Organic certification: what’s worthwhile, when, for producers in the Global South?

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New certification mechanisms are needed to make their costs worth the benefits Organic produce for sale in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. katetrysh, Unsplash  13 July 2021

Monica Evans

When Brian Tairea of Rarotonga in the Cook Islands was a child, his grandfather taught him to garden according to the arāpō, the phases of the moon, and to use practices like mulching, companion planting and composting to manage pests and maximize yields. Later, when his green fingers tugged him to a career working for the nation’s Ministry of Agriculture, he assumed that the synthetic inputs recommended by the government would lead to even better results. 

But after using some of the sulphur pesticide sprays, Tairea began to develop respiratory issues, and he started to think more critically about what he was promoting. “It was very much focused on conventional farming. It’s just that mindset – they’re looking at the market more than anything else,” he says. He went back to farming organically, this time in the capacity of head gardener for an organic café, where he manages a 2.8-hectare plot interspersed with lush tropical plants in luminous greens, glowing yellows and near-fluorescent pinks.

Until recently, however, a hand-painted ‘100 percent organic’ sign was the only kind of certification accessible to the 25-year-old operation – and to most other organic producers on the island. International certification was prohibitively expensive, including paying Australia- or New Zealand-based consultants to fly over on a regular basis to audit the operations. 

This is a familiar story across large swathes of the Global South: organic certification is frequently out-of-reach for smallholder operations – even if they’re already farming largely or entirely organically anyway. There are a huge range of international, regional and national certification programs, each of which has its own specific requirements and usually involves regular external assessment. There is also a growing number of group certification programs, which use internal quality assurance systems and may or may not require any third-party certification. However, not all certifications are equally recognized, and particular kinds of certification offer access to particular markets and potential premiums. 

So, what kind of certification might be worth it – and when – for producers in the Global South? 

For many farmers, especially those in small communities growing predominantly for local markets, certification of any kind is something of a non-issue. Rarotonga, for instance, is home to just over 10,000 people, and on the island, it’s word of mouth rather than certification stamps that give validation. Tairea says even some large-scale conventional growers prefer to buy vegetables from his gardens to feed their own families, because they trust in his practices and appreciate the flavor and quality of his produce. 

Organic certification can be beyond the affordability of many small farmers. Ulet Ifansasti, CIFOR
Organic certification can be unaffordable for many small farmers. Ulet Ifansasti, CIFOR

But for farmers who grow chiefly for export – such as the Cook Islands’ noni (Morinda citrifolia) producers, who sell the juice from the plant’s fruit internationally as a medicinal tonic – the question of whether or not to get certified can be more of an issue. The difference in premiums that farmers can charge for certified-organic products is frequently significant, but it doesn’t always outweigh the costs of conventional organic certification processes. 

Goettingen University researcher Marcela Ibañez Diaz took the opportunity to crunch some of the numbers for Colombian coffee farmers who had gained organic certification. The resulting study she co-authored found that these farmers did end up using more sustainable techniques and that this was positive from an environmental perspective. But it also revealed that once certification costs and slightly lower yields were taken into account, it was not necessarily a better financial deal for producers than would be non-certified practices, giving little incentive for farmers already farming organically to make the investment or for non-organic farmers to change their ways.

“Many of these farmers were actually already organic by default,” says Ibañez Diaz, “so it was not super demanding for them to make the switch. But the certification, from the perspective of the farmers, was relatively difficult, because it comes with all these extra monitoring and compliance obligations. And what I saw is that the cost of the certification is a big obstacle because the farmers needed to pay it upfront, and then it’s not so clear whether that will even up with the premium.”

So what might help? One approach that’s being promoted by organizations such as IFOAM – Organics International, and is making a positive impact on certification accessibility in many places, is the establishment of a type of group certifications called ‘participatory guarantee systems’ (PGS). These are locally-focused quality assurance systems, whereby stakeholders such as farmers, consumers, rural advisors and local authorities come together to make decisions, provide support and check that the farms’ production is in line with a chosen organic standard.

The Cook Islands has been using such a system since 2018, and it’s been a game-changer for local producers, with 22 operations gaining Pacific Organic Standard certification since the PGS was set up. “We do it for ourselves,” says Tairea. “We go as a collective, and observe [each operation’s] planting methods, to check if they’re complying with our standards.” 

Setting higher premiums for organic produce could be another option, says Ibañez Diaz, “and then it’s just a matter of the demand.” In the specific case of Colombian coffee, however, that’s likely to be a challenge. Because the coffee produced there is high quality, “it already has an extra price in the market,” she says. “And on top of that, if you add the organic certification price, it’s not so clear that the consumer would be willing to pay for it. So what you often see is that many of the organic coffees that are sold in the market are lower-quality coffees, because with the combination of high quality and organic, it’s just not so easy to get.”

IFOAM’s executive director Louise Luttikholt points out that while certification is currently an important tool for many farmers and consumers, it’s something of a product of the “imperfect context that we live in, where we have groups of farmers that want to do good, and for consumers to identify them in the market and for them to have market access, they need to get certified.” She said some governing bodies were taking useful steps towards recognizing and valuing the ‘public good’ provided by organic agricultural systems – the Danish government, for example, funds the certification process for organic farmers itself. Ultimately, though, she’d like to see more transparency from conventional farmers about their practices and the environmental and health impacts of these. “It’d be lovely if farmers that use glyphosate just before harvest had to identify that in the products they sold,” she says; “I’m not sure how many consumers would like to buy them!”