STS - conferences, IST2012

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Transition to organic farming in Austria: The co-evolution of actors’ strategies
Ika Darnhofer, Lee-Ann Sutherland

Last modified: 2012-03-19


Various analyses point out the unsustainability of intensive, conventional agricultural production practices. One of the alternatives is organic farming, which is widely seen as more environmentally friendly and as realizing higher animal welfare standards. While most EU countries have ‘National Action Plans’ to promote organic farming, none have been as successful as Austria, where currently 20% of agricultural land is certified organic (EU-average: 4%). It can thus be argued that in Austria organic farming has broken out of the niche. However such a ‘breakthrough’ is not possible without the support of regime actors (e.g. ministry of agriculture, chamber of agriculture, supermarkets).
This paper will analyze the period between 1989 and 1996 in Austria, when landscape-level turbulences (esp. the demise of the USSR and the subsequent accession of Austria to the EU) led to fundamental changes in the agro-food regime, and opened a ‘window of opportunity’ for organic farming. The focus will be on how the niche actors maneuvered to ‘anchor’ organic farming, e.g. through contacts with regime actors during the take-off phase; and on how the strategies of various key actors co-evolved to take advantage of emerging opportunities in the growth phase. The analysis will show that the breakthrough was not planned, but emerged from the interactions between actors. Indeed, each step by an actor opened a new field of possibilities to which other actors responded. This type of breakthrough is thus highly context specific and depends on the actors’ perceptions of both constraints and opportunities, as well as on the future benefits they expect from supporting a specific alternative.