PGS certification is better for organic farmers

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Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS) are built on trust, integrity and transparency among organic farmers. They are cheaper, reduce bureaucracies involved in organic certification and make it possible for farmers to sell their produce in local and regional markets.

Many small-scale farmers who have gone into organic certification, through the third party (certification companies) have had to go through a rigorous process and incurred additional costs. They also have a lot of paper work to do to prove their compliance with the requirements. Third party certification is very relevant for access to regulated export market. However, there is growing realisation that third party certification is not always possible especially for farmers targeting the local and regional markets.

Efforts to promote PGS for local farmers

In recent times there has been a strong need to acknowledge and develop PGS as an alternative and/or complementary option to the third party certification. Indeed the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) acknowledges that PGS are locally focused quality assurance systems. They certify producers based on active participation of farmers and other stakeholders and are built on foundation of trust, networks and knowledge exchange.

Two main factors have made the growth of PGS certification important: The desire to improve the way organic food is certified and need for an organic guarantee system that is recognized in local markets and not controlled by the compliance requirements and costs associated with third party certification.

Fundamental values of PGS

PGS shares a common goal with third-party certification systems in providing a credible guarantee for consumers seeking organic produce. The difference is in the approach. In PGS, farmers and consumers are encouraged and required to directly participate in the certification process. This is realistic and beneficial especially for small-scale farmers and the local, direct markets that PGS systems are most likely to serve.

Active participation of farmers

Active participation on the part of the farmers and other stakeholders results in greater empowerment and greater responsibility. This requires PGS to place a high priority on knowledge and capacity building through training not only for producers (in this case the farmers) but also for consumers. Most importantly, this direct involvement allows PGS programmes to be less involving in terms of paperwork and recordkeeping, since PGS systems seek to be absolutely inclusive in bringing small-scale farmers into an organic system of production.

PGS model built on trust

Common certification programmes are usually based on the idea that farmers must prove they have complied with organic standards and regulations to be certified. PGS programmes use an integrity-based approach that starts with the foundation of trust. Farmers and consumers are expected to be transparent and open, while maintaining an environment that minimizes hierarchies and administrative levels.

How does PGS Work?

There are several PGS operating all over the world with an estimated 46,000 farmers across 38 countries. Philippines, Uganda and India lead in the number of farmers involved. PGS is,  therefore, unique as it is designed to suit particular markets and communities. Stakeholders in a PGS system have shared vision, engage in processes of participatory, transparency, trust and learning. All members are basically equal in terms of power. In many cases PGS starts from community networks where members meet to address common issues, which may range from table banking, social issues or members’ welfare.

Interaction between farmers and consumers

Local organic markets are always a great drive for starting PGS. When consumers interact with farmers or visit their farms, they get to see their production methods and techniques. Consumers also meet farmers at the organic farmers market, ask questions, and get responses from the producers of food or participate in peer reviews. This builds trust and assures the consumers of the quality of the product, beyond the paper certificate. Regular peer review or on farm inspection carried by farmers is a valuable tool for knowledge exchange as farmers discuss problems, challenges and share advice.

Sustaining the PGS

Any group of farmers who want to establish PGS must think beyond establishing the usual rules that govern the group members. Many PGS groups are involved in other common activities that bring them together beyond aspects of agriculture. These activities are encouraged as individuals within groups could have different interests and needs. Such activities should, however, meet a particular market demand. For example, the group can start supermarkets, schools, home deliveries and farmers' markets. It is always good to have diverse local markets to cushion farmers against market risks.

The PGS products require active promotion through brand development, good packaging, advertisement and participation in trade fairs. Many PGS groups have their own logos. In Kenya and East Africa region, Kilimo Hai mark is used on PGS certified organic products.

The PGS groups should, know from the start how they are going to fund their activities. One option is to start with members’ financial contributions or consumer support like in the case of Consumer Supported Agriculture in USA. A local NGO or Government agency can provide support. The PGS groups should analyze their external and internal funding opportunities and aim at being self-sustaining in the long run. This is possible if some profits are put back into the operations that can sustain full operations.

Diversify products

The PGS groups should deliver diverse quality organic products in the market that meet the needs of consumers and enable them earn a reasonable income.

PGS has great potential

PGS has great potential for developing both local and even regional markets. Many consumers who want organic products will usually check whether the product is marked as “certified organic” and not just the certificate and logos. The fact that farmers are entrusted with guarantee of organic produce provides them motivation to do better. However, caution must always be taken to ensure that PGS does not appear less effective than third party certification.

*Jack Juma is the Technical Advisor, Standards and Certification, Kenya Organic Agriculture Network (KOAN), email: kajuma@koan.co.ke

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