The role of food digital platforms in the transition to sustainable agri-food systems

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Research project description

Background: the rise of digital food platforms in Colombia

Digital platforms to buy locally produced, often organic food have recently boomed in Colombia. Digital platforms act as online intermediaries which usually disrupt the industry in which they operate. They shorten the distance between producer and consumer, usually expose further information about products, and make room for interaction and feedback about consumers’ experience. Anecdotal evidence suggests that such platforms have increased consumers’ knowledge about the food they consume and has raised awareness of previously ignored aspects of food production, such as food seasonality, the role of intermediaries, farmers’ quality of life, and producers’ practices of care when relating to the ecological systems where they produce. Therefore, it may seem that digital platforms have made more visible, for more people some of the problems related to dominant industrial agri-food systems, while also proposing an innovative model to solve some of their above-mentioned socially, economically, ecologically, and health-related negative outcomes. In other words, food digital platforms may contribute to the redesign of agri-food systems and their reorientation towards food security and sovereignty which have been urgently called for.

Research problem: digital food platforms in sustainability transitions, within or beyond capitalism?

These platforms are organized according to a wide range of different business models, such as for- or non-profit, producer- or consumer-led, etc. To date, there is little understanding of its characteristics and, most importantly, of its potential to contribute to changes towards sustainability of the food system. Many of the platforms promise to shorten food supply chains, reduce environmental impact through regenerative and/or organic agriculture, and revive rural peasant economies, but no evidence exists to date on the actual realization of such envisioned impacts. Specifically, it remains unclear what type of change(s), if any, are brought about by this phenomenon and their ‘quality’. For example, these platforms may contribute to the diversification of socio-economic values (i.e. beyond profit-making), because they allow non-capitalist logics (e.g. social and ecological justice, caring relations between humans and nonhumans emerging from the process of food cultivation) to exist and spread; they may empower smallholders, peasant and their communities, who get access to otherwise inaccessible markets; they may also cause a change in diets, thereby reducing the ecological impact of food production and distribution (e.g. reduced food miles, more seasonal produce), and increasing the nutritional quality of food (because local producers harvest in a more timely manner than industrial producers that supply commercial retail chains, hence maximizing the nutritional value of the produce); they can also change consumers’ perception of food, by enabling a socially and ecologically re-connection with food and the rural world more generally, and by stimulating awareness of the human-nonhuman networks of care involved in local settings of production.

These questions are of great importance in institutional settings such as the Colombian one, where formal and informal institutions often reproduce patterns of social exclusion by strengthening the privileges of already powerful actors, and where the rural question remains open, in the face of persisting urban-rural gaps, trade liberalization, social marginalization of peasants, and the effects of climate change on ecosystems.


This study aims to understand the extent to which food digital platforms support a transition towards more sustainable food systems in Colombia. Specifically, this study aims

· to identify the diverse impacts (i.e. social, economic, cultural, ecological, etc) of such platforms, and

· to examine the extent to which these platforms challenge some of the core logics and socioecological relations that characterize capitalist agri-food systems.

Specifically, the study will:

1. Map and characterize the food digital platforms that have emerged in Colombia.

2. Analyze the type of change associated with each type of platform.

3. Examine the diversity of food digital platforms in terms of their capitalist, alternative-capitalist, and post-capitalist configurations.

4. Analyze whether notions and practices of care among human and non-human circulate between food production and consumption


The research will use a two-stage sampling procedure. For objective 1 the project will aim to sample all the food digital platforms that have emerged in Colombia to date. For objectives 2-4, we aim to sample a diverse subset of approximately 4-6 platforms. Data will be collected through a combination of desk research, field visits and semi-structured interviews. The qualitative data will be content-coded for analysis.

Expected contribution

This study will contribute to understand which types of platforms, and under which conditions, contribute to a transition towards more sustainable food systems. From a policy perspective, through comparative analysis of the emerging food digital platforms in Colombia, and of their impacts, this project will generate a solid understanding of the conditions under which distinct types of food digital platforms achieve which types of impacts. From a theoretical perspective, this project will develop better theorizations of how new forms of socioeconomic organizations, such as food digital platforms, play a role in dynamics of sustainability transitions within capitalist systems, and potentially ‘stretching’ them by introducing post-capitalist relations.


Prof. Mónica Ramos Mejía, Facultad de Ciencias Economicas y Administrativas, Universidad Javeriana, Colombia.

Prof. Carlos del Cairo, Facultad de Ciencias Sociales, Universidad Javeriana, Colombia.

Dr. Giuseppe Feola, Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, Utrecht University, the Netherlands.


February 2023 - July 2024. 


Apoyo a proyectos interdisciplinarios de investigación, Universidad Javeriana.