Published online by Cambridge University Press: 13 October 2017
Multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs) have emerged as a leading institutional approach for advancing sustainability globally. This paper examines three prominent MSIs that have developed sustainability metrics and a standard for US agriculture: Field to Market, the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops and the National Sustainable Agricultural Standard Initiative. Using data from interviews and content analysis of initiative reports, two sets of analyses are presented. First, building on Paul Thompson's tri-partite theorization of sustainability, how each initiative is conceptualizing agricultural sustainability is analyzed. We find that two contrasting visions of sustainable agriculture for the USA have emerged from the three MSIs. One vision is a resource sufficiency approach focused on eco-efficiencies and the other vision is a functional integrity approach that emphasizes the maintenance of resilient agricultural and ecological systems. Second, we examine the governance practices of the MSIs to explain why such divergent conceptualizations of sustainability have been mapped out. We find that far from being a neutral forum, the internal dynamics of MSIs often reflect and reproduce existing power relationships among stakeholders. In concluding, we suggest that incremental improvements in sustainability can be achieved using MSIs, but more transformative changes may require other forms of governance.