Whether or not the third party organic certification system presided over by the National Organic Program loses integrity utterly, our movement for organic food and farming needs a Plan B. At the NOFA Summer Conference in my contribution to the discussion of the future of organic (https://foodfirst.org/publication/organic-food-where-do-we-go-from-here/), I suggested that we look to Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS) for inspiration. This article is a quick introduction to PGS with resources for those who would like to learn more.
Since the 2004 joint IFOAM-MAELA Alternative Certification Workshop that I attended in Brazil when IFOAM launched its campaign to define and support PGS, IFOAM has been encouraging the development of these systems as a way to provide an organic guarantee for small scale farms (smallholders) that cannot afford third party certification and to build local markets. (MAELA is the Movement for Agroecological Agriculture of Latin America and the Caribbean, a coalition that is deeply committed to building local markets for organic foods, as opposed to export markets.) IFOAM established a PGS Working Group with representatives from around the world. Ron Khosla, founder of Certified Naturally Grown (CNG), was the first NA representative, and Alice Varon, current Director of CNG, took over from him. This is the definition of PGS from the PGS Working Group: “Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS) are locally focused quality assurance systems. They certify producers based on active participation of stakeholders and are built on a foundation of trust, social networks and knowledge exchange.”
The IFOAM Policy Brief: How Governments Can Support PGS, distinguishes them from third party certification:
“Participatory Guarantee Systems have a much more intensive interaction between the farmer and the guarantee organization and uses different tools to maintain integrity. PGS integrate capacity building and allow farmers and reviewers to help solve practical problems which will enable producers to follow the standards. The direct relationship to the process, and the fact that it is owned by the farmers and related stakeholders, encourages more responsibility and active involvement in the design of production and certification processes.”
Before the 2004 workshop in Brazil, together with other participants, I had the chance to get acquainted with a large, flourishing PGS, the Eco-Vida Network in the Porto Allegre region. Laercio Meirelles, director of Eco-Vida, explained that the network had developed its own organic standards and verification system where inspection teams of volunteers perform educational visits to the farms. An inspection team consists of a group that includes farmers, members of the food co-ops that buy from the network and often a Catholic priest. The church has been very supportive of Eco-Vida and provided space for the workshop. We toured a net-work member fruit farm. The farm occupies 10 acres of very steep land where they grow bananas, passionfruit and other tropical fruit. Climbing the rocky path to the banana trees, I wondered at how the farmers managed to bring materials up and fruit down. The farmer explained that he was taking part in a network wide experiment to eliminate the need for herbicides by planting squash to crowd out weeds under the banana trees, and to improve pest control by inter planting the bananas with other fruit. When the network comes to inspect his farm, they ask about how the experiment is going and share information from other farms.
We also visited one of the food co-ops that sells Eco-Vida products and one of two big farmers’ markets with dozens of stalls, including the farm we toured. Farms access the right to sell at these markets by joining the Eco-Vida network. The network also hosted a dinner party for our group at a village where almost all of the farms were members. They told us that one farm family was not invited because the farmer’s brother had caught him using a prohibited material. The network has a system for handling complaints and disputes through an ethics committee on the county level so that neighboring farmers are not hearing complaints against one another. Eco-Vida is a good model of the main features of a PGS: the members define and update their own standards; volunteer participation is critical; top priorities are education of farmers and consumers, building local markets and economic opportunity for smallholder farms.
IFOAM publishes The Global PGS Newsletter with reports on new and established PGS, and on the response of governments to them. You can subscribe to this newsletter for free through the IFOAM website: https://www.ifoam.bio/en/get-involved/sign-receive-organic-news. In several Latin American and African countries, governments recognize PGS for use in local markets while third party certification is mainly for export. The EU, like the US, only recognizes third party certification. IFOAM offers trainings in PGS development – IFOAM NA could sponsor one in the US.
Every two years, IFOAM – Organics International conducts a global survey to collect data on PGS initiatives. On the website, they display a map of the recognized PGS initiatives. From the data collected in 2017, IFOAM estimates that there are at least 241 PGS initiatives worldwide of which 115 are under development and 127 are fully operational, with at least 311,449 farmers involved and at least 76,750 producers certified. PGS initiatives exist in 66 countries; among them 43 countries have fully operational PGS initiatives in place.
In the US, the main example of a PGS is Certified Naturally Grown, which involves over 750 direct sales farms. CNG is especially strong in the Southern states. Unlike most PGS, at the time of its founding in 2002, CNG did not go through a process by which farmers and their customers developed a set of standards, but simply adopted the NOP standards. Since that time, they have added standards for honey, mushrooms, aquaponics, and additional standards for livestock similar to the provisions in the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices that the NOP recently cancelled. To qualify for the CNG label, farms apply and then arrange for inspection by another CNG or certified organic farmer. Applications and inspection reports are shared publicly on the CNG website. Because CNG farms are so widespread, it does not have the community building and mutual education features of some of the best PGS in other countries.
An outstanding example from France is Natur et Progres, a not-for-profit association combining consumers and farmers in the same movement. Founded in 1972, Natur et Progres is a federation of 30 local chapters and the oldest French organic organization. The local chapters have a lot in common with NOFA chapters and depend to a large degree on volunteers. They led the successful fight against GMOs in France. Since about 1980, they have maintained a participatory guarantee system through which peasants, consumers, doctors, retailers, and processors created a common charter including ecological, economic and social objectives to which all subscribe. The charter is a guide to moving towards a society that respects humans and all living things. The name Natur et Progres functions as an independent collective brand. Inspections are done by local committees that include both farmers and trained non-farmers.
Natur et progress stands for
• An organic agriculture that respects humans, animals, plants and the planet
• An organic agriculture characterized by biodiversity which alone is able to satisfy the pleasure of flavors and to provide a guarantee of health
• An organic agriculture that preserves the rural fabric and peasant’s calling giving it new value
• An organic agriculture that supports peasant know-how and peasant grown seed
• An organic agriculture that is ethical, rigorous, and free of complicity in the neoliberal market economy
The rapidly growing CSA movement in China has formed a national network that includes a PGS. I witnessed the launching of the PGS at the Urgenci International CSA conference in Beijing in 2015. CSAs work together with PGS in several countries and IFOAM currently has a project call “Education Towards the Creation of Alternative Food Systems” (EATingCRAFT) to research the synergies between PGS and CSAs. The announcement of the project explains: “On one side, we want to explore the ways PGS can contribute to the CSA approach offering a system to ensure quality and a continued improvement of practices. On the other side, we will showcase examples of how CSA can inspire PGS in building a robust solidarity economy and cultivate relationships between producers and consumers.”
In introducing PGS, IFOAM emphasizes that each PGS will be different, based on local community and cultural values: “The very life-blood of these programs lies in the fact that they are created by the very farmers and consumers that they serve. As such, they are adapted and specific to the individual communities, geographies, politics and markets of their origin.” The PGS section of the IFOAM website has ample materials to assist in the development of new systems. (https://www.ifoam.bio/en/pgs-basics)
Creating a single PGS that would replace the NOP would be a tremendous challenge and would probably violate the participatory spirit of PGS. More practical might be to return to the more regionalized approach the organic farming movement adopted in our early days. With our fairly dense networks, the NOFAs and MOFGA could get off to a good start on our own regional organic guarantee.
Published in Winter 2018-19 issue.