Traceability as a Mode of Ordering

An Australian Research Council project into the restructuring of tropical product supply chains in India and Indonesia (2004-08). Chief Investigator A/Prof Bill Pritchard. Post-Doctoral Research Fellow Dr Jeffrey Neilson.

About the project

tea pluckers

This project critically assessed the role of product traceability in the restructuring of developing country agro-food exporting, suggesting that it has represented an emerging mode of ordering in international food systems. Case studies of tropical products (coffee, tea, spices, cocoa) across the two countries of Indonesia and India provided the evidence for these claims. The project documented the ways in which traceability is influencing patterns of competitive advantage and market access. Its findings have had relevance for ongoing agricultural negotiations in multilateral forums, policy development in the areas of food safety and food security, and helped generate new conceptual insights regarding agro-food globalisation.

The broader significance of the project was to assess how the global restructuring of tropical product value chains affected the lives of millions of people across the planet. We are now in a period of transition towards the global private regulation of this trade. Prices are being increasingly determined in markets where multinational retail chains and branded product firms forthrightly have asserted the terms and conditions under which they buy these commodities, and have rewarded or penalized producers accordingly. The net effect has been to radically reshape income flows and cost burdens within these supply chains, and to fuel debate and anxiety within producer communities. In the project, we explored the ways that contemporary value chain restructuring is triggering a series of political and economic struggles across a range of economic, social and environmental arenas. The way these struggles are played out has configured how producers are inserted within supply chains and, more to the point, the economic returns and level of control they exercised within them.


Indian research

Book cover


The major output of the research in India was the book Value Chain Struggles (2008, Blackwell, UK). This book reports the outcome of more than 150 interviews with participants in the South Indian tea and coffee industries, including plantation owners, workers, government officials, researchers, and traders. It tells the story of an industry under restructuring, and what it means to those involved.

According to the book's back cover blurb:

There is no question that trouble is brewing for millions of coffee and tea producers worldwide. Over the past decade, the playing field has shifted as international prices have crashed and buyers have laid down extensive new requirements for market access. Value Chain Struggles gets to the roots of these important issues by investigating the impact of new trading arrangements in the coffee and tea sectors on the lives of struggling growers in South India. Adopting a global value chain approach - one that links production, trade, and consumption - we see the net effect this restructuring is having on the people, communities, and environment in this fertile region of the world.

Like a caffeinated jolt, Value Chain Struggles: Institutions and Governance in the Plantation Districts of Southern India opens our eyes to the devastating impact of recent changes to global trading relations on rural producers in the world's developing countries.

Indonesian research

Our research into these issues in Indonesia was presented in the publications listed below, and is forming an ongoing input into major research and extension activities currently being undertaken by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research.

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Published outputs

  • Neilson, J. and Pritchard, B. (2008, submitted) Value Chain Struggles: Institutions and Governance in the Plantation Districts of South India Blackwell, Oxford.
  • Neilson, J. (forthcoming) "Corporate self-regulation and value chain restructuring in Indonesian smallholder coffee systems" World Development
  • Neilson, J. (2007) "Global Markets, farmers and the state: Sustaining profits in the Indonesian cocoa sector", Bulletin of Indonesian Economic Studies 43(2)
  • Neilson, J. (2007). Institutions, the Governance of Quality and On-Farm Value Retention for Indonesian Specialty Coffee. Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography, 28(3), pp188-204.
  • Neilson, J. & Pritchard, B. (2008) “Big is not always better: Global value chain restructuring and the crisis in South Indian tea plantations”, in Le Heron, R. and Stringer, C. (eds) Agri-food Commodity Chains and Globalising Networks, Ashgate, Aldershot.
  • Neilson, J. & Pritchard, B. (2007) “Green Coffee? The contradictions of global sustainability initiatives from the Indian perspective”, Development Policy Review, 25(3), pp. 311-331.
  • Neilson, J., Pritchard, B. & Spriggs, J. (2006) “Implementing quality and traceability initiatives among smallholder tea producers in Southern India”, Acta Horticulturae 699, (Proceedings of the 1st International Symposium on Improving the Performance of Supply Chains in the Transitional Economies, ed. Batt, P.): 327-334.

Conference presentations

  • Neilson, J. & Pritchard, B. (2006) ‘Traceability, supply chains and smallholders: Case studies from India and Indonesia’, Report to the 17th Session of the Committee on Commodity Problems: Intergovernmental Group on Tea, Food & Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Nairobi (Kenya) Document CCP:TE 06/4.
  • Pritchard, B. (2006), “The contradictions of global sustainability initiatives from the Indian perspective”, 1St International Indian Geography Congress, Hyderabad, India.
  • Pritchard, B. (2006) “Spaces of engagement: The uneven penetration of traceability systems in the tropical beverage crops sector”, World Congress of Sociology, Durban South Africa.
  • Pritchard, B. (2006) “The dimensions of political and economic struggle in agri-food supply chain restructuring: evidence from South Indian tea and coffee production”, Globalising Worlds: Geographical Perspectives on Old and New Value Chains, Commodity Chains, Supply Chains Conference, International Geographical Union Commission on the Dynamics of Economic Spaces, Auckland New Zealand.
  • Pritchard, B. (2006) “Bearing the costs or reaping the gains? Struggles over supply chain compliance in the tea and coffee industries of South India” UK Agri-food Network Meeting, City University London, 10 July.
  • Neilson, J. (2006). “Certifying Sustainability: Starbucks’ sourcing policies and the unintended consequences for smallholder coffee producers in Indonesia” The Greening of Agro-Industries and Networks in Asia: Challenges and Opportunities’, Bangkok Thailand, October 27-28
  • Neilson, J. (2006). “Global Sustainability Initiatives and Land Stewardship in the Coffee District of Kodagu, South India: Implications for Environmental Management Practices” Landscapes of Meaning. South Asia-Australia connections: environment and people, UTS Sydney, October 18-20
  • Neilson, J. (2006). “The Codified World of Sustainable Coffee: Certification as a political struggle in the organisation of supply chains”, Australian Mekong Resource Centre (AMRC) Seminar Series, University of Sydney, August 25
  • Neilson, J. (2006) “Traceability, tea and smallholders in India and Indonesia”. International Capacity Building and Networking Workshop for CSOs and other stakeholders in the tea sector, Darjeeling India, September 7-9
  • Neilson, J. (2006). “Traceability in the world food system: Implications for Tea Smallholders”, Indonesian Tea Association Industry Forum, Bandung, July 18.
  • Pritchard, B., (2005). “Implementing Quality and Traceability Initiatives among Smallholder Tea Producers in Southern India”, International Symposium on Supply chain Management: International Society for Horticultural Science, Chiang Mai Thailand.
  • Neilson, J (2005). "Industry Responses to Research and Extension in the Sulawesi Cocoa Industry", Proceedings of the Malaysian International Cocoa Conference 2005, July 18-19 2005, Kuala Lumpur, pp58-60