PGS and organic quality

How do PGS initiatives assist untrained farmers in carrying out credible on-site inspections?

It’s not unreasonable to expect that a local farmer growing the same crops in the same region will be amongst the most knowledgeable people to handle an on-site assessment of a neighboring farm. In fact, one would expect them to know more about what’s going on at a neighbor’s farm than someone coming from thousands of miles away who has only read a briefing on the crops and region being visited.  

That being said, all PGS initiatives have specific inspection documents to lead people untrained in conducting inspections through the necessary steps of a complete farm visit. Many PGS initiatives also conduct training for the reviewers (farmers, consumers and other members of the PGS) before they are sent to an on-site peer-review visit. These appraisals are also a way to verbally re-check that the farmer being visited actually understands the Principles of Organic Agriculture they are committing to, so peer-reviewers are led to do more than just a check on the physical farm as they are also directed by the document to ask leading questions to ascertain the farmer’s understanding. This leads to sharing of ideas and organic practices and solutions that are specific to that area, so the result is of benefit to both the farmer and the reviewer.

How can you expect village farmers to exclude each other from a local group? Why will they be honest?

Social Control only works when:

  1. the local group feels ownership and responsibility of the system;
  2. there are pre-agreed upon consequences for non-compliant actions;
  3. the pre-agreed upon consequences are perceived as appropriate (not too harsh, not too bland) and
  4. here are consequences to the Local Group for not taking action when they see the non-compliance of an individual farmer.

Including local farmers and stakeholders from the beginning in deciding consequences for non-compliances satisfies these factors.

PGS philosophy is that a non-compliance means that the farmer needs more knowledge of Organic Principles and Organic Techniques (to solve the challenge organically). Basically, this review process is not targeted at a punishment; it allows for improvement. So often, consequences for less serious and especially inadvertent first-time mistakes are purposefully less harsh and actually a trigger for more support of that farmer. The resulting social attention (in addition to the education) also acts to minimize the chance that the farmer will make the same mistake again. In many PGS initiatives, unreported non-compliances discovered on one farm in a local group also have consequences to the entire local group of farmers.

Some PGS initiatives have included random product testing and pesticide residue testing. Is this integral to the operation of a PGS? 

Only a few PGS initiatives have integrated product testing into their operation. The decision to do so was important to the stakeholders of those programs. Again, the choice to include such processes depends on a decision by the stakeholders involved regarding the need for it, as well as their capacity to bear the corresponding costs.

Can we call PGS a system of certification or is the term certification reserved only for the third-party Systems?

Organic is a system of production and PGS is, in fact, a clearly documented system of quality assurance for organic farm products that results in a written certificate of the same. The steps taken to make this claim are consistent, codified and credible so PGS is clearly a system of certification.

The PGS approach to certification is non-hierarchical and uses less paperwork than a third-party certification system. This sometimes can confuse people, but that doesn’t mean PGS is less of a system to guarantee the organic integrity of products, or a certification system. PGS are developed in order to be appropriate to the farmers that they deal with. For example, the importance that PGS place on social control to avoiding (and reporting) non-compliances requires that the farmers are fully invested in the certification program – “their” certification program, and this necessitates a non-hierarchical approach.

In addition, PGS programs take the view that, especially with small farmers, most non-compliance issues are actually because of lack of knowledge. As a result, knowledge sharing and capacity building for farmers are integral to PGS. The deep involvement that farmers (and often local consumers) have in the certification process is seen as entirely appropriate and necessary to providing a credible guarantee that products meet organic criteria.

Some other requirements for PGS include mechanisms to ensure that farmers understand the organic standards they are committing to, participate in peer -reviews (of their own farm and of one other farms) and making a publicly recorded pledges or declarations to uphold organic standard. Where appropriate, some PGS initiatives have included mandatory attendance to training sessions at key times of the growing season.

Does PGS compete with third- party certification? Will third-party certification systems suffer as PGS continue to grow?

PGS and third-party certification systems are complementary and strengthen each other. PGS programs are focused on and better suited to small-farmers and direct markets, which brings many farmers that wouldn’t have considered third-party certification into a system of committed organic production. In this way, it provides a greater number of consumers with access to affordable, quality assured Organic products that would not otherwise have been available.

This helps the Organic Movement as a whole to grow which will increase the demand for third-party certification. For example, some of the many newly certified PGS farmers will invariably want to access export or large processing markets that are better served by Third Party systems, which they could do sometimes individually but also through an ICS. PGS make an excellent base for ICS programs because many of the basic structures are already in place. Therefore PGS and third-party certification serve different markets and different operators, without any need for competition between the two systems.

Trying to discredit PGS as valid systems for organic quality assurance and certification and impose third-party certification as the only possible system for guaranteeing the organic quality of products, leads to unnecessary conflict which hurts the Organic Movement and limits the access for low-income consumers to organic products in developing markets.

What's the Difference Between PGS and third-party certification (or ICS)?

  • Less paperwork in PGS;
  • More commitment and responsibility of farmers in certification process (including inspections and consequences) in PGS;
  • Certification mechanisms in PGS are designed to be appropriate to the local social context and small-holder farmer they are serving;
  • PGS are often more inclusive of new/transitioning Organic Farmers;
  • Involvement of Consumer is encouraged and sometimes even required in PGS;
  • Use of social control by involving and empowering local stakeholders thereby giving them “ownership” of the certification process is essential for PGS;
  • Certification is given on “whole farm” basis rather than for single commodity products in PGS;
  • Usually, individual farmers own their own PGS certificates, while in ICS the certificate is owned by the farmers group, an NGO or the export company.
  • More empowerment and freedom in the marketplace with PGS as compared to ICS where farmers are bound to sell only the (possibly limited) products that were certified and that through the group that holds the certificate.

PGS require more work and involvement from the farmer. Many third-party ICS programs are subsidized by the export companies, so the actual cost to farmers is small. What’s the advantage in PGS for a small farmer with access to export markets and subsidized ICS certification? 

If the export market is good, there may not be an advantage to the farmer at all. On the other hand, ICS Certification for export markets usually only offers certification of the product that is exportable. PGS programs offer whole farm certification allowing farmers to market all their products as organic even to local markets. PGS also leave ownership of the certificate with the farmer which is not always the case with ICS systems. This gives the farmer the ability to seek out the highest paying buyer. Finally, there is a high emphasis based on capacity building in PGS. The learning experience of sharing with other farmers can lead to new cropping ideas and faster improvement of agricultural techniques that are appropriate to each context.

Is PGS better than third party certification?

The two systems of certification complement each other. PGS, with low direct costs and the heavy emphasis placed on involvement of the farmers and local consumers is well suited to small farmers selling more locally. Furthermore, because PGS procedures are more flexible they tend to be more inclusive and appropriate for the local social context they serve. For example in India, PGS programs challenged by low literacy levels of their farmers decided to use video records for the farmers’ applications and declaration statement rather that a written statement. Third-party certification, on the other hand, with the heavy emphasis placed on detailed paperwork and external auditing may be frustrating and unnecessarily burdensome for such farmers selling locally and directly, but the mechanisms are absolutely necessary to provide credible organic quality assurance to customers far away from the farmers they are buying products from, as it happens in the global exports market.

Can products from PGS be labeled as organic?

It depends on the country. Organic is an internationally recognized system of production. At this time, however, some countries have legislation that limits the use of the term only to those operations that have gone through a specified system of certification. In some countries (including US, EU, Japan) the system of certification is limited to third party certification. In other countries it includes both PGS or third-party systems of certification (Brazil, Bolivia, New Zealand). Many countries don’t have legislation one way or the other (Australia, India for domestic organic products).

How are PGS Organic products identified?

Usually, PGS farmers receive a certificate they can use to show their PGS organic status. In addition, many initiatives allow the use of a PGS logo on stickers or stamps that are put directly on the products. In some countries, including India and the United States, PGS farmers are listed on the internet and in India information is available through an SMS-text messaging system, linked to labels on PGS products at the point of sale.

Will PGS farmers be able to export their products? Will they be recognized in other countries?

The main focus of PGS is to encourage local and direct relationships between farmers and consumers. Generally, exporting is done on  larger scale farms and over great distances where both the farmer and consumer become anonymous. Third-party certification programs have mechanisms to deal effectively with those situations. That being said, neighboring countries have forged relationships with each other to facilitate trade in PGS products to a limited extent. The Brazilian legal framework recognizes PGS at the same level of third-party certification, meaning that a PGS farmer could also export the Organic products and it is estimated that 20% of PGS Certified Organic products are sold outside the country. Of course, this depends on the regulations of both exporting and importing countries.

What happens when supermarkets, processors or other anonymous distribution channels want PGS products and there is little or no direct consumer involvement? Can PGS still work?

Third Party Certification mechanisms were created within the context of a need to provide auditable security for large processors and markets buying anonymous organic products on the open market. PGS initiatives, on the other hand, arose out of a different context – the need to provide affordable and inclusive quality assurance to small-holder farmers selling locally and more directly. As a result, the two systems complement each other quite well, so in general, farmers selling into anonymous distribution channels would be better served using a third-party certification approach rather than PGS.

That being said, there are situations where PGS products could be successfully sold to large supermarkets, but the chain of custody needs to be tightly controlled. For example, a supermarket chain in the US is interested in carrying PGS products, but the products are to be sourced only from local farmers and are highlighted as such on the store shelves.

Likewise, PGS doesn’t exclude value added or processing in situations of closed sourcing. For example, a juice company producing a brand of orange juice sourced directly from a regional group of PGS farmers, processed, bottled, boxed and labeled as such could be an attractive and quality assured product that is finally sold on a distant supermarket shelf.

How do you keep store-owners and retailers from selling fraudulently labeled PGS Organic products?

While there are cooperatively run shops that only sell PGS Organic products (as well as third-party certified Organic shops) such outlets are the minority, and most small retailers sell a diversity of products that could conceivably be misrepresented by an unscrupulous shopkeeper. In such a case, most countries already have consumer protection laws (or “Fair Trading Acts”) to deal with conduct that is misleading or deceptive or is likely to mislead or deceive consumers.

What international support exists for PGS?

International organizations including IFOAM, MAELA, UN-FAO, have all been explicitly and proactively supportive of the need for PGS as alternative means for small-holder farmers to enter a system of committed organic production and to provide more consumers with quality assured organic products.

The International Task Force on Harmonization stated the need for consideration of PGS as a means of Organic quality assurance. Many international third party certification agencies are also looking at PGS programs as potential partners especially as a way to strengthen ICS programs or to reach out to a greater number of farmers that might be interested in access to international or processing markets.

PGS have received increased attention especially between 2011 and 2012, being included in the international debate on food security and sustainable development. The concept was discussed and PGS initiatives were presented as examples and references in sessions taking place during major international conferences, from the IFOAM OWC in September 2011, to the high level 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio +20).

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