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Understanding organic certification

Understanding organic certification

Understanding organic certification


ORGANIC certification has now been in existence in Australia for more than 30 years, and during that time it has changed in character, complexity and cost. These changes are necessary to facilitate the current level of trade, especially international trade, in organic produce, and the level of guarantee that consumers now require.

Many organic growers and consumers regret some of these changes, believing that, in fact, organic growing systems should be ‘the norm’, and chemical users should be the ones who require strict monitoring. Unfortunately, that is not the way of the world.

Some background on certification systems

Government support for organic trade now requires that certification is compliant with International Standard Organisation (ISO) norms. ISO requirements also benefit consumers because they are designed to eliminate (or at least minimise) conflict of interest and ensure that standards and certification systems across the world meet minimum standards and have a level of equivalency. The issue is not ‘the operating standard’ itself (i.e. the written rules which in effect establish the definition of organic), which is separately regulated by governments and the United Nations, but the application of the certification system. These rules govern things such as separating inspection and decision-making functions, frequency of re-inspection, appropriate methods of appeal when growers think they have been unfairly treated and so on.

So, increasing levels of trade drive increased complexity in the system and that necessarily increases cost. Despite this undeniable increase in bureaucratic paperwork and cost, we should note that organic certification remains one of the cheapest forms of certification available and that there is quite a lot of myth and misunderstanding about certification cost. Increasingly all farmers must pay for certification of one sort or another to market their produce. It is very difficult to offload significant crops of wine grapes, for instance, without some form of certification provided to the winery concerning production methods, chemical use and hygiene. It is almost impossible to sell to major supermarkets without certification.

Organic certification is complex because it is not simply the ‘product certification’ that applies to physical objects, where a quality controller at the end of a production line can easily measure that a nut and a bolt are compatible. Organic requires ‘process certification’ that looks at many facets such as cleanliness of the land, suitability of inputs, ‘chain of custody’ and so on, to ensure that the pumpkin leaving the organic field is the same pumpkin buyers find on the shelf, or what we call ‘paddock to plate’ checking.

In certification parlance, we are looking for ‘verification’ at every major stage of production and each time the product changes hands.

Special arrangements for small growers

The operating standard should be identical, and the certification system should be substantially the same, regardless of the size of the farm. Consumers will quickly lose confidence in organic claims if we start varying the standard for different growers. There are small variations in organic standards across the world to account for different climatic regimes and cultural variation. For example, dairy cattle in northern Europe must be housed inside over the winter for their wellbeing, but we do not allow confinement of organic animals in Australia.

However, very small growers clearly have a reduced capacity to pay for certification. In fact, while small growers have always tended to complain about the cost of certification, their fees have never really covered the full cost of delivering certification, which has always been subsidised by larger and more profitable growers.

To assist small growers, the major Australian certification providers (certification bodies or CBs) did, for many years, offer a ‘small grower scheme’. These schemes have varied somewhat between CBs, and across time. Early small grower schemes required that growers were located together and ran their own ‘internal control system’ (ICS are described below). Later schemes reduced the inspection interval (every two years rather than every year) to lower the cost, but in doing so they did not meet the ISO norms and therefore could not be part of international trade. They could be sold only within Australia.

More recently some of the CBs have ceased to offer a small grower scheme. The small grower arrangements were not profitable, and they required extra surveillance of the marketplace to ensure that their produce did not make its way into ISO-controlled export supply chains. The National Association for Sustainable Agriculture (NASAA) still offers a small grower option, limited to production not exceeding $40,000 per year.

In recent years, because of the cost of certification or unavailability of small grower schemes, many small growers have dropped their certification. Sometimes this did not matter, because small growers frequently only sold their produce by various forms of ‘direct marketing’ such as via farm stalls, farmers’ markets and to-your-door box delivery. These growers relied upon establishing a relationship of trust with their customers and operated without certification.

Whilst some small growers still find what we call ‘relationship marketing’ adequate, others want to do the right thing and submit to some form of verification. Also, as farmers’ markets grow in number and size, the market management needs to offer its own form of guarantee to market shoppers.

Unfortunately, the demise of small grower schemes did permit the rise of some attempts to offer a ‘lesser’ and cheaper form of certification, and these have usually fallen well short of consumer (and consumer law) expectations. They may have tried to redefine organic, but that always resulted in misuse of the organic claim. They may have tried to define some form of ‘chemical-free’ claim but failed to understand the complexity involved in making such a claim (a genuine chemical-free claim is so difficult to define and guarantee that it would inevitably be more expensive and difficult than organic certification). These schemes fell so far short of ISO norms that they raised many issues of reliability and conflict of interest. In the worst cases, they were clearly fraudulent.

An alternative form of organic verification

The gaps described above have inspired a quest for a reliable alternative form of organic verification.

A special case of small growers is the many very small growers in the developing world, who could not afford Western-style certification. During the 1990s, the concept of grower group certification developed to allow hundreds of thousands of small landowners to supply small quantities of coffee, tea, spices and tropical fruit to the wealthy organic consumers in the west. Grower group certification applied the concept of the internal control system (ICS). The grower group would organise its own inspection, at the affordable local rate in the developing world. The western inspector would then conduct a compliance audit of the grower group ICS. They would interrogate the ICS recording system to ensure it was thorough and up-to-date and select some operators (usually between 5 and 10 per cent) for farm visits.

This author (Tim Marshall) conducted more than 3,000 grower group inspections in Asia and the Pacific between about 1995 and 2003, including visiting more than 800 unique farms in Indonesia, 250 in Sri Lanka and 150 in Samoa (and multiple repeat visits to many of them).

The acceptance of grower group produce into the international supply chain required a high level of compliance at the ICS audit. If there were any failures at all, I would require an extra 10 farm visits for each non-compliance (which meant more time in the field and greater expense). If there were multiple failures, the entire grower group could be rejected. To ensure that this was achieved, grower groups maintained a high level of ‘social policing’. That is, the growers would watch each other. One non-conforming grower could threaten the whole group, so they ensured that any wild-card growers were removed from the group. In some cases, such as in Aceh, social policing could be reinforced by the village chief and/or the Imam.

In the early 2000s, I began to work for IFOAM, the international peak body for the organic movement, in a role that was designed to encourage uptake of organic growing and certification in the developing world. At that time there was a significant debate starting up, that suggested, ‘Grower group certification is all very well for benefiting wealthy organic consumers in the west, and helps some individual small farmers in poor countries, but it does little to encourage the development of an organic marketplace within those countries.’ How could the organic movement sponsor demand for a genuine organic food supply in the developing world, for the benefit of growers and consumers?

The answer was participatory guarantee systems or PGS

In the PGS, growers grouped together to guarantee each other. They could take on the role of inspector, in rotation, or in some cases employ a suitably qualified inspector, whose inspection reports were assessed by the group. In such a system, there was either no cost or minimal cost (if a local inspector was employed).

Finally, we had arrived at a system that could supply a local organic market at minimal expense.

PGS actively promoted social policing (everyone keeps an eye on each other), and participation in all aspects of organisation, inspection, decision-making and marketing of the PGS scheme. Some PGS are comprised entirely of producers, but others include consumers, environmental groups and government agencies.

It was always the intention that PGS would eventually develop to the extent that PGS produce could, perhaps through a re-certification system or additional verification, find its way into the international trade, but this could not happen until PGS had proven itself.

This final goal would eventually establish a meaningful level of self-reliance in poor countries and reduce the local cost of supplying organic produce to the west which could be significant, especially if they required separate certifications for European, American, Japanese and Australian markets (more recently China, Korea and other countries have introduced their own certification, adding further cost and complexity for exporters). Finally, some models are arising, especially in South America, that may be reliable enough to see some PGS produce moving into international organic supply chains.

IFOAM now estimates that there are at least 240 PGS initiatives in 66 countries, including 115 under development and 127 fully operational (in 43 countries), with more than 300,000 farmer members.

Applying PGS in Australia

The demise of the small grower schemes has provided an opportunity for application of PGS in the developed world, and several are under development, but none are fully operational.

The phenomenal growth of farmers’ markets across Australia provides an obvious focus for PGS, because they are local, and provide a good basis for community building, and may include growers, consumers, local governments and social or environmental interest groups.

At this stage, we have only one functioning example of an Australian PGS, operated by the Sapphire Coast Producers Association (see http://www.scpa.org.au), based around the Bega Valley NSW and including producers from Braidwood, Batemans Bay and Eden in NSW. It supplies markets as far away as Canberra in the ACT.

Despite the small number of examples of PGS in western countries, we do know that they will have the following characteristics:

If they make an organic claim it will be based on an existing standard (such as the AS6000 or the National Standard for Organic and Biodynamic Products). They should not attempt to redefine or vary the generally accepted rules for organic production.

They will encourage participation and be non-hierarchical, and they will not be privately-owned or ‘for profit’.

They will almost certainly be organised around a specific region or locality and often focused on local supply. They may be specifically focused around a marketplace such as a farmers’ market and local organic shops, at least initially. Some PGS may be organised around a specific commodity.

They will be very cheap or without cost. Like any community organisation or activity they may, if they are large enough, pay for services of a coordinator or inspector, but to the greatest extent possible they will use voluntary labour.

It is probable that the first few working PGS will be focused on small growers, and initially, it is unlikely that they will try to market through ‘third parties’ such as major wholesalers and supermarkets, although this may be possible in time when PGS have become well established.

Steps are underway to form a national PGS Council to assist with the development of PGS and to regulate the use of the term, and to ensure that the first few operating PGS are successful exemplars for others to emulate.

As an example of how the price of certification can be reduced in PGS while retaining reliability and local acceptance, the Sapphire Coast PGS costs $165 per annum including membership of SCPA and certification fees. In this case, members inspect each other (first-time inspectors are accompanied by a more experienced member).

© Article & Photographs: Tim Marshall




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NASAA still offers a small grower option, limited to production not exceeding $40,000 per year.


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The phenomenal growth of farmers’ markets across Australia provides an obvious focus for PGS, because they are local, and provide a good basis for community building, and may include growers, consumers, local governments and social or environmental interest groups.



Photo- understanding org certification D1000028