Why do we need PGS programs? Aren’t third-party certification systems enough?
Third-party programs are doing an excellent job at what they were designed for and have vastly increased the global market and awareness of organic products. PGS offer a complementary, low-cost, locally-based system of quality assurance, with a heavy emphasis on social control and knowledge building. PGS, as a complementary method to third-party certification, is essential to the continued growth of the organic movement, especially if we want to include poorer smallholder farmers who have the most to benefit from organic.
It is ironic that in many countries we see the number of acres under third-party organic certification increasing quickly, while the number of certified organic farmers is hardly growing. Based on these numbers it would appear smallholder farmers are less interested in joining the organic movement than large agribusiness farms. Of course this is not true; it is only the process of third-party certification that smallholders are less interested in. Barriers to entry for third-party certification, including direct costs and paperwork, mean that many of the smallest and poorest farmers (those that have the most to gain by joining a system of committed organic production) cannot participate, and this hurts the growth of the organic movement as a whole.
Where are the origins of the PGS movement?
The term Participatory Guarantee System is relatively new – coined after the joint IFOAM-MAELA Alternative Certification workshop in Torres Brazil in 2004. Over 40 participants representing PGS initiatives from 20 countries attended and many of these were well established by that time. Some PGS, like the Nature et Progrès in France, have been around since the 1980s. Others were established in the 1990s and most of the rest were established in the last 7-8 years.
How many PGS and farmers are there in the world now?
IFOAM is the only organization collecting, compiling, systematizing and disseminating comprehensive information about PGS worldwide. Every year, a global survey is carried out to monitor the develop of PGS initiatives in terms of number of farmers involved, number of farmers certified, number of developing PGS initiatives, etc. The results of this survey are translated into the Global PGS Map, which is updated on a regular basis, and are also published annually via “The World of Organic Agriculture – Statistics and Trends”, which is prepared in cooperation by IFOAM and FiBL. Updates on PGS are also published every month via the IFOAM Global PGS Newsletter, which is a free electronic publication.
What is the future of PGS?
The fast growth of the PGS movement over the last few years reflects the need to include smallholder farmers in the organic movement. In developing countries especially, most third-party certified farms rely on distant export markets to cover the cost of certification, so products from those farms are not available to local consumers. By bringing more farmers into a system of committed organic production, and linking that to direct and local sales, PGS offer much wider access of organic products to local consumers.
Because PGS initiatives directly link up consumers and farmers they may also help to provide organic food at a lower cost to poor consumers. In Brazil, for example, farmers and consumers in one PGS work together to come up with a fair price for bananas. By selling directly to the consumer, farmers realize a higher price for their products than when they were sold to distributors while consumers pay less than when they purchased conventional bananas from retail shops. A similar initiative is running in India. By meeting the needs of smallholder farmers and local and low-income consumers, PGS initiatives are poised to grow even more quickly as awareness of organic continues to grow globally. In turn, PGS have become integral to the future growth of the organic movement. Without them, organic will remain the bastion of the rich and educated leaving the poorest farmers and consumers unable to benefit.
Can you explain why PGS works as a viable organic verification system?
It’s first essential to acknowledge that no system of certification or quality assurance is perfect. Farming is often a solitary profession; so unscrupulous people that want to cheat can generally find ways to do so. At the same time, PGS proponents believe that we must start with a foundation of trust and that organic farmers who make a public declaration to uphold the Principles of Organic Agriculture can, in fact, be trusted, and that intentional fraud accounts for only a minority of non-compliances.
The PGS approach to quality assurance begins by looking at the primary factors behind most non-compliant actions. These include a lack of understanding about organic rules and a lack of knowledge of organic techniques to solve specific production problems organically. PGS address these two factors in a variety of ways, but in general they are based on guided peer review and support, as well as mutual knowledge building.
In addition PGS initiatives make use of social control, which is effective only when local stakeholders have ownership and a direct hand in the certification mechanisms (as opposed to being answerable to a distant authority.) This requires locally based and non-hierarchical certification structures and mechanisms appropriate to the social context they are operating in.
Finally, all PGS include guided on-site inspections. For more details the PGS Guidelines provides examples of ways that different PGS have implemented the key elements and features of PGS.
Can I as a consumer be involved in the PGS? What is the role of the consumers within the PGS?
Consumers are integral to the operation of a successful PGS. The exact role varies but includes helping with the initial development of the initiative, including standards and systems, to ongoing involvement in local, regional and national meetings, to participating in revisions and on site farm appraisals. In some countries consumers play an active role in distribution by running PGS cooperatives.
Diagram of a typical PGS: