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Revista de Administração de Empresas

Print version ISSN 0034-7590On-line version ISSN 2178-938X

Rev. adm. empres. vol.56 no.4 São Paulo July/Aug. 2016 



Sistema agro-alimentar transnacional para quem? Lutas pela hegemonia na Rio+20

¿Un sistema agroalimentario transnacional para quién? La lucha por hegemonía en Rio+20




1Professor at Fundação Getulio Vargas, Escola Brasileira de Administração Pública e de Empresas - Rio de Janeiro - RJ, Brazil.

2Research Officer at University of Essex, Department of Sociology - Colchester, United Kingdom.

3Professor at University of Exeter, Business School - Exeter, United Kingdom.


Food has been one of the most debated and contested discourses in recent global environmental governance without this fact being reflected, however, in management and organizational studies (MOS). In this paper, we analyze the different positions taken in relation to the transnational agri-food system by the state sector, the private sector and civil society actors and we map key differences and similarities in the discourses of these groups at the influential 2012 Rio+20 Conference. Using neo-Gramscian discourse theory, we uncover the different politico-economic interests that exist and show how these different actors deal with the agri-food system. We demonstrate that international NGOs and grassroots social movements are very diverse in how they approach the question of food security, which in turn is reflected in how they vary in their approach to doing politics. This analysis contributes to our understanding of how hegemony is organized, highlighting the important role of different civil society actors in either maintaining or resisting hegemonic approaches to the transnational agri-food system.

KEYWORDS: Agri-food system; neo-Gramscian discourse approach; civil society; Rio+20; sustainable development


A alimentação tem sido um dos discursos mais debatidos e contestados na governança ambiental global, sem que haja, contudo, uma reflexão nos campos da Gestão e Estudos Organizacionais. Neste artigo, analisamos as diferentes posições assumidas no sistema agro-alimentar transnacional por atores estatais, privados e da sociedade civil. Mapeamos as principais diferenças e semelhanças nos discursos desses grupos na influente Rio+20, em 2012. Com base na teoria de discurso neogramsciana, desvelamos os diferentes interesses político-econômicos e posicionamentos no sistema agro-alimentar. Demonstramos que as ONGs internacionais e os movimentos sociais de base possuem abordagens muito divergentes sobre a segurança alimentar, o que se refletido nas suas diferentes formas de atuação política. Assim, o artigo contribui para a nossa compreensão de como a hegemonia é organizada, destacando o importante papel dos diferentes atores da sociedade civil na manutenção ou na resistência de abordagens hegemônicas ao sistema agro-alimentar transnacional.

PALAVRAS-CHAVE: Sistema agro-alimentar; abordagem de discurso neogramsciana; sociedade civil; Rio+20; desenvolvimento sustentável


Los alimentos han sido uno de los discursos más debatidos y controvertidos en la gobernanza ambiental global reciente sin que este hecho se vea reflejado, sin embargo, en estudios de gestión y organización (MOS). En el presente artículo, analizamos las diferentes posiciones tomadas con relación al sistema agroalimentario transnacional por el sector estatal, el sector privado y actores de la sociedad civil, y mapeamos las principales diferencias y semejanzas de los discursos de estos grupos en la influyente Conferencia Rio+20 2012. Utilizando la teoría del discurso neogramsciano, desvelamos los diferentes intereses político-económicos que existen y mostramos cómo estos diferentes actores tratan con el sistema agroalimentario. Demostramos que las ONG y movimientos sociales populares internacionales son muy diversos en cómo abordan la cuestión de la seguridad alimentaria, que por su parte se refleja en cómo varían en su abordaje de hacer política. Este análisis contribuye a nuestro entendimiento de cómo se organiza la hegemonía, resaltando el papel importante de diferentes actores de la sociedad civil en mantener o resistir a los abordajes hegemónicos al sistema agroalimentario transnacional.

PALABRAS CLAVE: Sistema agroalimentario; abordaje del discurso neogramsciano; sociedad civil; Rio+20; desarrollo sostenible


The United Nations Conferences on Sustainable Development have arguably been the largest and most significant international gatherings focusing on sustainability in recent decades. Rio+20, which was held in Rio de Janeiro in 2012, twenty years after the inaugural and highly influential Earth Summit of 1992, brought together delegates from over 190 countries. These included representatives from state governments, the corporate sector and civil society (the latter represented by an array of actors from different social movements, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), indigenous and Quilombo communities and religious groups) (Corson, Brady, Zuber, Lord, & Kim, 2015). Agriculture and food security were among the topics debated at this summit, with representatives taking very different and sometimes diametrically opposed positions on the issues involved. Given the importance of the Rio+20 conference, we argue that these positions exemplified the state of the art of the discourse on the transnational agri-food system, demonstrating its many tensions and struggles between local and transnational political actors, which have, between them impeded progress towards achieving a truly equitable, viable and sustainable agri-food system.

Grounded in a neo-Gramscian perspective, our analysis is based on a definition of the transnational agri-food system as being a contested "field of struggle" (Levy, 2008; Otto & Böhm, 2006) with actors competing and coalescing their interests and positions, a conceptualization which has been a key theoretical cornerstone of critical social theory to date (Patel, 2007). Although some researchers have sought to understand how new organizational fields are created (Davis, McAdam, Scott, & Zald, 2005; DiMaggio, 1991; Hardy & Maguire, 2010; Peci, Vieira, & Clegg, 2009), these studies have, however, neglected to show how social movements achieve their goals through their engagement in hegemonic struggles (Böhm, Spicer, & Fleming, 2008; Bommel & Spicer, 2011; Contu, Palpacuer, & Balas, 2013). It is with this in mind that we seek to make a contribution, drawing on Laclau and Mouffe's neo-Gramscian discourse theory (Laclau & Mouffe, 2001), to the understanding of how hegemonic struggles play out to create new organizational fields.

As a field of struggle, the transnational agri-food system, strongly represented at Rio+20, mirrors and reproduces key fault lines in the debates on global agriculture, agribusiness farmers, small-scale farmers, peasants and ecological movements (Guimarães & Fontoura, 2012). This field has been contentious in the extreme, particularly when it comes to defining, distributing and controlling the discourse over sustainable agriculture, food security, and influencing the governance of the transnational agri-food system. On the one hand, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO, 2012) as well as other inter-governmental agencies and some NGOs claim that corporate involvement in the food system is essential to meeting current and future challenges to the food system. On the other hand, others are dismayed by the role played by large, multinational agri-food corporations in rural displacement and in the dismantling of small-scale, non-industrialized agriculture (McMichael, 2009). In response to this negative aspect, some civil society actors have advocated reduced corporate control over the food system, claiming that this will lead to more democratic and equitable outcomes (Bauer & Mesquita, 2008). For example, the prominent organization for peasants' rights, La Via Campesina (2012), recently stated that "the private sector has captured nutrition as a business opportunity to provide consumers with a never-ending list of nutrient-enriched and GMO pseudo-solutions. Transnational corporations have no place in trade agreements or our food systems!"

Recent studies using the neo-Gramscian framework have sought to examine the relationship and the boundaries between the private sector, the state, and civil society, exploring the role each of these may play in different hegemonic and counterhegemonic processes that are socially constructed through political maneuvering (Böhm et al., 2008; Bommel & Spicer, 2011; Contu et al., 2013; Levy, 2008). However, these studies offer little insight into the different ways in which civil society actors operate at local and international level to resist or sustain hegemonic formations. In other words, civil society is still a "black box" in terms of neo-Gramscian studies given that different civil society actors play different political roles, something that has not been explained or explored in detail as yet from this particular theoretical angle (Bommel & Spicer, 2011; Dellagnelo, Böhm, & Mendonça, 2014).

Although we recognize that corporate and state actors also play a variety of different political roles, our focus in this study is on civil society actors and their role in the transnational agri-food system as a field of struggle. With the aim of contributing to and extending the neo-Gramscian approaches used within management and organization studies (MOS), we ask the question: what were the main political discourses articulated by the range of different actors at Rio+20 with regards to the transnational agri-food system? We then explore how this understanding can allow us to better theorize the role of local and international civil society actors in transnational governance mechanisms. In this way, we are able to shed more light on how different civil society actors position themselves differently within the field of struggle that is the transnational agri-food system. The Rio+20 conference is a good locus for investigating this struggle, given its global importance to discursive positioning vis-à-vis the transnational agri-food system.

Having introduced the paper's main objectives, the remainder of the text proceeds as follows: firstly, we review existing literature on the multiple challenges of sustainable agriculture and food (in)security as well as the neo-Gramscian approach; secondly, we discuss methodological issues; and finally, we present our research results before concluding the paper, outlining our main contributions.


In 1974, the World Food Conference in Rome unveiled a production-oriented conceptualization of food security, which it defined as the "availability at all times of adequate world food supplies of basic foodstuffs to sustain a steady expansion of food consumption and to offset fluctuations in production and prices" (FAO, 2006).

The most visible manifestation of this conception can be found in the Latin American and Asian Green Revolutions that were initiated in the 1960s. Here, the planting of improved crop varieties, on relatively well-resourced farms and with the support of synthetic inputs and improved irrigation, was designed to increase food production as a straightforward solution to the looming threat of hunger. These technologies and inputs resulted in a significant increase in the production of staple grains (Pretty & Bharucha, 2014). However, a number of serious pitfalls soon became evident, including the substantial ecological costs of high throughput systems (Pretty & Bharucha, 2014). Furthermore, it became clear that improved agricultural productivity alone was not sufficient to reduce hunger; the ability of individuals to access food was also of vital importance.

It was only in the 1980s that the focus of food security shifted, accordingly, from availability to access: "Ensuring that all people at all times have both physical and economic access to the basic food they need" (FAO, 2006, p. 1). Yet, despite this recognition, the structure of agri-food systems remained relatively focused on high-throughput agronomies reliant on private capital to increase the production of agricultural commodities. For example, as of 1994, private businesses were responsible for two-thirds of all the genetic improvement of plants in the US. Three corporations, DuPont, Monsanto and Novartis were the key players in the development of new technologies in this field and in the consequent domination of the seeds market. These developments were tightly bound up with the emergence of the discourse on food security, whereby notions of commodification, monetization and corporatization of food technologies and markets became inextricably linked to the task of feeding the world. Crucially, food security became a means by which to achieve a wider-ranging foreign policy. For example, Patel (2007, p. 9) cites Earl Butz, the Secretary of Agriculture during the Nixon and Ford administrations, when he said: "Hungry men listen only to those who have a piece of bread. Food is a tool. It is a weapon in the US' negotiating kit".

On the supply side of the food system, these trends were exemplified by the supermarket revolution, which, for the first time, offered industrially produced food (ostensibly) that was cheap, convenient and plentiful. This helped to lock a food system into place that was increasingly controlled by corporate influence, on the basis of the field to fork concept (Patel, 2007). This discourse cannot be considered as monolithic, however. Many challenges, contradictions and fractures are continually rising to the surface and being exposed to public attention, which call into question the dominance of the corporate paradigm. The following is a brief review of some of these.

Firstly, there is the emerging recognition that agricultural growth and good nutrition do not necessarily go together. Thus, the focus is increasingly on nutrition-sensitive growth, conferred by dietary diversity, in conjunction with providing access to safe drinking water, sanitation, health and educating services, as a way of achieving adequate levels of nutrition (FAO, 2012). The emphasis on calorie-rich staples has also produced severe imbalances in the availability of different nutrients. Between one-third and half of the world's population suffers from various forms and degrees of micronutrient malnutrition (FAO, 2012; Miller & Welch, 2013). Micronutrient deficiencies during critical life-stages have a lasting impact on both individuals and their societies. After recognizing the challenges of sustainable diets and nutritional security, the World Health Organization (WHO) now "considers household food and nutrition security as a basic human right" (WHO, 2014), and the FAO has worked since 2011 on increasing nutrition-sensitivity in agri-food systems. However, there is considerable scope for improvement in achieving nutrition-sensitive agriculture and balanced diets on a global scale.

Secondly, it has become clear that agriculture and food systems are best understood as complex transnational social-ecological systems (Darnhofer, Bellon, Dedieu, & Milestad, 2010) wherein multiple stakeholders influence outcomes. Thus, addressing this complexity is vital if we are to ensure sustainability and equity (McMichael, 2009), particularly over time. Conversely, failing to account for the complexity of social-ecological systems, and simplifying them inappropriately can lead to sub-optimal or perverse outcomes (Holling & Meffe, 1996). Nevertheless, definitions, and the practice of food security have not always captured the complexity of food systems and hunger to the full, often privileging quantitative dimensions, such as amounts of food, production and yields, at the expense of paying attention to social-ecological systems, the distribution of resources and unequal access. Lang (2010), therefore, speaks for many when he argues that the main thrust of agricultural policy and innovation has remained relatively fixed on the so-called productivist agenda, one that is still narrowly focused on increasing yields of staple crops and economically-valuable agricultural commodities.

Thirdly, it is clear that the challenges facing food production, hunger and malnutrition are tightly interwoven with the problems of global environmental changes and resource finitude. As highlighted by Agarwal (2014, p. 1251), food security "for the estimated 9 billion people by 2050 will need an extraordinary effort, even without climate change. With climate change, even with the best efforts at mitigation, poor farmers and especially women and children are likely to be affected adversely". There is, therefore, a consensus that agriculture will need to fundamentally redirect itself towards sustainability (Pretty & Bharucha, 2014).

In recognition of these and other shortcomings, the conventional agri-food system has become a key locus of global conflict, attracting both resistance and support from global civil society. On the one hand, civil society actors are increasingly working with the corporate sector to achieve agricultural sustainability and improve food security (Lang & Heasman, 2015). On the other hand, it is precisely this corporate dominance of the management of the global food system that is increasingly criticized and questioned (Fontoura, 2015). Behind this criticism is a radically different approach to agriculture. Based on agro-ecological principles put forward as alternatives to capital-intensive industrial agriculture, a social movement has emerged that involves primarily small farmers and highly diversified farming practices (Altieri & Toledo, 2011; Caporal & Petersen, 2012). For these groups, agro-ecology (as a science, a practice, and as a social movement) is not simply an oppositional counterpoint to conventional agriculture. Instead, it offers a fundamental alternative that is grounded in the recognition of the importance of peasants and small-scale family farmers, and the need to rejuvenate land-based communities, improving farmer autonomy (through seed saving, for example), feminism, food sovereignty, respect for the environment and creating new alternative markets (Fontoura, 2015; Fontoura & Naves, 2016).


Neo-Gramscian theory, which has recently gained ground within MOS (Böhm et al., 2008; Contu et al., 2013; Levy, 2008) provides a key theoretical cornerstone to explaining the struggle enveloping the transnational agri-food system. The central task of Laclau and Mouffe's (2001) neo-Gramscian discourse approach is to analyze how actors articulate their distinct political positions and ideological elements within different discourses in order to craft a collective identity. This common identity, shared by some actors, is articulated in the process of hegemony formation. Hegemony then results from the actors' articulation of a chain that connects discourses, material capabilities and institutions, which are channels of order stabilization where the two previous elements become intertwined. In this article, the transnational agri-food system is characterized by such a contested process of hegemony formation, which characterizes it as being a field of struggle (Patel, 2007).

Conflict defines all hegemonic relations, while stability is possible, even necessary (Levy, 2008). The implication is that hegemony should be understood as a relatively stable system that represents a specific alignment of corporate, state and civil society actors. This stability, however, is punctuated by discontinuity and change, which may ultimately lead to a cascade effect and a reconfiguration of the whole hegemonic system (Levy & Egan, 2003).

In this sense, in neo-Gramscian discourse theory, hegemony is sustained and resisted through discourse articulations. For Laclau and Mouffe (2001), the articulations of nodal points and floating signifiers are central to hegemony formation. The collective identity emerges from the articulation and re-articulation of these discursive elements (Bommel & Spicer, 2011). Here, for example, the articulation of food is sufficiently vague and empty to act as a nodal point, which, in neo-Gramscian discourse theory plays an important role in forging alliances between hitherto disconnected discourses and institutional actors (Bommel & Spicer, 2011; Dellagnelo et al., 2014). Thus, emptiness is "revealed as an essential quality of the nodal point, as an important condition of possibility for its hegemonic success" (Howarth & Stavrakakis, 2000, p. 9). In turn, nodal points comprise a range of floating signifiers that are articulated differently in different discourses (Laclau & Moufe, 2001). They are floating because they accommodate many different interpretations and can be attached to many possible patterns of meaning, depending on how they are combined with other words and practices (Dellagnelo et al., 2014).

Additionally, as illustrated in Exhibit 1, in neo-Gramscian discourse theory, civil society plays a central role in neo-Gramscian theory since it offers "the vital ideological ground work that establishes those structures of social and cultural consent that support, and enable the reproduction of the state and the economy" (Spicer & Böhm, 2007, p. 13). Levy and Egan (2003, p. 806) also stress that "the relative autonomy of civil society turns the ideological realm into a key site of political contestation among rival social groups and ideas".

Exhibit 1 Rio+20 documents analyzed 

Document title Author (organization that produced it) Group
Business Action for Sustainable Development 2012 The Business Action for Sustainable Development Private sector
Contribution to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development The Business Action for Sustainable Development
Position Paper of the Agriculture Sector for Rio+20 Brazilian Confederation of Agriculture and Livestock (CNA)
Corporate Sustainability Leadership: A Framework for Action at Rio+20 and Beyond United Nations Global Compact
Monsanto Press Release on Rio+20 - 2012 Monsanto
Combatting Monsanto La Via Campesina and Friends of the Earth Grassroots movements
Final declaration People's Summit at Rio+20 Grassroots movements in People's Summit
A just and fair Green Economy: Greenpeace expectations for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development at Rio de Janeiro, 4-6 June 2012. Greenpeace NGOs
Greenwash+20: How some powerful corporations are standing in the way of sustainable development. Greenpeace
Living Planet Report 2012 - Special Edition - On the road to RIO+20. World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF)
Living Planet Report 2012: Biodiversity, biocapacity and better choices World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF)
Reclaim the UN from corporate capture. Friends of the Earth International (FoE)
Rio+20 Earth Summit: What the UK needs to do to make it matter Friends of the Earth International (FoE)
Co-convenors recommendations to Rio+20 - Food Security Session International Council for Science (ICSU) Scientists
Rio+20 policy brief #2, Food security for a planet under pressure Produced by the scientific community to inform the United Nations conference on sustainable Development (Rio+20)
Achieving food security in the face of climate change Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change
IIED RIO+20 briefing document International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED)
How to achieve Food Security in a world of growing scarcity International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)
The Future we want The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development International organizations
FAO on Rio+20 Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)
FAO 2012 Report Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)

Thus, civil society is key in the "war of position", and during the whole process of hegemony formation, which also encompasses the formulation and implementation of international policies. Civil society actors often exploit floating signifiers in transnational governance regimes in order to create a richer language to articulate their political demands, attracting potential allies and mobilizing broader support, often in order to resist existing hegemonic formations. In MOS, this resistance by civil society actors has been debated at some length (for an overview see Spicer & Böhm, 2007). However, it is important to recognize that not all civil society actors are constantly resisting hegemonies, as sometimes implied in MOS literature. That is, in MOS in general, and in neo-Gramscian studies in MOS in particular, civil society is sometimes treated as a black box, in which different political interests and practices receive inadequate scholarly attention (Bommel & Spicer, 2011; Dellagnelo et al., 2014). Hence, there is an urgent need to open up this black box in order to explore the organizational nuances that exist between different civil society actors and their political interests and discourses.

We do this by way of a critical analysis of the main discourses articulated in relation to the transnational agri-food system at the 2012 Rio+20 conference, which we consider a site of hegemonic formation, i.e. a place where dominant corporate, state and civil society actors articulate their vision for the world (through nodal points and their floating signifiers). At the same time, we seek to better understand the role of different civil society actors in sustaining or resisting hegemonic discourses in this field of struggle.


To study the hegemonic struggle within food security and sustainable agriculture, we adopt a qualitative approach, analyzing key policy documents that were prepared in relation to the Rio+20 conference, which we consider a good example of international, multi-stakeholder decision-making on environmental governance. The data was selected in accordance with the criteria of accessibility and importance within the transnational agri-food system as a field of struggle represented at the Rio+20 (Exhibit 1). Some 50,000 delegates attended the event and debated the future of global sustainable development, including food security, clean and safe water, climate change, the green economy and pollution. Parallel events, such as the People's Summit, running outside the formal remit of the summit, were similarly diverse. We collected publications produced by both formal and informal events at Rio+20 in order to better unravel the main discourses that were articulated in relation to the transnational agri-food system.

Our analytical method then followed four distinct steps. Firstly, we divided delegates into six groups: the private sector; state actors; scientists, International Organizations (IOs), NGOs and grassroots movements. These groups were selected as being the main representative voices at Rio+20. Secondly, we selected representative texts submitted to the conference by delegates from each of the above groups (Exhibit 1). The criteria used involved choosing the key publications made by these actors and submitted to the Rio+20 event (before and during the Summit) dealing with, among other issues, agri-food systems. Each text was analyzed according to the number of floating signifiers that emerged from the data collection, selected from the literature review and related to the dynamics of the transnational agri-food systems (Exhibit 2). Drawing especially on data collected from Rio+20, we found that "Food" constitutes the common denominator where the articulations have occurred since the 1970s. As pointed out in the previous section, Food is the vaguest and emptiest signifier within this hegemonic and counter-hegemonic discourse formation in transnational agri-food systems that acts as a nodal point (Bommel & Spicer, 2011; Dellagnelo et al., 2014). We therefore identified the floating signifiers that articulate Food as a nodal point in Rio+20. These were: food security; nutritional security; land; ecosystem services; state; businesses and corporations; civil society; and, trade (Exhibit 2).

Exhibit 2 Floating signifiers in food discourses at the Rio+20 

Floating signifiers Definition/Main questions
The problem What do the actors think is the problem? How is the problem regarding food security defined by each actor?
Land Connection to the land, role of the land in the well-being of mankind; how land control is seen in terms of food security
Nutritional security Nutritional security = secure access to all nutrients required to be healthy
Ecosystem service All natural functions performed by healthy ecosystems - providing food, clean water, erosion control, aesthetic and cultural values, flood prevention, etc.
State What is the importance of the state in terms of food security?
Businesses and corporations How can businesses and corporations play a role in achieving food security?
Civil society (herein, NGOs and grassroots movements) What is the role of society in food security, including the entire voluntary sector?
Trade What is the role of international trade?

Our analysis unpacked differences and similarities in the views of these different actors regarding the agri-food system, using neo-Gramscian discourse theory (Laclau & Mouffe, 2001; Levy, 2008), the role of the main political actors involved, and the ways in which they conceptualize sustainable agri-food systems by using the signifiers. Finally, we mapped the key contentions and struggles, which have stalled progress towards mitigating global hunger. In so doing, we were able to demonstrate that the many different positions to food security that exist effectively pose a threat and represent consent to hegemonic stability with an increasing role played by civil society actors (Levy & Egan, 2003).


In this section we present an analysis of the Rio+20 submissions considered in terms of eight floating signifiers that define the transnational agri-food system. We describe how submissions from different actors (private and public sector, academia, international organizations and civil society) articulate these elements in order to build resistance or to sustain hegemony formation in the agri-food system. Our aim in this analysis is to map both diversity and points of convergence and in so doing, to characterize the key debates that exist in the global agri-food discourse.

Food security

While much has been said about the contested governance of food security, it is clear that the term itself is highly contested. Acute schisms and fractures immediately became evident when we mapped different actors' understanding of what the problem is. For scientists, the task of food security seems to be focused on the need to feed around 9 billion by 2050, implying a projected 70% increase in food production given current consumption patterns. For these actors the problem is especially pertinent in the Global South, where much of this growth will need to occur, and where countries "already face serious challenges in satisfying basic needs, including food, water, and energy" (IFPRI, 2013, p. 1).

The IOs appear to view food security differently, as a matter of access to adequate, safe and nutritious food: "We reaffirm our commitments regarding the right of everyone to have access to safe, sufficient and nutritious food, consistent with the right to adequate food and the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger" (UNCSD, 2012, p. 21). In order to guarantee this, public and private investment in the agricultural sector and improved governance arrangements are essential in order to boost growth in food productivity.

For corporations, food security is a matter of trade, productivity and ensuring supply. According to this group, these aspects are central to food security governance, as follows: "Rio+20 outcomes should reflect a continued and long term commitment to achieving food security through increased productivity in agriculture and sound natural resources management" (BASD, 2012, p. 12). In other words, in the struggle for food security, this group puts all its efforts into both boosting productivity and mediating food supply through trade.

From the NGOs' point of view, the perspective taken by the WWF seems to be distinct. The WWF was the only NGO that did not highlight food security as an important global issue. On the contrary, what it did was to consider food as being part of ecosystem services, making a convergence between ecosystem health, nutrition and food quality, as exemplified in the following quotes: "Restore damaged ecosystems and ecosystem services: Prioritize restoration of ecosystems and ecosystem services necessary for food, water and energy security, and climate change resilience and adaptation" (WWF, 2012a, p. 110); and, "The type and amount of food eaten by people living in higher-income countries already has global impacts on climate change, land and sea use, water availability and quality, biodiversity and equity issues" (WWF, 2012a, p. 114).

For other NGOs, by contrast, food security is a global multi-stakeholder issue directly influenced by corporations, UN agencies and associated think-tanks. The key problem for this sector is that world leaders prioritize corporate interests over peoples' rights. For these actors, this fact increases the state of food insecurity worldwide. By extension, their proposed solutions include "more sustainable food systems, including a rapid phase-out of subsidies for chemical-intensive farming practices; targets to drastically reduce the use of agro-chemicals, including using pricing mechanisms; funding for research, technology, training and rural extension services on ecological farming designed for smallholder producers; and to ensure that targets related to increasing investment into ecological farming are hardwired into a future Sustainable Development Goal on food and agriculture" (Greenpeace International, 2012a, p. 37). In other words, this group calls for a reorientation of both production and distribution that places smallholders and their communities at the heart of sustainable agri-food systems and human development.

The most radical position on food security appears to come from actors in the grassroots movements, who focus strongly on food sovereignty as a way of securing food and consequently well-being for all in the future. For these actors, the discourse on food security actively promotes the interests of private corporations to the detriment of both people and the planet. To mitigate this influence, this group advocates a move towards food sovereignty, emphasizing peasant and indigenous forms of agriculture: "Amid several global crises, we are living the financial stages of capitalism: the alliance between corporations and the speculative markets." "The companies in the agribusiness and the global food system are the main causes of environmental and social crises and increased hunger in the world." And: "Food sovereignty is only possible through ownership over the land and sovereignty over seeds" (People's Summit, 2012, p. 8).

Nutritional security

Nutritional security denotes secure access to all nutrients required to maintain good health. It is now widely recognized that the act of simply increasing the production of protein-energy foods does not guarantee good public health. Previous attempts at increasing agricultural productivity, in a bid to improve food security, failed to take this into account, and their outcomes were inadequate as a result. For example, the intensification of cereal production in Asia during the Green Revolution (1960s onwards) was accompanied by a decline of some 20% in the production of pulses (Welch & Graham, 2000) and may have affected the availability and use of nutrient-dense wild or semi-cultivated foods (Pingali, 2012). Neither grassroots movements nor corporate sector actors seemed to prioritize this point. Submissions by the NGOs, Scientists and IOs all seemed to consider the importance of nutrition. These submissions argued that there are indeed very strong links between global food security and nutrition. For these actors, an emphasis on nutritional security is a way of promoting a transition to healthier diets that meet basic nutritional needs and foster health and sustainability worldwide. Notably, a particular emphasis was placed on consumers in the relatively affluent developed world, where "in particular, red meat and dairy consumption, and overall food loss and waste, must decrease" (WWF, 2012a, p. 115).


Our floating signifier Land pertains to how land is conceptualized, as well as to the views of different actors in relation to land tenure and its contribution to food security. In constructing this element, we were mindful of the fact that land has multiple functions besides food production and income generation, which contribute both directly and indirectly to the well-being of mankind (IAASTD, 2009). Related to this is the recognition that land is more than the sum of its parts - in addition to soil, water and soil biota, landscapes are intimately tied to such intangible but important dimensions as personal and cultural identity, community cohesion and the sense of belonging.

Submissions by private sector actors characterized the land in primarily utilitarian terms. Productivity is considered key, and is directly associated with an enhanced quality of life and poverty reduction. The land contributes income through production, value-addition and market-orientated supply chains. Income is generated through livelihood diversification. An indicative example of this view was provided by the submission of the Business Action for Sustainable Development 2012, Contribution to Rio+20 Compilation Document (BASD, 2012, p. 13). Here, it was argued that enhancing sustainable productivity "must be the center of efforts to make agriculture both environmentally sound and economically dynamic- we need to achieve more crops per drop of water, per acre of land, per measure of inputs."

In documents submitted by the IOs and NGOs, land was discussed in terms of the betterment of landscapes and the provision of ecosystem goods and services to enable land-based livelihoods. For example, some submissions advocated the use of techniques for restoring degraded areas to enhance future productivity and to increase or stabilize food production. To do so, they recommended the implementation of sustainability indicators and the allocation of productive land to fulfil the needs of communities (e.g., homelands and sacred sites), and also for food production, urban development, carbon storage, forestry products and biodiversity conservation.

A strong theme running through the submissions made by the grassroots movements was that people - producers, consumers and distributors - are at the heart of the food system, implying a focus on inclusiveness, on peasant-based, sustainable and agro-ecological farming. Accordingly, this group of actors was generally averse to the expansion of industrial monocultures.

The submissions by the scientists and corporations did not seem to take this issue into account. Within the group of NGOs, WWF highlighted the complexity involved in land-use decisions, with many stakeholders negotiating multiple priorities. They also pointed out that "the poorest and most vulnerable people are most affected by the consequences of poor land-use choices, while being the least able to influence such decisions" (WWF, 2012a, p. 88).

Although issues pertaining to the control of land were analyzed by the FAO, which described the current reality of global land tenure extensively, we were unable to find any explicit denunciation of global land grabs in the documents prepared for Rio+20. The FAO's description reaffirmed that agri-business and industry were indeed responsible for the largest share of total investments in land acquisitions. This submission also highlighted the extent to which the corporate acquisition of land is often associated with "negative social impacts [including] the displacement of local smallholders (often with inadequate or no compensation), the loss of grazing land for pastoralists, the loss of income for local communities and, in general, negative impacts on livelihoods due to reduced access to resources" (FAO, 2012, p. 69). Despite the complexity and significance of land-use, the final conclusion of the summit, The Future We Want did not specifically problematize these.

Ecosystem services

Agriculture and food systems have strong, multi-directional feedbacks in relation to the health of ecosystems. Within this floating signifier, we explored whether the submissions evidenced any concern for the natural functions performed by healthy ecosystems. These might include, for example, water and erosion control, aesthetic and cultural values and flood prevention. Each of these is important to general social-ecological well-being, and has important implications for sustainable agri-food systems.

We found that the submissions made by scientists tended to explicitly emphasize the importance of ecosystem services, and related to this, argued for an integrated information system for monitoring them. An indicative example was provided by the Co-conveners' recommendations to Rio+20 - Food Security Session which recommended the creation of "comprehensive, shared, integrated information systems that encompass human and ecological dimensions to track changes in land use, food production, climate, the environment, human health and well-being worldwide" (ICSU, 2012, p. 3).

The IOs also drew attention to the importance of ecosystem services in food production, and highlighted the contribution of ecosystem services to mankind's well-being through, for example, climate regulation, nutrient cycling and the provision of cultural values. These priorities were also stressed in the submissions made by corporate actors. For instance, a submission by the Brazilian agri-businesses stated that: "Protecting native vegetation, water resources, the soil, flora and fauna species, while, at the same time, producing renewable energy and food, maximizing productivity and minimizing environmental impacts, are all concerns of the Brazilian producer" (CNA, 2012, p. 18).

Submissions by grassroots movements and NGOs critiqued the currently dominant model of industrial agriculture, which is heavily reliant on inorganic inputs. They criticized, for example: "The appropriation and use of our rivers, lakes, aquifers and oceans for activities such as irrigation for agri-business - the damming and transposition of these generates conflicts over access to water" (People's Summit, 2012, p. 9). In a report by Greenpeace, the authors advocated a reduction in the use of inorganic fertilizers, and recommended that nations should aim to set "ambitious national targets for reducing the consumption of chemical fertilizers and pesticides and for promoting and encouraging a wider adoption of ecological farming systems" (Greenpeace International, 2012b, p. 4).


All the actors highlighted the importance of the state as being central to global food security. However, they strongly diverged on why the state is important, and on its role. Both the scientists and the IOs took a moderate stance. Submissions by the scientists recommended that public and private sectors as well as civil society should work together to achieve food security. According to the IOs, the state should work with the private sector through public investment aimed at increasing agricultural production and global productivity. It should also promote investment in food consumption and food markets.

Submissions by the NGOs, in contrast, seemed to be divided with regard to the role of the state. The WWF was the only international NGO that advocated partnership between private and public sectors. According to the WWF: "governments must make use of their fiscal, legal and regulatory powers to fully embed human and environmental capital into private sector accounting and valuation" (WWF, 2012b, p. 35). Taking another view, the publication, Reclaim the UN from corporate capture, Friends of the Earth International (FoE), Corporate Europe Observatory, La Via Campesina and the Third World Network, with the support of hundreds of civil society organizations across the world, stated that "governments must stop setting up new discussion bodies and high-level groups (and dissolve existing ones) that grant businesses a privileged status within official negotiations" (FoE, 2012, p. 7). Likewise, for the representatives of grassroots movements, states seem to be "...working for the interests of corporations and not the interests of the people. Legislation is being changed to favor large corporations" (People's Summit, 2012, p. 9).

Businesses and corporations

Similar divisions were found in the different actor's views on the role of businesses and corporations. The IOs argued that businesses and corporations are central to global food security and the health of the world's ecosystems, by virtue of their being responsible for sustainable agricultural production and productivity globally. The private sector also defended itself, arguing that many people around the world are involved in different private sector enterprises, which reiterates their role in the drive to reduce poverty. For the scientists too, partnership with the private sector was considered as being central to food security.

The submissions by the grassroots movements, in contrast, directly implicated corporate control of the food system for global food insecurity. For these actors, the problem is a globalized food system and food processing, controlled by a small number of multinational firms forming an "alliance of agribusiness, food processing industries and large retail chains (which) generates the concentration of the agricultural chain from production to supply and consumption" (People's Summit, 2012, p. 9).

The NGOs were divided in their views regarding the role of the private sector. The WWF was the only NGO that defended the corporate sector as being crucial, but recommended strengthening corporate reporting standards on food security. Other NGOs pointed out that multinational corporations defend a vision of future global food security based on industrial agriculture, where intensification is brought about by mass crop production, agri-chemicals and patented seeds.

Thus, views differed on the role and importance of corporate actors, with some considering them to be important, and others, such as the grassroots movements, being wholly opposed to their influence.

Civil society

The IOs, the scientists and the private sector all alluded, albeit weakly, to the role of civil society in their publications. These allusions were broadly centered on the observation that food security is a broad, multi-stakeholder issue and as such should be addressed by all the actors involved, including civil society. Amongst the NGOs, the WWF was one that did not explicitly allude to the role of civil society in food security within its main publications. Other NGOs, meanwhile, recommended that the Civil Society mechanism of the United Nations (UN) Committee on World Food Security should be taken as a model, showing how civil society could directly participate in international governance through the UN. Both the grassroots movements and the NGOs also recommended that "a code of conduct for UN officials, including a 'cooling off' period during which officials cannot start working for lobby groups or lobbying advisory firms, should be introduced" (FoE, 2012, p. 7). Likewise, the grassroots movements highlighted the importance of a social movement-led People's Summit which would demand the defense of the commons and an end to the commodification of nature. For these actors, a central task of civil society organizations was to enable grassroots actors, such as peasants, indigenous groups and local communities to resist the influence and incursion of corporate actors.


Through this particular floating signifier, we sought to understand what actors thought of the role of international trade in ensuring food security. For the scientists, food trade was correlated to growth in the supply of food and played an important role in encouraging secure access to nutritious food for the poorest and most vulnerable. They defended "the need to manage the risks linked to high and excessively volatile prices in agricultural commodities and their consequences for global food security and nutrition, as well as for smallholder farmers and poor urban dwellers" (UNCSD, 2012, p. 23). They also argued for a global, rules-based, open, non-discriminatory and equitable multilateral trading system in order to promote agriculture and rural development in developing countries and to tackle world food security.

In alignment with this view, submissions from the private sector also claimed that ongoing food price volatility was a big concern and directly compromised livelihoods and access to food for producers and consumers around the world. However, for these actors, the solution lies in enabling farmers to better manage risk, by providing them with weather and price information and risk management tools in order to grow better crops, expand their production and sell at more advantageous prices. For these actors, farmers need to be able to access markets at the local, regional and global level to ensure a livelihood from their activities.

For the NGOs, trade is considered problematic in as much as the production of food for export markets is seen to go hand in hand with the marginalization of small-scale farmers in policymaking and investment terms. For these actors, this dynamic explains why small farmers in rural areas constitute a large proportion of the poor and hungry in the world today. Moreover, they argue that important remedial actions should include minimizing retailer and consumer waste and maximizing the market share of certified sustainable products.

The strongest denunciation of the current role of trade was seen in the submissions of the grassroots movements. These actors argued that the commodification of nature and all living things, intellectual property and patents on life, combined with the powerful role of the private corporations in the food trade, increases hunger and poverty. Their position is that all forms of financial speculation involving foodstuffs as well as GMOs, agro-toxic substances, synthetic biology, among others presented as technological solutions for boosting productivity, should be banned. These actors hold that such technologies and practices promote the expansion of agro-industrial food systems oriented towards trade, which in turn primarily promotes the interests of agri-business corporations. For them, trade should focus instead on sustainable food production rather than on profit generation. As an alternative to the currently dominant global trading systems, these actors advocate a system which "prioritizes local and national economies and markets that empower peasant and small-scale sustainable farmer-driven agriculture, artisanal fishing, and pastoralist-led grazing" (La Via Campesina, 2012, p. 5).


In the midst of a global economic recession in 2012, agri-food security was one of the most contested issues debated at Rio+20. The state of global food security and nutrition continues to be a serious concern to this day. In this paper, we investigated the plurality of views presented at Rio+20, their internal contradictions and their implications for just and sustainable progress towards global food security. As a research strategy, we adopted a neo-Gramscian discourse approach that understands reality as a contested terrain between three main actors (state, corporations and civil society), taking place within a regime of hegemonic power relations.

After mapping the positions of different actors at Rio+20 through an investigation of what we regard as key floating signifiers in the transnational agri-food system, we have shown the dynamic organizational field of struggle at the heart of food governance. This involves a range of distinct actors, all of whom place different levels of emphasis on how to solve global hunger and malnutrition, offering a number of different solutions to the global food crisis. Our analysis of the publications that were submitted to the Rio+20 conference shows the political disputes and conflicts of interests that exist between the different actors in the transnational agri-food system, which, as a field, is under-researched in MOS.

Our discourse analysis of Rio+20 shows that the most powerful actors in this transnational governance regime are the private sector corporations. Not only are they recognized by most of the other actors as being central to poverty reduction, sustainable agricultural production and food security, they also represent the main voice in defense of trade as the most important aspect in the promotion of food access to local and global markets. When corporations talk about land and ecosystem services, they explicitly think of these terms as being connected to productivity. Equally, for corporate actors the role of states and governments is to invest public money in order to increase agricultural production and productivity globally.

Our study shows that within the context of Rio+20, corporate and governmental actors seem to talk more or less with one voice. This confirms what Lang (2003), La Via Campesina (2012) and others have highlighted, namely that corporations play an increasingly important role in the architecture of food power. This means that corporate actors are actively involved in policy making, resulting in increased regulatory capture by corporations (Marsden, Lee, Flynn, & Thankappan, 2010).

This interwoven state-corporate hegemonic structure is also reflected in the Future We Want, the final outcome of the official Rio+20 conference. This document highlights the important role of businesses and corporations, naming them as essential in tackling the state of food insecurity in the world, while at the same time ignoring the negative impact these corporate actors can have on agri-food systems and their increasing control of global food supply chains (Lang, 2003).

Amongst the leading NGOs, the WWF proved the most favorable to role of the private corporations. Not only is the WWF the only NGO that does not highlight food security as an important global issue in their Rio+20 documents, it is also the only NGO that strongly advocates corporations as actors who are crucial to the future of food systems, endorsing partnerships between private and public sectors by increasing public investment in private initiatives. Additionally, submissions by the WWF do not explicitly allude to the important role of civil society in food security.

This scenario demonstrates how civil society and government actors seem to be increasingly engulfed in, what Midttun (2005) has referred to as the commercial exchange of governance. This commercial exchange is dominated by private interests and is distinct from the regulatory and political exchanges that are otherwise dominated by governmental actors. We therefore maintain that this so-called commercial exchange was perhaps the most important aspect covered by the agri-food system discourses at Rio+20, reflecting the broader developments taking place in global governance systems. According to our study, commercial exchange is expanding, gradually taking over the other sections of the governance triangle (Midttun, 2005). This is not an altogether surprising insight, given the widely discussed and critiqued rise of multinational food and agricultural corporations and their business interests throughout the world (Clapp & Fuchs, 2009).

However, what is perhaps not discussed sufficiently, especially in MOS literature, is the divided role that civil society actors play in the transnational struggle taking place within the agri-food system. As we have previously shown, civil society does not speak with one voice. On the one hand, the WWF is very closely aligned with commercial governance exchange (Midttun, 2005). On the other hand, most civil society actors closely connected to the Global South, with a more active link to grassroots politics and an understanding of environmental and social justice, are very critical of the commercialization of food discourse and policy. As a counter-strategy, they emphasize food sovereignty and more autonomous, non-corporate approaches, not only to feeding people but also to securing farmers' and peasants' livelihoods. We have thus shown that civil society is not one single actor, speaking with one voice, as sometimes presented in neo-Gramscian studies in MOS, but rather a basket of multiple actors often speaking with many contradictory voices.

While our analysis shows that state and corporate actors, together with the WWF, dominate the discourse on food security, neo-Gramscian analysis also suggests that a hegemonic governance system is never complete or total. That is, even though a hegemonic system is dominated by a particular approach to the agri-food system, there are still a number of actors that go against the grain. This role of resistance to the hegemony of the agri-food system was played by grassroots movements at Rio+20, such as La Via Campesina, which put forward an approach to the agri-food system historically embedded in the struggles over land and resources in the Global South.

For most grassroots movements, the global agri-food system is dominated by the interests of private corporations and international trade. For these actors, private companies, agri-businesses and the global food system are drivers, rather than solutions, for the problems of global food insecurity and malnutrition. These actors assert that the private sector is responsible for the commodification of nature and life, leading to negative social and environmental consequences that are often not accounted for. By extension, their recommendation is that governments and NGOs stop working for the interests of corporations and start working for the interests of the people, particularly those who are marginalized. Thus, their struggle is aimed at a hegemonic shift in the global food system, moving towards a focus on food sovereignty, which emphasizes peasant and indigenous forms of agriculture, and prioritizes local and national economies and markets.

In conclusion, it seems clear that the Rio+20 conference manifested the struggle that is at the heart of the transnational agri-food system, particularly with respect to the discourse of food security (one of our main floating signifiers). Our analysis also contributes to neo-Gramscian discourse theory, by highlighting the splits and heterogeneity that exist in civil society. Rather than representing a singular bloc in relation to the private sector and the state, civil society has many different views on the global food system, with different and even competing positions, diagnoses and proposed solutions.

Each hegemonic system containsseeds of change and counter-hegemony. Our analysis has shown that, on the one hand, grassroots movements would like to bring about a radical shift in the global food system, approaching food security in new ways that are not dominated by private corporations and their enterprises. On the other, many more established, professionally organized NGOs see a way forward by working more closely with the private sector because of the key powers it appears to have in the governance of the agri-food system.

We argue that neo-Gramscian approaches to studying management and organization need to account for and analyze these multiple political roles of civil society actors. Civil society should not be treated as a black box. Instead, civil society articulations should be seen as dynamic, multiple and often contradictory. In our case, there is a clear schism in the way grassroots movements and NGOs approach private business interests, which is an important area for further investigation by management and organization scholars. These need to appreciate the role different civil society actors play in maintaining and resisting hegemonic governance relations, and this does not only apply to the global agri-food system.

A clear shortcoming of our study lies in our only having analyzed documents submitted to the Rio+20 conference of 2012, which provided the locus of our empirical investigation. We would suggest studies be carried out of a broader set of documents, triangulating these with other qualitative material, such as interviews and ethnographies, to better understand the discursive struggles and practices involved in the global agri-food system. The different political interests of La Via Campesina and WWF, for example, would not only be better reflected in different official published documents but also in different everyday practices. It is important to study these in more detail in order to gain a greater understanding of how hegemony in the global agri-food system is maintained and resisted.

Evaluated by double blind review process. Scientific Editors: Glenn Morgan, Marcus Vinícius Peinado Gomes and Paola Perez-Aleman


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Received: September 03, 2015; Accepted: March 31, 2016

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