My research

Broad research focus

In 2050, an estimated 9.7 billion people will inhabit our planet, with almost 3 billion individuals from emerging economies adopting increasingly Westernized consumption patterns. Given these trends, how can we ensure that our agri-food systems will be able to meet this rapidly rising demand while preserving natural resources as well as our carbon budget? Considering too the growing concentration in today’s agri-food supply chains, what mechanisms can help to distribute income along value chains and empower marginalized smallholder farmers and workers?

My research addresses these vital questions by investigating the effective and equitable governance of sustainable agri-food value chains. Situated at the disciplinary intersection of political economy, environmental and food studies, agricultural economics, and public policy, this research program aims to identify governance institutions that can generate real-world changes in market actors’ behavior, and understand the resulting impacts in biophysical and socio-economic systems. By connecting institutional insights from political science to their observed on-the-ground implementation and effects, it harnesses interdisciplinarity to arrive at actionable policy recommendations for more sustainable future food systems.

My main research interests thus include the following:

  • Sustainable food systems
  • International sustainability governance
  • Non-state market-driven governance
  • Global value chains
  • Public policy (especially of agriculture, food and the environment)
  • Political economy
  • Sustainable production and consumption

The effectiveness of market-driven regulatory sustainability governance

My PhD dissertation “The effectiveness of market-driven regulatory sustainability governance. Assessing the design of private sustainability standards and their impacts on Latin American coffee farmers’ production practices“ makes a first such contribution. It evaluates the success of private certification schemes such as Fairtrade or Rainforest Alliance in shaping more sustainable agri-food value chains in the coffee sector. Over 1.5 years of fieldwork, I co-designed and led the collection of over 1,900 farm-level observations in Honduras, Colombia, and Costa Rica. I compared the sustainability of certified farmers’ production practices with those of non-certified farmers through the use of a variety of econometric methods, including propensity score matching and linear and logit regression models. To explain the results and their variation between certification schemes and country settings, I conducted a quantitative meta-analysis and carried out over 60 semi-structured interviews with economic actors along the coffee value chain.

My results show that most private certification schemes failed to effectively internalize the environmental and social costs of sustainable production due to their acquiescence to the demands of powerful buyers. In consequence, the most sustainable practices show very little field-level adoption attributable to private regulatory governance, and farmers continue to suffer from low and highly volatile prices. I further find that existing market regulations, both at the international and national level, heavily influence results on the ground.

The results of this work are presented in my book “Selling sustainability short? The private governance of labor and the environment in the coffee sector“, under contract with Cambridge University Press. More information on the book can be found here.


Spatial adoption, power dynamics, and institutionalization of private governance

Parallel to my dissertation project, I have analyzed and published insights both on antecedents of institutional effectiveness on the ground – that is, standard adoption and the political economy of within-value chain power dynamics – as well as broader patterns of private governance institutionalization. My first-authored paper “Understanding coffee certification dynamics: A spatial analysis of voluntary sustainability standard proliferation” (published in the International Food and Agriculture Management Review) offered a first-time comparative analysis of regional adoption trends of private governance initiatives. In the first-authored piece “The evolution of power in the global coffee value chain and production network” (published in the Journal of Economic Geography, Impact Factor: 3.65), I evaluate different types of supply chain power, as well as their distribution and impacts. My qualitative work to map the coffee value chain and the evolution of its sustainability governance led to the single-authored publication “Assessing the institutionalization of private sustainability governance in a changing coffee sector” (published in Regulation & Governance, Impact Factor: 2.73). I am now extending this research focus in collaborative pieces comparing the coffee, tea, cocoa, and forestry sectors.


Constructing credible, effective, and equitable corporate commitments

In my postdoc in the Environmental Policy Lab at ETH Zurich, working with Dr. Rachael Garrett, I analyze the implementation and effectiveness of zero-deforestation commitments in the palm oil sector in Indonesia. Zero-deforestation commitments are a novel form of aspirational, goal-oriented private governance of agri-food supply chains. While global governance through goal setting has been popularized through the use of the MDGs (Millennium Development Goals) and SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals), there are still ample theoretical and empirical questions regarding its effectiveness. In the private context, the credibility of corporate sourcing commitments has been understudied, though it is critical for this strategy’s success. Using semi-structured interview data from across the palm oil supply chain, I aim to understand better what features make corporate commitments more or less credible.

In a second step, I will collect producer-level survey data to understand what effects such commitments have on the ground, particularly on smallholder producers’ livelihoods. Here, I will investigate potential trade-offs between the effectiveness and equity of different implementation strategies, contrasting strategies of exclusion (e.g. of regions with high deforestation risk) with strategies of inclusion (e.g. through jurisdictional certification and producer outreach).


The TRANSSUSTAIN project

I wrote my thesis within the TRANSSUSTAIN project of the University of Münster’s Institute of Political Science. This project evaluates the efficacy of Voluntary Sustainability Standards in the coffee industry as well as alternative pathways for sustainability improvements. In addition to my thesis work, I had considerable project responsibilities regarding the establishing of practitioner networks, the conceptualization and implementation of the questionnaire used, the sampling of observations and training of data collectors, data analysis, the drafting of several project publications, and the external communication of the project’s milestones.


Earth System Governance Network

I am also a Research Fellow of the Earth System Governance Network. The Earth System Governance research alliance is the largest social science research network in the area of governance and global environmental change and  takes up the challenge of exploring political solutions and novel, more effective governance mechanisms to cope with the current transitions in the biogeochemical systems of the planet.