Small-scale producers and the governance of certified organic seafood production in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta
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As food scares have hastened the growth of safety and quality standards around the world, certification schemes to assure various attributes of foods have proliferated in the global marketplace. High-value food commodities produced in the global south for export have been the subject of such schemes through third-party environmental certifications, providing regulatory and verification mechanisms welcomed by global buyers. As certification becomes more common, re-localization in the current global context can also mean the projection of place onto a food commodity to highlight its origin or attributes secured by transparent verification mechanisms. However, environmental food certification is often criticized for its inapplicability in the context of the global south, due to the extensive documentation requirements and high costs. The key question here is the process for small-scale producers in the global south to navigate increasing international regulation of food safety and quality. This dissertation examines (1) how the environmental standards (as defined by the global north) were translated in the rural global south through international certification schemes, and (2) what the implications are at the local level, especially where producers had not yet integrated into conventional global markets before the introduction of certification. The dissertation also analyzes the influence of such certification in determining the development trajectories of rural society in the global south. A case study is used to examine newly-introduced certified organic shrimp production in Ca Mau Province in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. The selected shrimp production site is the first pilot organic shrimp project in Vietnam working with an international third-party certification scheme. It is located in rural Vietnam where, as in other parts of Southeast Asia, an accelerated process of agrarian transition is underway. Whereas elsewhere the trend with intensified regulation has been the consolidation of large-scale farms and the exclusion of small-scale farms from international agrofood markets, this case study demonstrates comparative advantages of small-scale farms over large-scale farms in producing sensitive high-value crops. This dissertation employs two main analytical approaches. The first approach is to examine the network of actors and the flow of information, payment and shrimp at the production level using environmental regulatory network (ERN). In contrast to chain analyses, which can be useful in identifying linear structure of supply chains for global commodities, ERN can capture the interrelatedeness of actors in the network built around environmental certification for agrofood products. The second analytical lens is that of agrarian transition. Countries experiencing agrarian transition at present are doing so in a very different international context from countries that accomplished their transitions in the past. Results of this research indicate that technical and financial constraints at the time of initial certification are not the primary obstacles to farmers getting certified, since the extensive farming method employed at the study site is organic by default. In spite of this, many farmers unofficially withdrew from the organic shrimp project by simply shifting their marketing channel back to a conventional one. Inefficient flows of information and payments, and a restrictive marketing channel within the environmental regulatory network that does not take into account local geographical conditions and farming practices, all contributed to limiting the farmers’ capacity and lowering their incentives to get involved in the network. The analysis also indicates that, by influencing those agrarian transition processes, food standards and certification based on values developed in the global north may modify, reshape and/or hold back agrarian transition processes in agricultural sectors of developing countries. The potential benefits of environmental certification are enhanced rural development, by generating opportunities for small-scale farmers to connect to global niche markets. The findings of this dissertation highlighted that such certification schemes or their environmental regulatory networks need to ensure information sharing and compensation for farmers. As an empirical finding, this dissertation also captures where ecological credibility and market logic meet: the success of this kind of certification depends on finding a balanced point where standards are ecologically (or ethically) credible to the level that does not attract too much criticism for being green washing, but not too unrealistic to become a disincentive for farmers to participate.