of societal recognition of telecoupling
relationships, providing opportunities for a shift in governance
arrangements. The framework creates a temporal structure that
we use to delve into the events and outcomes associated with the
recognition of and response to telecoupling, as reported in a
variety of secondary sources and from our own primary research.
The insights from these cases can thus be employed to improve
upon conceptual models of telecoupling to provide evidence of
some of the mechanisms that link telecoupling structure and
dynamics to governance outcomes.
Our analysis thus focuses on the initial conditions within the
systems of interest, the phases that evolved to produce
telecoupling, and within each phase, the mechanisms by which
the telecoupling enabled (or not) the interests and values of new
actors to be incorporated into an expanded notion of the
boundaries of the food system in question and thus the domain
of governance. Our focus on governance arrangements frees us
from considering telecoupling solely in distal spatial terms and
allows us to analyze the interaction of both social, institutional,
and natural resource base distance among systems as challenges
in governance. We broaden the scope of telecoupling to consider
the possibility of overlapping social-ecological systems, in which
either actors or resources are common, yet which share few
institutional ties. Through shedding light on the distal
mechanisms that trigger social and institutional change, we aim
to contribute to an emerging discourse on governance for
enhanced food system sustainability. Before analyzing the cases,
we introduce a typology that outlines four different initial
conditions under which apparently distal processes become
coupled. We posit that these initial conditions circumscribe the
mechanisms that emerge as significant in the evolution of
governance, once actors recognize a situation of telecoupling.
FOUR TYPES OF INITIAL CONDITIONS IN
Telecoupling may be in existence whether or not it is formally and
explicitly recognized or understood by social actors. Nevertheless,
it is the explicit and conscious recognition of telecoupling that we
posit is necessary if governance arrangements are to take into
account telecoupled relationships. Thus, we can define a process
of the explicit recognition of telecoupling as a series of system
interactions occurring at different temporal stages. The systems
are necessarily in constant dynamic change; defining the “initial”
state is thus only a point for reference to map subsequent shifts
in the configuration of system governance in relation to the
occurrence and recognition of telecoupling.
We propose four distinct types of initial conditions, e.g., prior to
the recognition of a telecoupling interaction, considering, for
Ecology and Society 22(4): 32
Fig. 1. Typology of possible initial conditions in telecoupled interactions. In each quadrant, we
depict a caricature of a social-ecological system, composed of interactions between resource base
and a social system. Each analytically discrete social-ecological system is signaled by a rectangle
boundary, within which a constellation of actors participates in the use of a resource base. Their
actions over the resource, and the resource response to these actions, i.e., flows of goods or
resource units, are governed through institutional arrangements (signaled by arrows)
simplicity, two systems that initially are not telecoupled (or for
which the telecoupling is latent, or not explicitly recognized).
These distinct types provide simple analytical constructs for the
purpose of defining system boundaries, initial states, and
concerned stakeholders (Fig. 1).
Physically distal systems, no social or institutional ties
The first type of initial system structure (1) refers to two or more
geographically distant and functionally independent social-
ecological systems governed by different institutional, cultural,
political, and/or economic arrangements and actors (Seto et al.
2012, Liu et al. 2013, Eakin et al. 2014a). Using an anecdotal
example, this might be the case of rapid land use change and
urban development occurring in the United Arab Emirates, fueled
by migrant laborers from Nepal. The systems, incorporating a
resource base, e.g., agricultural land or urban land; resource users,
e.g., farmer households, urban developers, and laborers; and
governance arrangements, e.g., land tenure laws, food security
programs, labor laws, or economic development incentives,
become coupled when profound indebtedness or, alternatively,
remittance flows, associated with migrant labor influence
trajectories of land use change in Nepal (Jaquet et al. 2016).
Nepalese land use change, and the associated effects on food
security, would then be telecoupled to urban development in the
Physically distal systems, some social and institutional ties
The second type (2) refers to two distinct geographically
differentiated natural resource systems, e.g., the land, water, and
other biophysical resources used for cotton production in peri-
urban regions of Arizona, and for cotton production in China,
become linked through some overlapping social actors (resource
users, resource administrators) and institutional arrangements,
for example, via international trade. This interaction is likely
governed by bilateral or multilateral trade agreements and
corporate norms and standards in markets. Nevertheless, there
are other resource users, for example, urban land developers or
suburban water users, who are not explicitly governed by
institutions pertaining to cotton. Should change occur in the
cotton commodity chain, in our hypothetical example, in access
to Chinese markets, there might be unexpected repercussions for
labor demand in cotton, and water availability for suburban
development in Arizona, as competition for land and water
increases. In this hypothetical example, suburban housing
development (a system sharing resources with locally produced
cotton, but incorporating different resource users and
institutional arrangements) may become telecoupled to cotton
institutions, actors, and resource base in China, via the dynamics
of the U.S. cotton sector.
Ecology and Society 22(4): 32
Common resource base, distal social and institutional systems
A third type (3) is characterized by two overlapping social-
ecological systems that share common biophysical resources or
fundamental ecological processes, i.e., the resource system, but
for which the social actors, i.e., resource users, and associated
institutions are largely independent with minimal interaction. In
this case, physical distance is not the defining feature; rather, the
systems may be operating in the same locations but for a variety
of reasons (economic efficiency, politics, history, organizational
mandates, and imperatives) share few formal social or
institutional relations. Here, as we describe in detail below and
has been detailed in the literature on “land grabbing” (see for
example, Borras and Franco 2012), we might have a renewable
energy sector that, in response to technological developments,
begins to seek out land resources for the production of biofuels.
These same land resources are already in production for food
crops, governed independently by food and agricultural
institutions. Under some circumstances, these different socio-
institutional, but common natural resource systems could become
telecoupled in the institutional space when ecological and social
processes in a specific geography become tied to energy policy in
a distant location. In response, there may be new efforts to achieve
a shared goal of joint governance for resource management. In
this sense, as the telecoupled relationships are recognized, system
boundaries dissolve and are redrawn to encompass the expanded
actors and institutions that encompass the newly defined social-
Common social and physical systems, distal institutions
Finally, in a fourth type (4), there may be large overlap in the
resources and actors in two systems, but a lack of a shared system
of governance. This situation is common in many complex
urbanizing environments in which natural resources (land, water)
are managed locally by landowners with institutional ties to rural
organizations and national agricultural agencies. However, the
same resource base may also be subject to urban laws and norms
and associated agencies (see, for example, Lerner and Eakin 2011,
and Short 2013). Again, natural resource distance is less of a
determinant feature of this scenario. Here, for example, urban
policies such as housing densification can have unintended
consequences that undermine agricultural land use goals. Or, in
more industrial contexts such as the Southwest U.S., processes
such as the use of herbicides for controlling weeds by suburban
homeowners (governed by household/residential chemical use
and practices) can have implications for herbicide resistance and
agricultural practices in surrounding peri-urban fields (governed
by sectoral and national policies).
In each scenario, following a disturbance to one or more of the
systems, telecoupling becomes visible to actors as a potential
governance concern when, for example, ecological or social
conditions cross a threshold of concern (changes in a resource
base condition), new information emerges (challenging existing
institutional conditions), or new actors acquire agency (changes
in social relations) and are able to shift attention to system
dynamics that were previously neglected. Because existing
governance arrangements do not initially incorporate the newly
recognized intersystem linkages, the disturbance is likely to
produce unexpected and thus often surprising outcomes:
environmental changes, for example, or impacts on specific
livelihood opportunities, consumption processes, or incomes. In
some cases, such outcomes produce volatility in markets,
consternation in political processes, and even social violence or
unrest (Eakin et al. 2010).
Changes in governance in telecoupled systems
For the purposes of this analysis, we consider that a substantive
change in governance, following the recognition of telecoupling,
would encompass the explicit incorporation of new actors with
distinct values and interests into existing governance
arrangements. Thus, creating a reframing of what constitutes the
geographic and thematic boundaries of governance to account
for telecoupling relationships and outcomes, and/ or the
formulation of additional or new institutions to achieve revised
performance goals. Ultimately, a significant change in governance
would fully embrace the issues raised in telecoupling that were
initially considered as external to the food system within existing
Significant change in institutional structure often derives from
functional, social, and political pressures: the recognition of
performance deficiencies (functional pressure) in existing
governance arrangements, for example, as evidenced by loss of
productivity in some attribute of value to an organization; the
introduction of discordant or diverse values and priorities into
governance (social pressure); or/and shifts in power and agency
within an organizational domain (political pressure; Oliver 1997,
Dacin et al. 2002). We see these three forms of “pressures” as
interacting in complex ways in the context of telecoupling, given
that the sources of pressure, the actors receptive to pressure, and
the scope of existing institutions and governance may be
characterized by physical or social distance. For example, the
entry of new actors into an arena of governance may be provoked
by the concern of such actors over functional changes
(“functional pressure”) in specific system attributes (biodiversity,
farmland, social welfare). These actors can enable new values,
priorities, and agendas (e.g., “social pressure”) to enter an existing
policy arena (Dacin et al. 2002, Brondizio et al. 2009, Bodin and
Crona 2009). For such social pressure to be effective, these actors
must have the capacity for action and mobilization within that
existing arena (capacity to exert “political pressure”). As Dacin
et al. (2002) argue, incumbent governance arrangements can meet
these pressures with resistance or legitimization. How the
pressures for institutional change are received is affected by the
construction and translation of shared meanings, the agency of
specific actors, and power differentials in existing social networks.
Extending these insights about institutional change to the analysis
of multiple systems interacting in telecoupled relationships, we
posit that there is likely a sequence of temporal phases that
condition the emergence of functional, social, and political
pressures, and thus the potential for governance change (Eakin
et al. 2014a; Fig. 2). First, in order for a disturbance in one system,
defined by Liu et al. (2013) as the “sending system,” to cause
unexpected outcomes in other (receiving) systems, the sending
system must have disproportionate influence or control over
intersystem linkages, and the “receiving system” would need to
be particularly sensitive to the disturbance. In other words, the
sending system dominates the flow of information, economic
resources, material flows, etc., and the receiving system is
particularly dependent on these flows, making it acutely sensitive
to changes in its dynamics. For example, in commodity systems
Ecology and Society 22(4): 32
Fig. 2. Conceptual model of how the recognition of telecoupling may trigger change in governance.
where one region dominates the supply chain, and the commodity
is particularly critical to food security in a second region, that
second region can be described as been particularly sensitive to
the influence of the first (see also Fraser et al. 2005 for a discussion
of connectivity, dependence, and food system sensitivity).
Second, the disturbance in the sending system needs to create a
change in the receiving system that is recognizable and salient to
actors in that system: in other words, a shift in system state that
significantly affects attributes of social, ecological, political, or
economic value, e.g., the performance of these attributes, to a
particular set of actors. These actors then may draw new or
unprecedented attention to the unexpected outcome and its
potential causal linkages, creating a source of “social pressure.”
Finally, in order for such attention to affect the structure or
process of governance, there must exist a mobilization capacity,
a capacity of key actors to act on the changes they have observed
that concern them, and exert influence on the existing system of
governance, e.g., have the ability to exert political pressure. In
food systems, this capacity for mobilization may be, for example,
associated with new cross-scalar networks of nongovernmental
actors and civil society organizations, i.e., Via Campesina, the
international Food Sovereignty or Slow Food movements, or
international bodies with policy influence, such as the Food and
Agricultural Organization of the UN, or one of the research
institutes associated with the Consultative Group on
International Agriculture Research (CGIAR), or private sector
associations of food retailers or particular commodity chains with
specific weight in economic activities. Ultimately, the potential
for significant shifts in governance is also dependent on the
receptivity of actors within an incumbent regime to embrace and
legitimize change, rather than dismiss, ignore, or resist such
pressures (Dacin et al. 2002).
The proposed conditions on governance change described in the
previous section are as yet untested. In the sections that follow,
we describe two cases of food system telecoupling, applying the
telecoupling definition and heuristic described above. We focus
on the social-ecological production of maize in Mexico, and the
coupling of the coffee commodity market to humanitarian aid
system internationally, and its implications for governance of
coffee globally and in Colombia. As stated above, these two
commodity systems are of crucial importance for rural
households in both countries and help us explore how social and
environmental outcomes in these two locations are associated
with stimuli in distant locations, and the implications that this
coupling has for changes in food system governance. These cases
are drawn from our ongoing field research and from the
availability of additional published empirical research and
secondary data. To elucidate the nature and consequences of
telecoupling, we identify prior conditions, a “trigger event,” and
responses in each case. We focus, however, on trajectory of
governance that followed the initial recognition of telecoupling
Ecology and Society 22(4): 32
Fig. 3. Telecoupling of U.S. Corn and Biofuel System to the Mexican Maize System. At t0, the
Mexican maize system is largely independent of influence of the U.S. energy system. At t1,
institutional linkages between the U.S. Corn and U.S. energy system are in place; these linkages
transmit a signal of change to Mexico. At t2, the telecoupling of U.S. Corn Ethanol to the Mexican
Maize system has contributed to changes in governance and institutions in Mexico, but has not
generated a feedback to the U.S. agriculture-energy system.
of some element of interest in each system with socially,
institutionally, or physically distal processes and events, exploring
the conditions that led to change (in the coffee case) and lack of
change (in the case of maize).
Mexican maize system
Maize (Zeas mays L.) is an iconic crop in Mexico. It is widely
believed that maize was first domesticated in what is now a
semiarid valley of central Mexico (Piperno and Flannery 2001).
Maize today occupies more than half the planted area in Mexico,
involving over 2 million producers, and constituting 43% of
household grain expenditures (SAGARPA 2007). Maize is not
just the primary component of Mexican diets (in the form of the
tortilla); it is also a political and cultural symbol (Baker 2013): it
is associated with the emancipatory politics of the Mexican
Agrarian Revolution, and with Mexico’s indigenous traditions
and origins. It is the primary symbol of the “countryside” (el
campo) and as such, a symbol of the rights and traditions of
Mexico’s large rural population that has otherwise often been
marginalized in development investments.
The telecoupling that is the subject of this case study is between
three systems that have become integrally linked in two phases
(Fig. 3): (a) the Mexican maize system (incorporating actors,
resources, and institutions involved in production, processing,
distribution, and consumption of maize); (b) the United States
yellow corn production system; and (c) the renewable energy
sector of the United States.
The Mexican maize and U.S. corn systems have long shared a
history of economic governance. In the early 1990s, these two
commodity systems thus could be considered to be a “type 2” of
our telecoupling typology: distal geographies governed by some
established institutional arrangements and market mechanisms.
These economic linkages became more closely integrated with the
Ecology and Society 22(4): 32
signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)
in 1994, which marked a watershed in contemporary maize policy
for Mexico. As a crop central to national food security, Mexico’s
policy focus of the 1970s and 1980s was to ensure national self-
sufficiency in maize through production incentives and trade
barriers, limiting the country’s dependence on foreign (U.S.)
imports (Austin and Esteva 1987). The policy reforms that
preceded and accompanied the implementation of NAFTA
shifted the focus of national policy from self-sufficiency to free
trade and greater efficiency in national production (González
Merino and Casteñeda Zavala 2008). The price of white maize
was deregulated and set on par with the price of U.S. yellow corn
grade 2, traded in Chicago (see Appendix of Appendini 2014 for
a discussion of the pricing policies and industrial, but not cultural,
substitutability of white and yellow corn). By 2006, commercial
maize farming in Mexico had become highly geographically
concentrated in the state of Sinaloa (Sweeney et al. 2013), and
Sinaloan maize supply began to dominate domestic markets for
human consumption (Davenport et al. 2016). Mexico was
importing about 23% of its total domestic consumption, largely
in yellow maize, for livestock feed. Almost all, over 95%, of this
maize was being imported from the United States.
Trigger of initial telecoupling of the U.S. corn and U.S. energy
In 2005, a significant change occurred in U.S. energy policy with
the adoption of the Renewable Fuel Standards (RFS) as part of
the Energy Policy Act. In 2007, an amendment to the RFS
mandated that total national consumption of biofuel reach 36
billion gallons by 2022. In 2002, for the first time, the national
Farm Bill (the primary instrument of U.S. agricultural policy)
incorporated incentives for corn-based ethanol production and
processing, effectively uniting the institutions of farm
development and land use with national energy security
institutions (Hill et al. 2006). The subsequent Farm Bill (2008)
furthered this policy by providing payments to farmers who
allocated their harvests to ethanol markets. In essence, the U.S.
corn and U.S. renewable fuels systems (initially representing “type
3” of our typology above) were now coupled.
The combined effect of the RFS and the supports offered through
the Farm Bill was a dramatic increase in corn-based ethanol
production and processing, from 4 billion gallons in 2005 to 13.2
billion gallons by 2010. In 2005, just over 10% of the U.S. corn
harvest was diverted to ethanol production; by 2010 this figure
was 40% (Hill et al. 2006). Much of the corn diverted to ethanol
was at the expense of grain exports, which declined from 2.1
million bushels to 1.8 mill bushels over the same period, a decline
of approximately 14% (USDA ERS [various years]). The U.S. has
a particularly prominent functional role in global corn trade: the
U.S. is the world’s largest supplier of maize in global markets,
representing on average 60% of global maize trade over the period
2003/2004 to 2007/2008. Nevertheless, exports typically are
comparable to only 15% of domestic maize demand. This makes
countries importing U.S. corn particularly sensitive to change in
U.S. domestic market conditions (and not vice versa).
Transmission of the signal and disturbance in a third system:
Mexico’s maize system
An unexpected consequence of the coupling of U.S. corn and
energy systems was the transmission of energy policy incentives
into the Mexican maize system. This second phase of system
coupling became acutely apparent toward the end of 2006 when
international maize grain prices began to rise precipitously in
response to a complex interaction of the effects of the U.S. RFS,
adverse climatic conditions affecting yields, a spike in global oil
prices, and speculation, against a backdrop of rising grain
demand and low global stocks (von Braun 2007, IATP Trade and
Global Governance Program 2008, Clapp 2009, Piesse and Thirtle
2009, Headey 2011). The liberalization of corn under NAFTA
was fully implemented in 2008 and it was expected that Mexico
would import increasing amounts of corn to substitute sorghum
for livestock feed in the context of the market liberalization
(Hoffman et al. 2007). The sensitivity of Mexico to the global
price spike was conditioned not only by the fact that domestic
and U.S. maize prices were now undifferentiated in pricing policy,
but also by the concentration of national production in a handful
of states (dominated by the state of Sinaloa) and the commercial
maize market and maize flour processing industry in the hands
of a small group of transnational agribusinesses (Reyes Guzmán
2007, Keleman and García Rañó 2011). Directly competing with
U.S. maize imports, maize prices in Sinaloa shot up. Market
consolidation within Mexico amplified the signal of the price
shock within domestic markets (Davenport et al. 2016).
By January 2007, tortilla prices had increased 72%, affecting not
only the large urban consumer class in Mexico City, but also rural
residents, who also depended on purchases of tortilla dough to
satisfy their consumption needs (Keleman and García Rañó
2011). The sudden, and largely unexpected, rise in tortilla prices
sent residents of Mexico City to the street in protest. Average
weekly household expenditure on tortillas exceeded 20% of the
regulated minimum salary, affecting poor urban consumers most
directly (González et al. 2007, Keleman and García Rañó 2011).
The rapid rise in tortilla prices also produced an inflationary
pressure on the consumer price index, with consequential negative
implications for household food expenditures (Reyes Guzmán
2007). According to one estimate, corn-based ethanol expansion
in the U.S. costs Mexico over $1 billion in increased import costs
Attention and mobilization
Public attention to the rise in tortilla prices and its impact was
large, not only because tortilla consumption represents a
substantial portion of the calories and expenditures the urban
poor. The affordability of tortillas is of political, economic, and
ultimately symbolic importance. Mexico’s conservative President
Calderón had just assumed office by a narrow margin when the
tortilla prices spiked; Mexico City, where urban tortilla
consumption is concentrated, had overwhelmingly voted for the
opposition party. New activist organizations were formed, such
as Sin Maiz, No Hay Pais (Without maize, there is no nation,
http://sinmaiznohaypais.org), protesting the price spikes and
advocating for maize as cultural heritage. The public protests
garnered significant media attention and sympathy in the left-
leaning urban middle class. The Calderón government responded
to the crisis by convening a national “pact” with tortilla industry
representatives to establish a (voluntary) price ceiling on tortillas
and maize flour (Keleman and García Rañó 2011). The
government also waived import tariffs on white corn (used
primarily for tortilla manufacture), and agreed to closely monitor
speculation. Although smallholder maize farmers demanded
Ecology and Society 22(4): 32
increased public investment to respond to the tortilla crisis
(Melgar and Contreras 2008), little changed in production
investments for smallholders (Appendini 2014).
Somewhat ironically, given the perceived adverse effects of rising
corn ethanol demand on food prices, policy makers in Mexico
initially moved to create new linkages between the Mexican farm
sector and U.S. energy sector. In April 2007, the Mexican congress
approved the Law for the Promotion and Development of
Bioenergy (Ley de Promoción y Desarrollo de Bioenergía). This
law was designed to mobilize Mexico’s agricultural sector to
produce not only corn- and sugar-based biofuels for national use,
but also to help meet the U.S. biofuel mandate via export of
biofuel to the U.S. Nevertheless, the law’s promotion of Mexican
maize for biofuel use produced vocal protest among some national
smallholder farm associations (who saw little opportunity of their
members accessing ethanol markets, and instead preferred
support for national food sovereignty), international NGOs, i.e.,
Greenpeace and Oxfam, and environmental groups (Muñoz Ríos
2007). In response to considerable debate and critique in the media
in the wake of the Tortilla Crisis, the law was subsequently
modified (Oct 2007) to exclude the use of maize as a source of
biofuel, unless there was national production in excess of human
food demand (González Merino and Casteñeda Zavala 2008).
Feedbacks in governance
Although U.S. ethanol expansion was not the only driver of global
maize price increases in 2007, the crisis affected the discourse and
ultimately the institutions in Mexico concerning national food
sovereignty and bioenergy. The outcry raised by rising tortilla
prices appeared to threaten political stability, and was seen as an
affront to cultural values. To date, restrictions remain on the use
of Mexican maize for biofuel. There is little indication that the
crisis has led to any substantial change in the governance of maize
production or trade. In fact, if anything, the crisis only reinforced
Mexico’s commitment to maize imports and commercial maize
promotion in the northern state of Sinaloa (Eakin et al. 2014b).
Sinaloa continues to supply approximately 20% of national maize
production, and to dominate the winter irrigated market (SIAP
2017). In 2017, tortilla prices are once again on the rise pressured
by increasing fuel prices, the devaluation of the peso against the
U.S. dollar, and the sensitivity of Sinaloa’s prices to commodity
market volatility in the Chicago Board of Trade (see, for example,
Although there were feedbacks and repercussions for Mexican
policy, neither the Tortilla Crisis, nor the global food crisis more
generally, has had an impact on the governance arrangements
associated with U.S. farm and energy policy. To the contrary, one
analysis found that between March 2008 and March 2011, ethanol
supply and demand accounted for 23% of variation in the price
of corn, and that 16–17% of gasoline price variation can be
attributed to volatility in ethanol and corn markets (McPhail and
Du 2012). The most recent version of the Farm Bill, passed by
the U.S. Senate, maintained its subsidies for corn ethanol
production and processing, and 2015 federal budget allocations
continue to strongly support corn ethanol. According to one
consumer watch group, the continued energy supports have now
been supported by heavy investment (totaling over $22 million)
of the corn ethanol lobby, a group that now integrates both farm
sector representatives (American Farm Bureau), the biotech
industry (Biotechnology Industry Organization), and transnational
agribusiness (Cargill, ADM; Taxpayers for Common Sense 2013).
The coffee system after the crisis of 1989: from the “latte
revolution” to corporate commitments for sustainability
Coffee is one of the most heavily traded commodities in the world.
About 60 million people, mainly in tropical regions, are involved
in the production of more than 8.5 million tons of green coffee
every year. Brazil, Vietnam, and Colombia are the main producers
of coffee, Brazil and Colombia being the largest producers of
mild Arabica coffee, considered of higher quality than the
Robusta variety. North America, Europe, and Japan are the
largest consumers, although the more dynamic markets are in the
emerging economies of Eastern Europe, Brazil, and even China
and India. The case of coffee illustrates how two systems, which
were initially only linked by the location of the resource base and
their users, became coupled through international institutional
and social networks. These two systems can be described as the
coffee social-ecological production and trade system, on the one
hand, and the humanitarian aid system, devoted to support poor
rural households across the developing world, on the other. In
this sense, the systems resembled the type 3 scenario: different
institutional arrangements and actors invested in the same or
closely associated geographic attributes.
The actors of the first system are characterized by producers,
traders, manufacturing companies, consumers, and their
governments, that determine the terms of trade among those
actors. In terms of producers, there are more than 30 countries
in tropical areas growing and trading coffee. Coffee is usually
grown by smallholders, i.e. “suppliers.” Manufacturing has been
historically dominated by a few companies that roast, pack, label,
and sell coffee through retailers. These companies are located
predominantly in North America, Europe, and Japan. The
governance system for the coffee value chain was, between 1962
and up to 1989, the International Coffee Agreement (ICA). The
agreement was reached between the largest producing and
consuming countries and determined a fixed quota of production
to be allocated to each country. Producing countries, in turn,
developed local institutions to stabilize domestic prices, known
as coffee boards, that taxed exports in times of high prices to
subsidize the price when they were low. The coffee agreement
ended, under the pressure of the U.S. government, and national
boards were dismantled (Muradian and Pelupessy 2005). The fall
of the agreement was followed by substantial increases in
production from Brazil and Vietnam that flooded the market,
further reducing the price and contributing to the collapse of most
national boards (Muradian and Pelupessy 2005).
The connection between coffee trade and rural livelihoods had
been acknowledged by actors in the agreement: manufacturing
companies in the North, the governments of those countries,
producers’ associations in the South, and their governments.
Through regulation in the market they produced a loose
governance structure that led each national government to design
the mechanisms through which the benefits of a restricted market
were going to be allocated.
The second system in this case is the humanitarian aid system,
which in the 1980s comprised public and private organization in
the North (the “donors”) and rural households in the South (the
“beneficiaries”) who receive aid, given their extreme poverty and
Ecology and Society 22(4): 32
Fig. 4. Telecoupling of the coffee system and international humanitarian aid networks: the case of
Colombia. In t0, the global agro-economic coffee system operated with independent actors and
institutions from the humanitarian aid system (type 3 telecoupling). In t1, the collapse of the
International Coffee Agreement (ICA) provokes a change in actors, agendas, and institutions, as
represented by the transformation of coffee governance in Colombia. The social-ecological coffee
production system becomes governed simultaneously by local institutions, such as Colombian
Coffee Growers Federation (FNC by its Spanish acronym) but also by distal governance systems
(the environmental and humanitarian NGOs in North America and Europe). As noted in the text,
this domestic transformation was not replicated in all countries: here we illustrate the case of
Mexico for contrast.
fragile livelihoods. Humanitarian aid organizations for
developing countries were formalized and grew considerably after
the postwar period, when intergovernmental aid organizations
were organized under the auspices of the United Nations
(Paulmann 2013). The war marked a transition between the belief-
oriented organizations that had been active for centuries, to the
formalization of aid organizations with defined purposes,
professional personnel, and budgets. These organizations
proliferated in the 1980s with the expansion of nongovernmental
organizations with global aims. The resource base for this system
is the social-ecological rural landscapes in the South where
poverty is concentrated and households depend on rural assets
for their livelihoods (Fig. 4).
Trigger for change
Under the liberalization doctrine of the 1980s and 1990s, the
coffee quota system was dismantled and the ICA collapsed as the
primary mechanism of international governance. Muradian and
Pelupessy (2005:2029) conceptualize the breakup of the
agreement as a “governance failure,” in which parties were unable
to anticipate the catastrophic consequences of their decision.
When the ICA broke, producing countries, especially those
offering mild coffee such as Mexico and Colombia, failed to
restrain their supply. The national boards had collapsed across
the developing world, with a few notable exceptions, and thus
coffee growers were left to the ups and downs of international
trade. Free market conditions, support from local governments,
and multilateral funding for coffee expansion, particularly in
Brazil and Vietnam (Giovannucci and Ponte 2005), further
depressed the price of coffee. Prices reached a historical minimum
in 2001, falling from an annual average of US$1.17/lb in 1989 to
US$0.71 in 2001, adjusted by inflation (Fig. 5).
Transmission of signal and resulting disturbance in rural
As a result of the disruption to the international market,
smallholders around the world, the backbone of the coffee
industry, suffered a dramatic decrease in their standards of living,
spawning a humanitarian crisis (Ponte 2002, Varangis et al. 2003).
In Colombia, the Fondo Nacional del Café, Colombia’s national
Ecology and Society 22(4): 32
coffee agency, went bankrupt, having spent most of its assets in
trying to compensate farmers’ income during the long crisis. In
the early 1990s coffee was still the main employer in rural areas,
generating close to 1 million rural permanent jobs, representing
40% of rural employment, 55% of the total export value, and
5.3% of GDP (Cárdenas 1993). Coffee production fell by 44%
between 1991 and 1999, and consequently unemployment,
poverty, and malnutrition increased in the coffee regions. By the
end of the period, coffee production was not considered profitable
for at least 23% of producers (Perfetti del Corral et al. 2002).
Fig. 5. International price of mild Arabica coffee: New York
Stock Exchange, Monthly average (US cents/lb 1985–2015) in
real terms (CPI 1982–1984 = 100). Source: International Coffee
Organization (ICO) for coffee prices, and U.S. Department of
Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics for the Consumer Price Index
Attention and mobilization
Since the 1960s, humanitarian aid organizations had been
concerned with helping rural households by responding to
developing countries’ cry for a doctrine of “trade no aid”; in the
early 1990s they grew considerably worried about the
deteriorating conditions of coffee producers around the world
(Raynolds 2000). Internationally, consumers and civil society
organizations decried the deterioration of farmers’ living
conditions around the world following the collapse of the ICA.
International organizations and aid agencies already involved in
rural development initiatives in the region started to deploy
projects to help farmers confront the crisis (Linton 2005). These
organizations began to label and sell fair-trade products in
alternative shops in Europe, drawing attention to the plight of
producers in consumer markets.
The pioneers were Transfair, the FairTrade label, and the Max
Havelaar organizations that in 1997 united and formed the
International Fairtrade Labeling Organization (Linton 2005).
They were the creation of philanthropic individuals, in
conjunction with humanitarian NGOs, that saw in trade an
economically sustainable alternative to the traditional
humanitarian aid channels of donations and relief. True to their
belief in a more equitable society, these organizations changed
their approach from a mere philanthropic endeavor to an effort
to revolutionize the terms of trade of tropical commodities by re-
embedding the social and ecological production of coffee through
new market relationships between consumers and rural
households (Raynolds 2000).
A similar pathway was followed by the organic movement that
sought to act as a counter-culture response to the green revolution
developments in agriculture (Raynolds 2000). Producers, traders,
manufacturers, and retailers of organic products joined forces
under the International Federation of Organic Agriculture
Movements (IFOAM), founded in Germany in 1972. The
organization had been, up to the 1980s mainly concerned with
promoting organic agriculture in Europe and North America. In
the 1990s it expanded its reach to tackle tropical commodities,
particularly coffee, but also tea, cocoa, and bananas.
Civil society organizations or nongovernmental organizations
focused on environmental protections, i.e., the Smithsonian
Migratory Bird Center, or on social justice issues, i.e., OXFAM,
and became involved in the coffee value chain (Bitzer et al. 2008),
although their core mission was not connected to commodity
trading. In essence, the coffee commodity system, linked initially
only via trade institutions, began to be coupled with actors,
institutions, and associated values with deep interests in the same
rural resource base, but until this point, operating independently
of the coffee sector.
Feedback to governance
The collapse of the ICA in 1989 and the subsequent
impoverishment of coffee communities around the world,
brought the two independent constellations of actors, values, and
associated institutional arrangements, one governing coffee, the
other involved in rural social welfare, to become coupled to
collectively govern coffee producing landscapes. As this coupling
consolidated, international efforts were organized to specifically
address market issues and social equity through institutional
innovations, such as the Max Havelaar label, created under the
auspices of the Dutch ecumenical development agency
Solidaridad, to mainstream coffee as a fair-trade product
(Fairtradenet 2017). Certification schemes in coffee had existed
prior to the collapse of the ICA, but it was the market shock of
1989 that is widely interpreted as catalyzing these initiatives into
new forms of coffee system governance (Bray et al. 2002). Other
initiatives gained ground in the 1990s, such as the Fairtrade
Foundation (Germany), Transfair (USA), the UTZ Kapeh
Foundation (also from the Netherlands), the Rainforest Alliance
(UK-USA), and the organic movement, under the umbrella of
IFOAM (Muradian and Pelupessy 2005).
The humanitarian organizations created a space in international
coffee markets, generating and responding to a demand for ethical
products; larger coffee traders realized the market benefits of
these grass roots institutional innovations. The result was the
emergence of private governance mechanisms for sustainability,
mainly certification programs that delivered technical assistance,
created codes of conduct, and allowed compliant products to use
a label to differentiate the product in the market (Auld et al. 2009,
Auld 2010). By providing better prices and a new market outlet
these programs sought to stabilize prices and support the
livelihoods of coffee growers through more environmentally
sound practices and explicit commitments to support labor and
human rights. Certifying bodies were accredited to conduct audits
and authorize the use of a seal of approval identifying products
and ingredients produced according to the code criteria.
Environmental and humanitarian NGOs, many of which were
not previously involved in commodity chain governance,
Ecology and Society 22(4): 32
developed partnerships with buyers, including most of the largest
coffee roasters in the market, who have made pledges to reach
100% sustainable coffee purchases before 2050 (TCC 2012).
The aggregated result of these initiatives is remarkably high:
according to a recent report (Potts et al. 2014) over 40% of the
total amount of coffee produced around the world is done
following a sustainability certification or verification program.
Nevertheless, impacts on livelihoods remain a matter of
discussion with abundant research showing small or negligible
impacts whereas others present a more positive picture (see, for
example, Blackman and Rivera 2011, Tscharntke et al. 2015, and
DeFries et al. 2017 for recent comparative analyses of studies).
In Colombia, a commission convened by the President
recommended that Colombia embark on a programa de cafes
especiales (program of specialty coffees) to increase the value of
Colombian coffee, following the global trends observed in this
market. The Colombian government was heavily interested in
rescuing the coffee sector, not only because of its significance for
the rural economy and tax-generating potential, but also because
of the linkages between falling coffee prices and increased
violence in the coffee zones resulting from welfare decline (Dube
and Vargas 2013). The program was established with the intention
of appropriating domestically a larger share of the value captured
in the market. The three strategies through which this was going
to be achieved were the following: (i) differentiating coffee
production and outlets through high-quality production from
specific origins or terroirs, (ii) participating in sustainability
strategies, certifying production, and finding buyers for this eco-
friendly coffee; and (3) competing in the cafeteria segment
through the opening of the Juan Valdez™ stores in North
America, Europe, but specially in Colombia and other Latin
American countries (for a detailed description of the program
and its achievements see Rueda and Lambin 2013a). All these
strategies were executed by the Colombian Coffee Growers
Federation (FNC by its Spanish acronym) that serves the more
than 500,000 families who grow coffee in the country, and is in
charge of managing the export tax.
The permanence of the Fondo Nacional del Café, the country’s
coffee board, created in 1940, was particularly instrumental in
Colombia’s response to changing governance conditions
internationally. The Fondo collected a variable tax from coffee
growers, purchasing part of the crop, and ensuring the
distribution of export quotas among local exporters (FNC 2017).
The Fondo has since been administered by the FNC, representing
more than 500,000 families that produce coffee. Colombia has
become a world leader in coffee sustainability programs, with over
60% of its supply under sustainability certification and
verification schemes (Potts et al. 2014).
The demand for sustainable coffee continues to grow. The surge
in demand has also translated in higher international prices (Fig.
5) that reached their highest level in 2010, but have since stabilized
at about three times the value of 2001, when the crisis hit bottom.
Large agribusinesses corporations in the coffee sector have
embraced certification as their main sustainability strategy (TCC
2012), but it has spilled over other sectors as well. Today, all major
agricultural commodities have embraced some form of market
mechanisms to advance their sustainability commitments (Rueda
et al. 2017). For Colombia, the growth of these market segments
and therefore the success of the programa de cafés especiales has
also produced significant positive outcomes for farmers and their
resource base (Rueda and Lambin 2013b).
The speed and intensity of communication undergirds the new
connections between consumers in the North and producers in
the South, and has created a new business culture in which both
social-ecological systems are linked not merely by trade, but by a
set of principles and practices embraced globally and audited by
external parties. As coffee producing livelihoods and
environmental conditions became part of both the international
aid agenda and the commodity trade, the concerns, values, and
governance systems of North America and Europe have become
part of the governance of coffee trade and coffee production,
changing the social-ecological system in producing countries.
Institutions in producing countries (particularly in Colombia)
adopted and adapted the norms, values, and institutions of the
social-ecological systems of consuming countries to govern the
rural landscapes and livelihoods in which coffee is produced, thus
furthering the coupling of the two systems, beyond trade.
The two case studies presented above, although broadly similar
in terms of food system characteristics, resulted in very different
outcomes in terms of food system governance. In the Mexican
maize case, the new connectivity between U.S. energy policy, and
grain prices and trade contributed to a significant shock in
Mexican tortilla prices and economic food access. Although this
event had some influence on Mexico’s domestic biofuel
development policy, there was no change in the governance of
food and energy policy in the sending system: the U.S. Corn/
Ethanol system. In contrast, in the case of coffee, the telecoupling
of coffee market and humanitarian networks internationally
triggered a significant change in domestic coffee system
governance in Colombia, in part because of the receptivity of
Colombia’s Coffee Growers Federation to the international
signal. Colombia maintained its national coffee board
throughout the crisis and launched an aggressive program of
product differentiation. This resulted in substantial growth of the
industry and significant benefits for farmers, beyond price
premiums (Rueda and Lambin 2013b). Colombia’s success
contrasts with other coffee producing nations that failed to
integrate the changing international domain of governance into
national institutions. For example, Mexico was also devastated
by the coffee crisis of the early 2000s yet has not been able to use
the novel sustainability certification programs to rebound.
Mexico defaulted its external debt in the late 1980s, forcing the
establishment of neoliberal reforms that, among other things,
abolished the National Institute for Coffee (INMECAFE) in
1989. Mexico was far less sensitive to the collapse of the coffee
market: in 1989, coffee represented only 1.7% of total export value
compared to 20% from exports of crude petroleum. In contrast,
Colombia’s coffee sector represented 29% of its export value,
followed by 18% from petroleum (OEC 2017). Although there are
a number of cases of cooperative movements in Mexico that were
able to develop and implement sustainability programs, overall,
the sector has struggled and lost competitive ground (Bacon et
al. 2008). By 2012, Mexico, the ninth largest producer of coffee
in the world, had only 20% of its coffee under some kind of
Ecology and Society 22(4): 32
The two cases provide some empirical grounding to explore the
circumstances, ranging from the initial conditions of distal
systems, to the forms of pressures that emerge in telecoupled
relationships, to the politics involved in the receptivity of
incumbent governance regimes to change, under which system
boundaries may expand to incorporate emergent knowledge of
telecoupling consequences. System boundaries, through the lens
of governance, are socially constructed (Ostrom 2009). They “are
shaped by admixtures of regulative and governance
arrangements; cultural-cognitive conceptions of identity and a
sense of “being in the same boat”; normative and ethical
frameworks that provide common rules and standards; and
interdependencies borne of technical connections or dependence
on similar types of natural resources” (Dacin et al. 2002:51).
Telecoupling thus challenges how actors define food system
boundaries for governance: the recognition of distal ties and
causal linkages opens an opportunity for an expansion of what
constitutes the resource units, the actors, and the institutional
arrangements salient in a food system.
We found that categorizing forms of telecoupling is constructive
in that it illuminates the different ways that systems may be distal,
and thus the issues that must be addressed, and obstacles that
may need to be overcome in order to bridge such distances to form
new or expanded governance arrangements. Our typology posits
that three forms of distance are particularly important to
understand telecoupling: social, institutional, and physical or
resource-based distance. Bridging distance entails transaction
costs; one might assume then that transaction costs are likely to
be diminished where existing flows and connectivities, of
information, of values, of material, can be leveraged, even though
these flows were not initially governed as part of the food system
In the case of the initial coupling of U.S. corn and the U.S. energy
sector, and the coupling of coffee farming and humanitarian
systems internationally and in Colombia specifically, the initial
distance was most stark in terms of social actors and institutions:
a shared resource system (land, water, physical geographies) but
distinct objectives, agendas, and actors (type 3). In this
configuration, alterations, or, in the case of U.S. corn and U.S.
biofuels, new opportunities, in the performance of the resource
system (what Dacin et al. 2002 call “functional pressures”)
provide a stimulus to the disparate actors associated with a specific
resource system to forge new relationships and institutional ties.
The expansion of governance boundaries in a type 3 case would
potentially involve the incorporation of additional values and
agendas, “cultural-cognitive conception” (Dacin et al. 2002), and
meanings associated with the resource base into existing
governance mechanisms. In the case of U.S. commodity corn, this
entailed the incorporation of the energy potential of ethanol into
the Farm Bill, and expanding the governance of Midwestern corn
production to explicitly incorporate actors and interests
associated with the energy sector. In the case of coffee, the
adjustments in governance involved the incorporation of social
and humanitarian values into the management of coffee
production regions and the supply chain. Although these changes
are not trivial, the actors at least have a common resource base
of interest to aid in overcoming barriers.
In type 2 cases, where social distance is relatively small and actors
are already in communication over many aspects of institutional
design, the transaction costs associated bridging distal resource
bases may also be surmountable (Bodin and Crona 2009).
Research on social-ecological system transformation and
governance has highlighted the role played by what is often termed
“shadow networks”: existing social networks of actors who share
values and priorities (Olsson et al. 2006). Scholars have argued
that transformation in governance arrangements is more likely
when such shadow networks are in place, and can be mobilized
to stimulate change across space, culture, and scale (Dacin et al.
2002, Brondizio et al. 2009, Bodin and Crona 2009, Duit et al.
2010). If existing actors within the existing governance
arrangement are those that draw attention to the undesirable
outcome of telecoupling, they may have the standing to mobilize
for change within the existing governance system. Yet, as the
maize case reveals, it is not enough for actors associated with two
distal resource bases to be in communication and committed to
similar institutional arrangements (in this case, maize market
governance). The “functional pressure” of the Tortilla Crisis was
only a crisis for some of the actors in the maize/corn commodity
system, namely, politicians, consumers, and producers in Mexico.
Clearly, asymmetries of influence within existing governance
arrangements also matters: In this particular case, there was no
significant incentive for the dominant actor in the maize/corn
commodity system (the U.S.) to modify its policy priorities. In
the case of coffee in Colombia, the national government had a
significant political and economic incentive to respond
proactively to mediate the impacts of the coffee crisis on rural
welfare in order to stem rural violence and maintain tax revenues.
Systems that are initially distal in both social and physical
dimensions (type 1) perhaps pose the greatest challenge for
telecoupling governance, given the need for disparate and distal
actors to find sufficient political leverage and connectivity to
convince others that their values, concerns, and resource interests
merit the investment in institutional change. In this case, the
transaction costs to governance change are large, and change
perhaps less likely, unless telecoupling not only produces changes
in system performance (“functional pressure”) of interest to some
actors with the capacity to mobilize for their interest, but also
provokes, or is accompanied by (coincidentally or not),
concurrent changes that weaken the influence of the incumbent
governance regime over the system in question (“political
pressure”) and make it amenable to change. Neither of the two
cases explored here manifest what we have called type 1
telecoupling; this type is perhaps less common in the globalized
Clearly it is not just the ways in which systems can be considered
distal (either in terms of social, institutional, or resource systems)
that matters for governance change. In some telecoupling
processes, actors without any initial relation to the commodity
chain are able to gain attention and influence over subsequent
institutional development processes and participate in redefining
not only the thematic scope of governance but also the geographic
domain. The susceptibility of a system of governance to such
change is related to the distribution of control and influence
among stakeholders over the material and nonmaterial flows that
describe a telecoupled system, reflecting their different social and
political positions. Such power and agency are exhibited in, for
example, the wide geographic distribution of an international
NGO constituency (as in the humanitarian groups concerned
Ecology and Society 22(4): 32
about rural development in coffee producing areas), in the
political salience of a particular social group in a policy process
(as Colombia’s coffee farmers represented to coffee sector
governance beyond Colombia’s borders, or Mexico’s maize
producers and consumers are in Mexico’s domestic scene), and
the ability of a particular actor such as the U.S. government to
choose to ignore or resist effects and outcomes beyond its political
The globalization of food systems has dramatically reduced the
role of political boundaries as barriers to the mobilization
capacities of nonstate actors. Private sector actors with a brand
reputation to protect in a competitive market are increasingly
susceptible to pressures from consumer groups regardless of
origin, while public sector actors and processes are generally
accountable only to citizens and domestic interest groups
(Dauvergne and Lister 2013). Compared to civil society groups
with exclusive domestic reach, transnational NGOs can mobilize
constituents in multiple geographies. This mobilization capacity
allows such actors to create social pressure in distinct geographies,
not only where a problem is perceived and experienced, but also
potentially where decisions regarding the problem originate. The
food system is now rife with complex coalitions and networks of
interest groups working across political boundaries. Coffee
processors and retailers are largely concentrated in the global
North, overlapping with the (coffee drinking) constituencies of
international NGOs concerned about tropical deforestation,
development, and social justice. However, this is not always the
case; the interest groups concerned about the smallholder maize
farmers and the social and environmental effects of expanded
corn ethanol production in Mexico have little political standing
or leverage with U.S. consumers or policy makers.
One of the overwhelming challenges in governing food systems
is the diversity of values and meanings associated with food
among different populations (Eakin et al. 2010). In telecoupled
systems, actors may be more likely to mobilize change in
governance when the impacts of telecoupling affects “boundary
objects” (see Wenger 1998), e.g., coffee, tortillas, the Amazon,
orangutans, or monarch butterflies, that are imbued with values
that span geographic boundaries and constituencies. Coffee has
a high visibility for consumers; it is associated with positive
cultural and social values among producer and consumer groups
in diverse countries. As an industrial input, corn for ethanol use
lacks the visibility of a food product, and the deeply symbolic,
cultural value associated with maize and the tortilla does not
extend beyond Mexico’s borders (Baker 2013). Change in
governance may be less likely if the impacts of telecoupling, and
thus the “pressures” for institutional change, do not resonate with
the values and concerns of actors beyond those immediately
experiencing the impact.
The globalization of food systems has increased the potential for
conflict and adverse outcomes from telecoupling in food systems,
given diversity of values associated with food, ecological
concerns, the context within which food is produced, and the
diversity of actors with competing interests and values. Our case
studies suggest that the processes and outcomes of telecoupling
will potentially alter food system governance, in some cases
expanding governance to incorporate new values, priorities, and
issues and actors into the food system, as well as the physical scope
of such governance. Whether such changes in governance occur
and what are their impacts for the resilience of the new social-
ecological systems will depend on the nature of distance in the
systems in question: whether the systems are distal in terms of
social and/or institutional ties, or the resource bases that are
affected by telecoupling, or some combination of all three
dimensions of distance. But the challenge of overcoming distance
is not the only issue that affects the possibility of governance
change: the cultural and economic conditions of the connected
systems, the agency of actors involved and their political and
social relations and networks all come to play in enabling
Currently, most food systems are governed primarily in terms of
their economic value and via trade relationships. In many cases,
the actors benefiting from these particular governance
arrangements will likely have disproportionate influence and
agency in any political response to a telecoupling outcome.
Nevertheless, as consumer classes become more integrated and
networked globally, there is increasing evidence that they are
sharing perspectives, values, and social and moral ties. The
existence of these parallel networks and their connectivity to food
systems can play powerful roles in the transformation of food
system governance. In deploying telecoupling as a heuristic in
food system analysis, we demonstrate the diversity of mechanisms
that stimulate food system change. The interconnections in food
systems go beyond the economic: they are grounded in knowledge,
ideology, finance, culture, consumer preferences, and ways of life.
It is nevertheless clear that although there is a plethora of
examples of new forms of food governance, many of which are
reflecting sustainability principles and humanitarian concerns,
the development of such governance architecture is not inevitable.
The concept of telecoupling helps make the mechanisms of
change more visible, and in doing so, offers opportunities to steer
systems to more sustainable outcomes.
Responses to this article can be read online at:
The constructive comments of three anonymous reviewers
significantly improved this manuscript. We are also appreciative of
the comments offered by the participants in the Telecoupling
Satellite Session of the CCS '15 Conference on Complex Systems
(October 2015). Research on the Mexican maize system was
supported by NSF Grant No. 0826871 (PI H. Eakin). Any opinions,
findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this
material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the
views of the National Science Foundation (NSF).
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