Participatory Guarantee Systems – Making organic certification more accessible for small scale farmers

Many farmers’ organizations all around the world and in India contribute to the establishment and promotion of Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS). Particularly appropriate for small-scale farming, PGS have proven to be a practical alternative to third-party certification and an effective way to develop local markets for organically produced food.

Organic is now one of the fastest growing sectors in the world and its success opens many social and economic opportunities for people around the world, especially for those in need for food security and ways out of poverty. Organic certification is an important tool for the growth of the sector. It facilitates recognition and provides consumers with assurance about the organic quality of the products. With Governments playing a key role in developing national regulations for organic production, certification is also very often a synonym of access to the market. Currently, the most commonly accepted guarantee system is third-party certification, where an external auditor is responsible for verifying that the producer is in compliance with a certain set of rules (standard) for organic production.

But obtaining third-party certification is a challenge for many organic producers. This is especially true for small-scale farmers in developing countries. One of the reasons is that the cost of organic certification is high in relation to their production. Farmers get overwhelmed by the paperwork and the complexity of the standards and regulations they are asked to fulfill. Moreover, farmers are subject to a set of rules imposed from outside, which might not make room for local specificities. As a result, certified organic products tend to be expensive, not affordable for the local population. Such products will then be sold only to higher income consumers, mostly in cities, or shipped to foreign markets.

Organic certification is necessary for the growth of organic –but small farmers are often left out.

PGS – an alternative to third party certification

PGS is a way to assure the quality of the products that is substantially different from third-party certification systems, while equally reliable. PGS is based on the participation of various stakeholders in the certification process.

Ideally producers, consumers, NGOs, scientists and other key actors in the organic sector share the responsibility during regular peer-reviews and for certification decisions, and are also included in the choice and definition of the standards. The system allows for the necessary flexibility. The development of the certification procedures is taken on by the stakeholders themselves. Most of the work is done voluntarily, which means that the actual cost for certification is very low.

The involvement and cooperation of a large number of people creates possibilities for knowledge sharing and transfer. This often results in an increased know-how and an improvement in the techniques of the farmers. Producers have ownership as the decisions are redirected back to those who are directly involved in the process. Finally, Participatory Guarantee Systems strengthen local markets and local communities and enhance awareness of organic agriculture in the region. Especially in developing organic markets, the PGS approach has proved very successful in building up local networks of production and consumption.

PGS in India: a system adapted to the local reality

India is among the most advanced countries with regard to PGS development and awareness. Even though the legal framework for organic farming does not officially recognize PGS, the voluntary legal framework for the domestic market allows for organic claims without certification or with PGS. In fact, there are two alternative guarantee systems running in parallel: one led by the Participatory Guarantee Systems Organic Council (PGSOC), promoted by a coalition of NGOs; and a governmental one, referred to as “PGS India”. Altogether, over 5000 farmers have obtained organic guarantee for their products through PGS in the country.

The development of PGS in India started in 2006, when the FAO and the National Centre of Organic Farming – NCOF, a body under the Department of Agriculture and Cooperation of the Ministry of Agriculture, facilitated a workshop in Goa, where fourteen NGOs participated. After the workshop, the organizations formed an informal and voluntary coalition. This coalition launched PGS pilot programs in various parts of the country and worked to develop standards, pledges and certification procedures appropriate to the local context.

A PGS network was established and in April 2011, the PGSOC was formally registered as a society in Goa. Eleven organizations are now spread across the country and perform as PGSOC Facilitation Councils. These are: Institute for Integrated Rural Development (IIRD), Organic Farming Association of India (OFAI), Keystone Foundation, Deccan Development Society (DDS), Chetana Vikas, Covenant Centre for Development (CCD), Timbaktu Collective, Pan Himalayan Grassroots Development Foundation (PHGDF), Maharashtra Organic Farmers Federation (MOFF), Green Foundation and Botanical Society of Goa.

On the Government side,“PGS India” was launched as a scheme in the framework of the National Project on Organic Farming. The launch was announced on 07.04.2011 and the system described as a “low-cost alternative certification system – Participatory Guarantee System (PGS).” According to the NCOF, PGS “empowers farmers in the group to follow all standard requirements of organic, have surveillance on each other and declare themselves as organic.” The monitoring and coordination under “PGS India” is carried out by Regional Councils, which are also responsible for endorsing the decisions of the groups at a local level. The transparency of the system is planned to be enhanced by using Internet tools and making relevant data publicly accessible. So far, operational guidelines are accessible and a National Advisory Committee – NAC has been formed.

Farmer organizations often play a key role in the establishment of PGS initiatives, because they can build on their existing networks to bring people together and encourage their participation. India is a particularly good example, where several farmer organizations and NGOs cooperated to create PGS that is well-adapted to the conditions in the country. One of the main concerns has been to provide all the materials about the system in as many local languages as possible, to ensure maximum access to small farmers. PGS literature is now available in eight of the more commonly used languages and other translations are being prepared.

Farmer’s pledges are well adapted to the local traditions in each one of the regions where PGS are operational; in fact they are administered according to the locally prevalent socio-religious practices. In a deeply religious country like India this contributes to strengthening the farmers commitment to principles and standards of organic agriculture, in a way that is likely to be more efficient than an external, bureaucratic ‘license’ system.

PGS benefits small farmers

The PGS of Keystone Foundation – a NGO based in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, in Kotagiri, Nilgris – generates 60% of its sales turnover within the district. It was set up to provide market support to indigenous communities and forest dwellers, specially honey hunters, from the Nilgris. The activities related to organic market development started in 1995. Back then, one of the main challenges was to raise awareness among consumers on the high quality of tribal products. A participatory system that could provide organic and “eco-friendliness” guarantee was developed throughout the years, based on the local needs and specificities. Today, products carrying the organic brand “Last Forest Natural Products” are distributed all over the country and will soon be available also online.

Just like Keystone, other organizations that are now part of the PGSOC, support small farmers in obtaining market access, increased income, better livelihoods, and above all access to relevant information and technical support. Lack of knowledge about organic standards or about organic solutions for a production issue is usually the reason why a farmer might fall into noncompliances with the organic standard. The peer review and the continuous exchange of information is creating benefits for the producers themselves, while also contributing to the process that builds trust among all involved, including consumers.

PGS, an inclusive solution

There has been in India a substantial rise in the awareness of the harmful effects of toxic chemicals used in agriculture, as well as an increase in the demand for food that is produced in a sustainable way. For the domestic organic market to grow, while guaranteeing consumers that what they buy is really organic, a reliable but inexpensive verification system is necessary. PGS is an inclusive solution for domestic markets and short chains. Therefore, they are complementary to (not competing with) third-party certification, which has an important role in ensuring organic quality in the impersonal global market for organic produce.

Third party certification is an important tool, but it is not suitable for all organic operators and stakeholders. Only a diversification in organic guarantee systems can provide satisfying opportunities for a wide range of farmers and consumers, in different contexts around the world. For a large country as India, recognizing local specificities and needs is especially relevant. By creating an enabling environment for PGS initiatives to develop and prosper, India plays a key role in the development of the organic sector as a whole and sets an example to be followed.

Flavia Castro and Cornelia Kirchner

Flavia Castro

Cornelia Kirchner


IFOAM, Participatory Guarantee Systems – 4 Case Studies, 2005

PGSOC (Participatory Guarantee Systems Organic Council), History of PGS in India.

Khosla, Ron, Participatory Organic Guarantee System for India, Final Report October 2006.

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