Taking as its starting point the enduring ‘agrarian question’, or crisis, of uneven rural development, the paper traces the evolution of the global commodity chain approach as a means for conceptualising the complexities and contradictions of the global agri-food system. Of central concern is the potential that commodity chain analysis has for illuminating the dynamics of local development. Much useful critique and debate (reflecting debate within human geography more generally) has highlighted theoretical and methodological shortcomings within commodity chain analysis, and critique and subsequent innovations have potentially strengthened the utility of the commodity chain approach. However, it is argued that if commodity chain studies are to effectively grasp the complexities of contemporary agri-food globalisation, and its challenges for local social and economic development, they must maintain a global production-consumption gaze, while not losing sight of local productive relations and rural livelihoods at the roots of the chains. In order to be inclusive of small-scale primary producers, it is argued, commodity chain analyses might usefully incorporate aspects of rural livelihoods approaches.