Participatory Guarantee Systems offer alternative certification

Tegan Renner

Over the past three decades, organic agriculture has evolved into a global system of third party certification and international trade. This system has seen tremendous growth in recent years, but it has presented more challenges than opportunities for small scale producers, especially those in the South. There are many who abide by the principles but who are unable to market their crops as organic because they lack the third party certification that the global market demands. The reality is that most farmers are not able to afford the high costs associated with third party certification. The amount of paperwork that is required is also often seen as an obstacle. Aside from these barriers, the fact still remains that international organic standards like the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movement’s (IFOAM) Basic Standards have been developed in the North, despite 75 percent of IFOAM’s members being from the South. The result is standards that do not consider Southern climates or economies.

In reaction to these challenges, small farmers around the world have created alternative systems of organic certification that are suited to their local ecological and economic realities. Still founded on the principles of organic agriculture, these systems are often loosely based on IFOAM’s Basic Standards but with the necessary modifications made to reflect their community’s needs, including different cultural means of quantitatively or qualitatively measuring “organic.” Most basic are changes involving reduced certification costs and amounts of required paperwork, but more significant are the structural differences. Very much a community organisation, the shared emphasis of participation in all these alternative systems has led to the overall term, “participatory guarantee systems” (PGS). With a focus on the local community, standards are created jointly by the producers and consumers that the system will serve. In this way and others, both transparency and participation are entrenched as core values in these alternative systems of certification. Trust is also a cornerstone of PGS – not only because of the joint participation of its creation – but also because of the continued relationship between producer and consumer in direct purchasing at markets or farm-gate sales and a close relationship between producers who work together to keep the PGS functioning. Sharing information and experience with each other is one way that this trust is established. Capacity building is also a key component of PGS, and training is often a requirement as well as meetings to discuss farm management issues and share solutions. Most PGSs are non-hierarchical, which is achieved through a relatively even distribution of responsibility among producers who belong to the PGS.

From participatory-driven principles to action, the Ecovida Network in Brazil provides an example of PGS. This tri-state PGS, set up by local NGOs and research institutions, has 2300 farm families, 25 support organisations, 15 consumer groups, 8 marketing enterprises and 7 small scale agro-industries as members. Most farmer members of the Network sell individually or through farmers’ groups at fairs and markets, but others sell to co-operative stores or agro-processing plants that are a part of the Network. Members are able to enjoy a price premium for their organic certification and are able to keep more of their profits as there is no intermediary.

IFOAM reports that there are dozens of PGSs around the world and they range in scale as well as approach. Though PGSs have common founding principles, how they run differs according to what is desired by the local community. It should be noted that even with a tri-state system like the Ecovida Network, the focus is still on direct local consumption. There are those within the PGS movement who wish to gain access to niche markets in the North, but this ambition is far from being realised. There are many signs that IFOAM recognises the importance of PGSs in direct, local consumption relationships, but not as an export-oriented system. Nevertheless, IFOAM has published a number of suggestions to guide NGOs and policy makers in promoting PGS. Ideas include building PGS credibility through the establishment of local markets, arranging access to urban areas for rural farmers, revitalising the link between socioeconomic issues and organic agriculture and many other actions to encourage PGS, both in regions where it is and is not established. PGS presents the opportunity for the organic movement to again support local consumption, in turn strengthening community ties, economies and rural livelihoods.

Tegan Renner. University of Waterloo, 320-D Spruce St. Waterloo, Ontario N2L 3M7 Canada.



-FAO, 2007. Participatory Guarantee Systems for marketing organic products, Brazil. Food and Agriculture Organisation. Rome, Italy.

-IFOAM, 2007. Participatory Guarantee Systems: shared vision, shared ideals. International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements. Bonn, Germany.

Raynolds, Laura T., 2004. The globalization of organic agro-food networks. World Development, 32, 5.

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