The organic sector worldwide grows at fast speed, and so does the administrative burden that is supposed to maintain its functionality and credibility. Farmers, farmer groups, contract farmers, processors, exporters, importers, wholesalers, retailers, certifiers and accreditation bodies: all parties need to consistently file proof that organic products and processes comply with national and international standards and regulations. This necessity leads not only to higher costs, but also to the exclusion of many smallholder farmers, especially in rural areas of developing countries. Is organic group certification the solution to this problem, and if so, under which conditions?

Organic Group Certification

Small-scale farmers comprise about 90% of all farms worldwide and produce a substantial proportion of the world’s food: the Committee on World Food Security estimates that smallholders supply 80 % of overall food produced in Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America through farmers, artisan fisher folk, pastoralists, landless populations, and indigenous people. The inclusion of smallholders in organic markets is not only a sustainable development aid measure, but essential to organic food supplies worldwide. Participating in export markets presents them with opportunities to engage with actors who can access financial resources, capacity building and training. Ideally, it enables them to produce products of higher quality, to sustainably increase their yields, to buy machinery that makes their work easier and improves product quality at the same time, and to build financial reserves to compensate eventual harvest losses, pay school fees and increase their general standard of living. Sounds fantastic? Unfortunately, it’s not that easy.

Individual organic certification is burdensome and costly

In order to successfully participate in organic export markets, administrative and documentation requirements can be overwhelming. Although certification is, in the end, about building trust, this trust needs more than a good gut feeling. It requires a convincing demonstration why trust in processes and products is deserved. Concretely: why should I believe that your organic banana is truly organic? That your cacao has not been sprayed with pesticides? That your animals have enough space to roam around? That you really deserve to be paid a higher price than I would pay for a conventional product? To answer these questions, documents such as business descriptions, farm and site plans, field charts, supplier and customer lists have to be prepared, comprehensive questionnaires need to be filled in, measures to comply with the organic legislation have to be worked out and documented meticulously.

All this requires a certain educational level and costs time and money. On top of this, there are the costs for the actual organic certification by a third-party certification body, which are usually much too high for single smallholders to afford. According to the FAO, about two-thirds of the developing world’s three billion rural people live in about 500 million small farm households, working on land plots which are smaller than two hectares. Hardly any of these farmers could pay the lump sum of the certification, not even mentioning the hourly charges for the work of the inspectors plus their travel expenses – independent whether the inspection body is local, regional or international.

Is Group Certification the solution?

One important measure to facilitate the market entry for small-scale farmers is group certification. This means that a group of farmers joins forces to obtain one certificate for the entire group, instead of each farmstead applying for individual certification. In this case, the external certifier only has to inspect a small percentage of the farms as spot checks on a yearly basis. Most importantly, he must validate the group’s documented quality assurance system, the so-called internal control system. This way, he delegates the periodic inspection of all group members to internal inspectors of the group. Those internal inspectors are not only responsible for the documentation of the group’s compliance, but also advise the management regarding sanctioning and removing non-compliant group members.

It is important to mention that the final group certificate is only valid for the group as a whole; individual group members cannot use it independently. This implies that marketing, processing and distribution of the group’s products are centralised.

Organic Group Certification

Counteracting criticism on the concept through education and modern ICT

Although group certifications are recognized by the EU Organic Regulation and the American National Organic Programme, criticism on the concept’s integrity is growing. One of the reasons behind this is the great variety of group sizes, with some groups consisting of less than 100 members to other groups comprising (tens of) thousands. If the concerns about the ability of group certification to really guarantee compliance with international quality standards are not eliminated, group certification as one of the most powerful market access tools for small-scale farmers might soon be abolished. In order not to let this happen, education of the groups’ internal auditors combined with the use of reliable information and communications technology (ICT) is key. Professional documentation and reporting skills and tools not only increases the likeliness of successful, credible certification, but will allow them to transform into well-structured, transparent, reliable and sustainable market entities.

Group Certification should not be restricted to developing countries

In the past, group certification has been accepted only as an exemption and was restricted to small scale farmers in the South. This stems from the concept being a development aid measure. However, it may soon be expanded to small scale farmers in the North as well. The new EU organic regulation 2018/848 intends to implement a system for ‘Groups of Operators’ in general. This would benefit eco-minded small farmers worldwide for whom, so far, organic certification simply does not pay off yet. In our modern age where biodiversity and natural resources are at risk everywhere, each measure to support small farms to generate a good income with sustainable farming methods should be promoted – independent where the farms are.

About Organic Services

Organic Services is an international strategy and business consultancy for the food industry with particular focus on the organic sector. Drawing on more than 30 years of industry experience, the consultancy advises growers and grower groups, traders and certifiers as well as public and private organizations in creating more sustainability and transparency throughout the food supply chain. Organic Services is the global sales partner of Intact – provider of the worldwide leading audit and certification management software ECERT – and offers three ICT tools of its own to improve food supply chains. The tools Group Integrity and Ecert Basic facilitate data and certification management of grower groups and small certification bodies, whilst the non-analytic mass balance tool Check Integrity/ Check Organic reveals food fraud.

Author: Gerald A. Herrmann (Director) |

Organic Group

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