In this paper we analyze how new actors, interests, and resources become salient to food system governance and how the domain of food system governance transforms as a result. Specifically, we focus on how the boundaries of food systems are redefined and new institutions are developed through the explicit recognition of distal interactions and feedbacks—telecoupling—operating in the food system space. Telecoupling can stimulate new forms of governance, such as the development of codes of conduct and certification schemes, with positive impacts on food and livelihood security; when ignored, telecouplings can exacerbate undesirable social and ecological outcomes in linked systems. We present a typology of telecoupled food systems, highlighting three dimensions of distance that can be present in systems that become telecoupled: social, institutional, and physical. We use that typology to explore the evolution of telecoupling and governance change in two case studies. We associate the tendency for changes in governance that occur in each case with the nature of “distance” in the systems in question: whether the systems are distal in terms of social and/or institutional ties, or in the resource base, or some combination of all three dimensions of distance. The challenge of overcoming distance is not the only issue that affects the possibility of governance change; the cases illustrate that the cultural and economic conditions of the connected systems, the agency of actors involved, and their political and social relations and networks all come to play in enabling governance transformation in telecoupled systems.
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