Thursday, August 2, 2012

Paticipatory Guarantee Systems - a nice governance model

In 2004, when I was the President of the International Organic Agriculture Movement, IFOAM, I had the pleasure to be instrumental in the first global meeting for the furthering of what is called Participatory Guarantee Systems for organic markets. Those systems developed primarily in Latin America as alternatives to the third party certification model, which has dominated the organic market place since the mid eighties. I have myself been very active in building up this third party certification model, e.g. as the founder of KRAV in Sweden and founding president of the International Organic Accreditation Services, IOAS. Because of that, I also knew its weaknesses and shortcomings....

The workshop was hosted by one of the pioneers, Ecovida.

Presently Ecovida encompasses 180 municipalities and approximately 2,400 families of farmers (around 12,000 persons) organized in 270 groups, associations and cooperatives. They also include 30 NGOs and 10 ecological consumers’ cooperatives as well as several professionals’ partnerships and supporting organizations. All kinds of agriculture products are cultivated and sold by the Ecovida members, for example vegetables, cereals, fruits, juice, fruit-jelly, honey, milk, eggs and meat. In 2003 the sales amount was 13 750 000 USD; 27 % of the sales was to free markets, 20 % for export, 19 % to the institutional market and 34 % for other markets like supermarkets, shops, agro industries etc.You can access more information (in Portuguese) about the Ecovida network on
I was sick in malaria and spend all the time in a hospital in Porto Alegre instead of participating in the workshop. Nevertheless, or perhaps as a result of my absence(!), the workshop was a great success. And from then on PGS has developed a lot.
IFOAM defines PGS like this:
Participatory Guarantee Systems 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
PGS has got a lot of positive attention lately, and it has been recognised as a relevant and legal method for guaranteeing organic products in several Latin American countries as well as in India.There are several reasons for this: one is cost and bureaucracy involved in the traditional certification. But even more important is the ownership of the process and the results. To undergo impartial third party certification with its increasingly bureaucratic procedures, standardized globally, is a rather alienating process. The first organic certification bodies where either farmer organizations or established by associations working closely with farmers, also taking on a promotional and educational role. With the introduction of adherence to the ISO 65 norm, government regulation and internal professionalization of the service, the distance between the certification body and the "subject of certification" has grown tremendously. Organic farmers today always refer to certifers as "them", never as "us".

While there are some strong sides in a third party certification system it also has a lot of weaknesses. The PGS system also has it strong and weak sides. As things stand now, third party certification is the model preferred for the anonymous mass-market, especially when distance between producers and consumers are big and PGS is the choice for direct marketing situations.

For me the thing that makes PGS most interesting is that it is based on a different paradigm and a participatory model of governance. As such it merits attention not only as a method of guarantee of organic quality. The notion that we create credibility by having supposedly "independent" organizations doing "objective" and "impartial" assessment is at best just one way of creating credibility or at worst an illusion.

The PGS models certainly are not perfect. Also, it lies in their nature that they are different and not globally standardized. Some of them may be defunct, some of them may be inefficient or ineffective. But the idea behind them is sound and could be a building block also for strengthening local democracy and building new types of institutions.

P.S. IFOAM has a lot of valuable resources for Participatory Guarantee Systems. 

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