Synthesising the diversity of European agri-food networks: A meta-study of actors and power-laden interactions

Related GLP Member: Tim Williams, Niels Debonne, Christian Levers, Rebecca Swart, Peter Verburg


Farmers are at the centre of scientific and political debates about sustainability in European agriculture, but rarely do we discuss the roles of other actors who shape their behaviour. Understanding the interactions and balance of power in agri-food systems is critical to effectively govern sustainability transitions. Here, we conduct a meta-study of 71 case studies in European agri-food systems to synthesise evidence on the diversity of actors and network configurations. We characterise the reported power-laden relationships to generate an agri-food network for each case study and then create a typology of archetypical network configurations. Our study provides three major insights. First, we find a diverse range of actors and complex network configurations. This indicates that the predominant focus on farmers in sustainability policy overlooks the other actors in their agri-food networks, thus risking suboptimal policy design and efficacy. Second, the typology identifies three groups of networks – agro-industrial control, multifunctional value chains, and civic food networks – associated with diverging levels of farmer autonomy. Agricultural governance should therefore consider the context-specific agency of farmers; policies that target farmer decision-making can only have impact if farmers have the capacity to change. Third, the typology demonstrates the potentially complementary roles of conventional and alternative value chains, as well as top-down state support and bottom-up civil society mobilisation. Agri-food networks hence provide diverse leverage points for sustainability transformation.