Global Soy

In 2012 we have started to work on a global ethnography of soy. The starting point was Argentina and a critical investigation of the soy commodity chain from the point of view of Argentinian producers. Subsequent research involved a study of the commodity futures market in Chicago, the investigation of attempts of Swiss retailers to procure non-GM soy in Europe, and the expansion of the soy commodity frontier to south eastern Europe.


Making market subjects? Price formation in a financialized agro-industrial commodity chain

Christian Berndt in co-operation with Ramiro Fernández CONICET/Universidad del Litoral Santa Fe

The scholarly literature on the role of finance for GCC development is largely written from a macro level perspective depicting a one-sided colonization of agriculture by finance and a larger epochal shift in the capitalist economy. What is missing is a complementary engagement with the financialization of agribusiness “on the ground”. Such a view conceptualizes financialization “as a shifting set of practices, logics and devices”, connects it with price formation and problematizes the distancing narrative by pointing to the materiality of the processes at play (Williams 2014: 2, 7). In doing so, it is consistent with a “geographies of marketization” (Berndt and Boeckler 2012) perspective to commodity chains. Such a perspective starts from the assumption that markets are not simply there, but require a constant effort of different agents (including farmers and workers) in order to emerge as stable entities. It is crucial from this perspective that market-making cannot succeed without the help of market devices, that is, sociotechnical tools that assist in shaping products, prices, procedures, places of exchange, mechanisms of control and so on. This involves, for instance, global commodity futures markets, the calculations of transnational traders and producers, the price dictates and expectations of a heterogeneous set of input and service providers, the work of financial institutions such as the fideicomiso, and last but not least the export, custom, and fiscal policies of the Argentinian state.

This project starts from the assumption that the contradictory and sociospatially uneven development of commodity chains has a lot to do with questions of finance and pricing, and that individual producers are forced to make their calculations in an environment that is increasingly financialized. In this context it investigates how individual decision-makers navigate this financialized environment in their daily practices, asking in particular whether they turn into calculating financial subjects as a result of this. These market calculations crucially include considerations of prices and margins of alternative soft commodities.

Upgrading, competitive strategies, and uneven development. Embedding upgrading of Argentinian soft commodity chains in its political-economic environment.

Ph.D. project of Christin Bernhold

Funding: CanDoc Forschungskredit, University of Zurich

PhD Committee: Christian Berndt, Benedikt Korf, Christof Parnreiter (University of Hamburg), Víctor Ramiro Fernandez (Universidad Nacional del Litoral/CONICET)

Within economic geography, much of today’s research on the interweaving of local developments and global political economy draws from conceptual frameworks such as global commodity or value chains (GCCs/GVCs), and global production networks (GPNs). However, while GCC research was initially intended to critically analyze uneven development and center-periphery relations in the global political economy, many academics have sidelined issues of inequality and social antagonisms. Instead, scholars and policy makers increasingly focus on upgrading. The latter is regarded as being critical for achieving socio-economic progress.
My PhD-project is designed as an empirically informed ideology critique of upgrading as a new paradigm for development. Critical political economy comprises my theoretical framework: I seek to strengthen approaches that analyze how social relations of production shape both upgrading strategies and its social outcomes with respect to inequality and exploitation. Yet, my research is strongly based on empirical work, designed as a multi-sited endeavor that relies on semi-structured interviews, text corpora, and quantitative data. First, it investigates competitive and upgrading strategies of companies and business associations (as well as their limits) in the soy agro-industrial chain in Argentina, especially in the Pampa region. Second, it looks at contradictory and unequal socio-economic outcomes of soy chain upgrading and how historically modifying social relations, and economic as well as politico-ideological struggles shape them.

Master Theses

  • Ivana Oberhänsli (2018): Aufbau von neuen Wertschöpfungsketten zur Qualitäts- und Herkunftssicherung von umweltgerecht produziertem Sojafuttermittel in der Schweiz
  • Philippe Boesch (2018): Donau Soja – Non-GM Soybean Production in the Voijvodina, Serbia
  • Franziska Mörgeli (2017). GM Soy in Argentina -  Feeding or eating the world (Supervision in collaboration with Alex Damm, Remote Sensing of Water Systems Group)
  • Daniel Zimmermann (2013). Die Kleinbauern von Santiago del Estero im Spannungsfeld der argentinischen Sojaexpansion