An Ethnographic Exploration of the Public Nature of Standards

Meenakshi N Ambujam
18 min readJun 14, 2021


The 65th session on the Specialised Section of Standardisation of Fresh Fruits and Vegetables was scheduled on the 2–5 May, 2017. Unlike the UN conference on Human Rights, which took place earlier that year, this session seemed less ‘contentious’ and ‘political’. At least that was what a very cursory reading of the title of the session along with the programme suggested.

The contrasts between the two events and the nature in which the unravelled were quite drastic. Beginning with my registration online — where I could actually state that I was a student at IHEID instead of claiming to be part of an NGO under ECOSOC as I did for my access to the Human Rights conference — to my accreditation, the entire process seemed less tense in comparison to my field visit during the Human Rights Conference. My badge was less fancy and there wasn’t a separate counter earmarked for accreditation of persons attending this particular conference. Right from the outset, it became evident that the UNECE session was neither “glamorous” nor “special”. A fellow researcher and I had decided to attend the afternoon session of the conference on the 4th of May, 2017.

While this field visit was motivated as part of a course I was taking at the time, it revealed to me how ‘mundane’ practices and processes such as the creation of standards had so much more to them. To be fair, this essay does not draw on long-term fieldwork. In fact, I consider this only as an entry to exploring a few larger thematic anchors that interest me in the context of my wider research interests.

Unpacking the Idea of the Public:

As soon as we entered the room, what struck me was how different Room VIII looked in comparison to Room XX. Not only was the room too small but the decor was also uninspiring. As opposed to Room XX, which is one of the largest conference rooms at the UNOG and showcases a staggering ceiling sculpture of stalactites, Room VIII, located in building A, is both crammed and underwhelming. The room did not embody a certain stature or aura that Room XX did and the art work representing various animals across the world did little to instil a sense of awe. The room was visibly compact. Perhaps, it reflected the importance accorded to this meeting. This room stood in stark opposition to the formal and organised nature of the UNOG. For instance, at the ends of one of the tables lay bowls of nuts and many disposable glasses. As we took to our chairs, I could not help but notice how delegates representing various countries moved casually around the room, with a few nuts in their hands and a glass of juice or coffee. By 15h00, when all the delegates had taken their seats, it became evident how there was hardly any room for anyone else. For an event that was considered public, it seemed interesting that the room was not meant for a large audience. While I was surprised to find designated seats for those representing IHEID, I was also forced to notice how there was no one representing the public (neither in terms of people nor in terms of name boards): no press, NGO or the “public”. And, even if these actors were present, the size of the room would not have made it easy to accommodate them. What this seemed to suggest to me was if the public was ever considered in the first place when these rooms were allocated? As Cowan and Billaud (2017) argue, the ambiguousness of what constituted “public” seemed to manifest through the spatiality of the room- in terms of access and seating- and, the production of standards- in terms of what was visible and rendered invisible.

To illustrate, accessing Room VIII turned out to be nothing short of navigating through a maze. My fellow colleague and I were quite lost. We were lucky to find a person who helped us with directions. As we began to follow her, rather apologetically, she told us how finding rooms and venues at the Palais has always been difficult. Despite having worked at the Palais for two years, she said, it was easy to get lost and not know where rooms were located. This was a difficulty faced by many who worked within the UN and, she assured us that it was only natural for outsiders to feel overwhelmed and lost. The conversation with her made me wonder how accessing these public conferences seemed tedious; and in a certain way, it also felt contradictory that a conference that was labelled “public” was located in an obscure place. The spatiality of the room and the difficulty in accessing it for an outsider raises questions pertaining to how “public” is constructed and viewed by the UNOG. Additionally, as remarked earlier, the choice of a room that is visibly small and crammed also suggests that not many outsiders are expected to attend these conferences. This forced me to question what aspect of this meeting was public? As opposed to the UPR session which was being recorded live, this was a closed door meeting with no video recordings or live broadcast. Therefore, the decisions and discussions revolving around the standardisation of fruits and vegetables seemed to be largely hidden. By not providing opportunities for even virtual access, the construction of “public” becomes interesting. It seemed to me that this conference retained a certain public character because documents pertaining to the meeting were available online and one could register to participate in the conference. And, it was limited to it.

As I looked around, it was easy to notice the conspicuous absence of any form of representation of farmers/producers or consumers who had to deal with the consequences of the actions taken in Room VIII. It was fascinating how a room full of delegates were working towards developing standards on fruits and vegetables without really having to interact with two important stakeholders in an official forum.

Based on the documents circulated by mail and put up on the designated website, I was under the impression that the agenda for the afternoon was to discuss Items 7 and 8: Traceability and, Promotion and Capacity Building. However, as the Chair began to address the room, it became evident that the session was running behind schedule. In fact, the Chair briefed us, for our benefit, that they were going to deliberate on Item 5 ( Food Loss and Wastage) which should have been discussed between 10h00 and 13h00. What struck me was how even documents made available to the public never really portrayed the reality and therefore, the nature of these sessions could not be considered completely transparent either. Public in both sense of the term- transparency or people- seemed to largely be a mirage.

For someone who had only read Items 7 and 8 in preparation of the meeting, I was suddenly caught off-guard when the discussion began with Item 5. This was remarkable given my previous visit to the UN where meetings and conferences stuck to schedule- in letter and spirit. The informality that consumed this formal space was evident- not only because they drifted from the updated agenda that was circulated days before the meeting but also because unlike the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), here the delegates seemed rather uninterested. For instance, the Head of the Agricultural Quality Standards Unit (ECTD) came to us and told us how this session would not be as interesting as the one held on the previous day which discussed fruits and vegetables. She told us how this meeting was largely related to technical terms and paperwork which may not be of interest or relevance to us. Similarly, another gentleman who came to note our attendance also informed us how the session held on the 3rd of May would have been more beneficial to us because this session would deal less with fruits and vegetables per se. The assumption that discussions on standards and their construction would be boring for people who do not represent ministries gave the impression that perhaps this “public” conference was accepting of the public only at specific sessions.

Discussions, Deliberations and Standardisation of Standards:

Compared to the UPR where our presence was largely inconspicuous, here we were acknowledged and a brief introduction of IHEID was given for the benefit of the delegates. As the Chair began to introduce Item 5 to the floor, I observed how most delegates were still munching on nuts and drinking their juices or coffees. A few minutes into the session, I noticed that the Austrian delegate had his eyes fixated on his phone. On the other side of the table, delegates from Slovakia and Poland were busy talking to each other almost as if they were oblivious to the happenings around them. After presenting a brief overview of Item 5, which dealt with food wastage, the Chair opened the floor for discussion. Unlike the UPR that had a stipulated amount of time for each delegate and an order in terms of who was to speak, the session here seemed less ritualised. Neither did the LCD projector give us an idea of who was going to speak and who would follow nor was there a stop-watch regulating the time and content of the matter being said. No one spoke, despite the chair urging delegates to initiate the discussion. After exchanging glances, finally the delegate representing the European Union decided to speak. What was fascinating was how he opened his statement, which was rather “unprepared”. I could not help but think of how delegates read well-crafted statements at the UPR, which stood at variance to the impromptu remarks that were being shared here. The EU delegate began by saying how whatever came of this session had to be documented using the right terms because they would not want the press to get the wrong impression. He spoke of how standards, while important, should also not create situations where agricultural goods could not be sold. And this, he said, affected the way the press built the public opinion of standards. He affirmed that the EU believed that marketing standards were important in the fight to combat food loss and wastage for “abandoning standards was a non-option”. However, he also remarked how the press coverage on marketing standards produced the impression that standards were guilty of wastage of food. He stated the need to reduce the number of public and private standards and the need to standardise standards since there was no “simple document that could explain the situation”. As a result, he said, it was important to produce a document “of value” that spoke of the positives of standards, their need and how they reduce food loss and wastage. This document, he said, “could be circulated for the public”. The fact that the EU stressed on the need to create a “non-controversial” document specifically targeting the press and “the public” made me wonder about the role these documents played in creating a hyperreality. It was interesting to see how these documents, specifically designed for the press, would never enable them to trace back to this particular meeting held behind close doors. Once again, what constituted the public remained ambiguous. In addition, it also appeared as if these documents did not necessarily reflect a sense of transparency that the word “public” is expected to embody (Cowan and Billaud, 2017).

The EU pushed for standardisation because it believed that standards were one of the chief ways to prevent “loss of perishable fruits and vegetables”. The delegate from the United Kingdom spoke next and he was in agreement with the EU. Additionally, he highlighted how the forum should not go ahead with the creation of “Class 3” since this would enable greater circulation of fruits and vegetables of a “low quality”. Instead, he suggested to make existing categories more flexible to accommodate up to 2–3% decay taking into account a variety of factors like inter-country travel, trade etc. He spoke of the need to have a baseline standard and the standardisation of the same, across countries, to facilitate trade. At this point, the delegate from Brazil interjected and argued about the need to not “overestimate” the benefits of marketing standards. As the delegate continued to speak, there were others in the room who were explicitly expressing their disagreements by either nodding their heads or raising their eyebrows. In fact, throughout the 2 minutes that the Brazilian delegate spoke, the representative from USA smirked. The not so subtle ways in which power operated through the performance of body language was now becoming obvious (Bendix,2013). In the meantime, the informality of the space was also becoming very evident. Delegates were leaving the rooms to answer their calls while some were glued to their phones, barely participating in the discussion. From my seat, I could see a certain delegate oscillating between having his eyes glued to the phone and falling into deep slumber. The Brazilian delegate, it appeared, paid little attention to the people around him as he began to articulate his concerns. He remarked that there was a need to look into the sustainability of standards and check if the aforementioned standards had anything to do with food loss and wastage. He argued that harmonising standards would be problematic as different countries have different ways of conceiving their marketing standards. Additionally, he wondered how accountability would be established. He ended his comments by raising a very important question: “Do we know if consumers trust these standards? Consumers do not trust all products in front of them”.

The way his remarks were received and the way people responded to them through non-verbal modes of communication suggested how countries and their delegates were perceived by their peers. At a certain point, the delegate from the USA interjected and said, “No, you are wrong. I just checked my notes twice. That was not what was said”. The way in which this disagreement was articulated in an international setting struck me as different. Unlike the UPR where disagreements were expressed through a careful choice of strong words like “appalled”, “concerned”, “deplorable”, in this setting even the façade of politeness did not exist.

Since there was no one else who wanted to speak on Item 5, the Chair decided to summarise the session by first responding to the comments given by Brazil. She said that the standards would ensure that the consumer has a product that is definitely edible and that was precisely why baseline standards were pertinent. She emphasised how standards are often “blamed for things they may not be responsible for” and therefore, she suggested it was important to draft a code of good practices. She asked the floor if anyone was willing to volunteer for this task. I found it surprising that no one volunteered. The silence, the way people avoided eye contact and the way some delegates continued to stay glued to their phones made it seem as if no one was truly interested in this meeting. Finally, Sweden, France, UK and Slovakia volunteered to create this document of good practices that would enable the standardisation of standards.

The chair then directly addressed the countries who were in charge of drafting the code and told them how it was pertinent to involve the private sector so that the document “receives adequate attention”. The next few minutes were spent solely on discussing how to word the document in a way that seems appealing to all parties concerned. The Chair then remarked as to how this “valuable document could be circulated among developing countries” so that they can expand their markets. I couldn’t help but notice how delegates were still munching on nuts while the Chair was addressing the need to create unambiguous documents that would aid them in making a case for standards. Shortly after she addressed the countries that had volunteered to create the draft, the Chair remarked how this session was rather unimportant. The growing informality and the open acknowledgement of the unimportance of the meeting surprised me. One of the chief goals of these meetings, she said, was “sampling” and then pointed to the bowls strewn on the table. It was then that it struck me that the nuts that were being eaten were, indeed, samples. She said that the good aspect of these meetings was that the delegates would get the opportunity to try a variety of fruits and nuts. These samples, it seemed, enabled the creation of the standard. In a very Latour-ian (1996,1999,2011) way, the samples effectively lead to the collapse of a sense of territory and distance. The samples in the bowls and that were being munched on served as a reference(Latour, 1999). Even though they were far removed from their socialites, in Room VIII, they were clearly performing multiple functions. With every movement (Latour,1999), so to speak, the nuts from a certain geography had now come to become a “sample” that informed a group of delegates what the minimum required standard was to be. With the collapse of distance and territoriality, these “samples” were “nothing especially local” (Latour,1999) but were responsible for the creation of networks that creates a context and a reality which one would “subscribe to”; in this case, the standards. Before the Chair wrapped up the discussion on Food Loss and Wastage, she encouraged all the delegates to attend a sampling workshop that was set to take place later this year in Turin. She suggested that sampling workshop and the specialised section scheduled on the 4th to 7th July would give the delegates the opportunity not just to explore Turin but also taste a wide variety of fruits and nuts before they drafted the document on standards. The “samples”, therefore, truly seemed like actants in their ability to inform these documents and create a hyperreality through their inherent attributes.

I found it surprising that the discussion on Food Loss and Wastage did not take much time. There seemed no engagement and most delegates seemed to be on their phone. At a certain juncture, someone’s phone began to ring as the chair was discussing the feasibility of e-certification. The overall informality and lack of enthusiasm stood in contrast to the tense moments during the UPR session where one could see lobbying being done at in-between spaces. That said, the UNECE conference was very political. Despite being a session on the creation of standards for fruits and vegetables, the political tension could be gauged. Language and the realm of communication served as an important tool when it came to understanding underlying political tensions. For instance, while discussing Item 6, which corresponded to E-certificates, the delegate from Kenya suggested that they could try to develop a type of certification for their country which would take into account quality considerations using their available IT infrastructure. The delegate from the United States quickly interjected and said that would not be necessary as both the US and UK had SPS certificate templates and it would be best for Kenya to follow suit. The Chair concurred and asked Kenya to use the certification that the UK and US had in place. Similarly, when the delegate from Brazil spoke of how electronic certification may not be an easy task for the country given the infrastructural and technological disadvantage, the US spoke very sternly as to how they could “use what was in place” in the States. Not only were concerns raised by countries like Brazil and Kenya brushed aside but also treated with a certain disrespect.

At the same time, these countries (US, UK) did not contribute to the discussion specific to Item 6 or its theme per se. Their comments were only reserved to Brazil and Kenya when the delegates representing them decided to raise concerns or issues. In fact, at a certain juncture, because of the monumental silence the chair turned to the floor and asked, “Do you have electronic certificates? Do you need them? Is there something anyone wants to say or comment?”. The general unpreparedness of the delegates was complimented by others who used the time for online transactions, casual conversations and sleep.

By the time the session moved to discussing Traceability and, Promotion and Capacity Building, it was 16h15. Thus, well behind the original schedule. Nevertheless, it was also impressive how quickly Items 5, 6 and 9 were deliberated upon. The rest of the session focussed exclusively on creating documents that would standardise the standards. This was when a debate ensued between Slovakia, Poland and Greece, on one hand, and, the Chair, on the other. It was regarding the wording of the document: would it be “the standard of minimum requirement” or “ minimum standards”? The former group alleged that there is nothing called “minimum standards” and considering that the goal of standards was to expand markets and improve access, it had to be called “the standard of minimum requirement”. Once that was settled, the question that emerged was what had to go into the document. The delegate from Slovakia commented on how the UNECE as a body could not use terms that were not in its “purview”. For an outsider such as myself, this seemed very unclear. Through the course of the construction of the document concerning standards, it became increasingly clear what the delegate meant. The document could not, in any way, use terms and concepts that were largely associated to another UN body. To elucidate, when the Brazilian delegate spoke of the need to incorporate “farmer resilience” as a factor that is vital to creating standards and hence, the document; the Chair quickly commented as to how that was the concern of the FAO and the OECD. When the delegate suggested that the document could consider projecting standards as a tool that could be used to regulate and access markets, the Chair contended that the word “regulate” could not be used. A few other delegates echoed her view and stated vehemently that the standards in no way sought to regulate but only intended to facilitate. The aversion to the word “regulate” ties in well with how the UN has constructed and conceived policies over the years where regulation has been seen as “bad” for it represents an ideology that does not conform to the verbal tenets of neoliberalism, which believes in facilitation and ease of access. Another delegate recommended that the document must emphasise on capacity building and training workshops so that farmers would be trained to produce the “right” vegetables. Despite this comment being well received, I could not help but wonder how the circulating reference (in terms of samples) (Latour, 2011) made its way into determining what the right form and type of fruit and vegetable was and how farmers had to be “trained” to produce these specific varieties; which would be difficult because one cannot always control the length of a vegetable or the girth of a fruit.

The delegate from the USA added that it was important to hold workshops where farmers are “educated” about the process of standardisation that would facilitate movement from the farm to the market. As soon as this statement was made, the delegate from France noted that this was an important idea and it resonated with the Sustainable Development Goals. The EU and Sweden remarked that the document they were creating had to also resonate with the larger goals set and created by other organisations like the FAO, SDG etc. This was done so that the final document that would be made “public” would reflect a standard set of standards that were non-contradictory with other goals of the UN. The Chair then added that it was important for this document to unambiguously state that the fact that the said standards were applicable to specific varieties and were not exhaustive for they did not want the press or any other actor to get the impression that the standards were failing. She also suggested how it was absolutely essential to not make the mistakes that were made “last time” when “pictures and text did not reflect the extent of work that was done”. The creation of this document, which sought to highlight the strengths of standards by carefully choosing words and concepts that would eventually influence what products enter the market and what the consumer would buy, without any involvement of neither the consumer nor the producer, highlights how governance of trade could actually materialise through paperwork. While this document, that was created through “consensus” (even though it repeatedly ignored suggestions from Brazil and Kenya), enabled the public to perceive a standardised set of standards, the meeting reflected another reality. Slovakia argued that “80% of the document is not for us” because “ the lists were non-exhaustive”, “more barriers to trade were emerging” and “ was seeking to establish something that wasn’t true”. She went on to say, “How can we protect ourselves from the press when we have so many sentences in this document, none of which can be implemented? Let’s have fewer sentences but, good ones”. What this seemed to suggest to me was how a public session on standards that determined trade and the type of food that would enter the market largely relied on rendering practices and processes invisible.


From the creation of documents specifically meant for the public to pushing for an e-certification programme that is password protected so that producers and consumers cannot access the certification or data concerning the same highlights the importance of invisibility of discussions and how they never leave a paper trail. The documents that are intended to give a perception of transparency through their “public nature” were in fact promoting a form of opacity (Mathur, 2012). Thus, transparency making through these documents was largely how opacity manifested itself. While the documents may serve to create and render processes legible (Mathur,2012), for the consumer who buys fruits or vegetables, much of the deliberation that goes into standardisation is not only invisible but also not part of the imagination of the product. The fact that a few millimetres tend to decide whether a product meets quality standards is also largely invisible to the consumer who buys produce from the market. What standards then do, it would seem, is affect everyday lives of consumers who may be largely unaware that these standards are being implemented at their behest. The invisibility of standards and their effects despite their supposed public nature in terms of documents highlights how opacity, ambiguity and transparency are almost always in coalescence.

Note: This essay was submitted in 2017 as part of an assignment. It is not the product of long-term fieldwork. In fact, the essay provided an avenue to explore some of the themes and issues I currently engage with as part of my dissertation research.

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