Participatory Guarantee Systems: A Primer on Grassroots Organizing for Agroecological Certification

Dana James
Nov 18 · 7 min read

We all have to eat. But what should we eat?

As eaters, we’re confronted with an ever-growing array of food labels meant to help us a) discern how food on the shelf was grown or harvested and b) choose accordingly (well, at least for those of us who can afford to choose). These days, we can decide between Organic, FairTrade, non-GMO verified, Ocean Wise, Rainforest Alliance-certified, Animal Welfare-rated…and the list goes on. Even within some of these categories — say, the last one on treatment of animals — there are a slew of labels for us eaters to try to make sense of.

While some of these labels may be new to you, chances are you have seen certified organic seals (and maybe even newer riffs on them). These labels give some insights into which practices were followed in the growing and/or handling of the labelled food. For example, organic standards provide rules that prohibit use of certain synthetic agrochemicals (such as specific pesticides or fertilizers) and forbid the use of genetically engineered technologies. In addition, farms who used these methods in the past but now want to become certified must go through a “transition period,” which refers to the time between when a farm starts formally documenting its organic growing practices to when it can start selling foods with a certified organic label. In the US, where I’m originally from, the transition period is three years.

Generally speaking, which practices are and are not allowed come down to context-specific regulations, which can vary regionally (for example, at the state or provincial level) and internationally. In particular, there is variation in terms of what growers and processors are required to do, and what the standards recommend that they do. Lastly, additional standards apply specifically to organic livestock management and to multi-ingredient foods. For example, in the US, livestock raised organically are not allowed to be administered growth hormones or antibiotics and must have continuous access to the outdoors.

So how do farmers get certified?

As it turns out, following the organic standards is only one part of certification. Farmers also need to complete a management plan (a document describing what they grow/raise and how they do it), and then their management plan and on-farm practices need to be verified. In Turtle Island (North America), it is most common for farmers to rely on an inspector from an accredited third-party certification body, which is an external entity that serves to guarantee which practices are used on-farm, as documented in the farm’s management plan. The management plan and the inspector’s recommendation then get forwarded to the certification body, which makes the ultimate decision on organic certification status. The farmer pays for this service and, if approved, benefits by being allowed to use the certified organic label and sell his or her goods at a premium.

Certification is one way to reduce what scholar Jennifer Clapp calls “distance”, or “the space that exists — both physical and conceptual — between producers and consumers of a good” (2015, p. 308). Key to this system is that eaters trust that the certification process and label reflect reality, and for this they put their trust in the third-party certification body. So while eaters may not be able to see where their food is being grown, they can (for the most part, albeit with notable exceptions in recent years) feel confident that an organic label means that a certifier has acted in good faith to determine that the foods being purchased were grown without prohibited substances and that farmers (although not necessarily farmworkers) are compensated accordingly.

This whole process comes at a cost. The eater often pays more for organic food at the grocery check-out, while the grower pays additional costs to receive certification. This works for those who can afford to participate in the system, but this is far from everyone. For small-scale, diversified growers in the Global South, for example, the cost of third-party certification can be prohibitive. On top of that, the third-party system doesn’t necessarily bring eaters and growers much closer together; a lot of “distance” can still remain both in terms of geography and in terms of forging deeper grower-eater relationships.

Learning from the Global South

An alternative system has emerged in the Global South to reduce costs and bring eaters and growers closer together: The participatory guarantee system (PGS). In this model, a network does the work of both the paid inspector and the certifying body. These networks are mostly comprised of farmers but are inclusive of anyone with an interest in organic or agroecological food who wants to join, such as eaters or extension agents. Just like the aforementioned certification process, members of the network certify participating farmers based on their practices, as seen during on-farm visits and in management plans.

While doing my PhD fieldwork in southern Brazil, I came to know the first large-scale participatory guarantee network in the world (that has since come to serve as a model for many others globally): Rede Ecovida. Rede Ecovida members gather regularly to share knowledge, create cooperatives, build direct marketing networks, develop the regional food economy, become certified, and generally put agroecology on the average Brazilian’s radar. Here’s a video of one such participant, chef-turned-farmer Dona Sonia, describing the importance of agroecology for growers and eaters alike:

Video made collaboratively between UBC’s Centre for Sustainable Food Systems and a member-organization of Rede Ecovida, CEPAGRO. Funding support from SSHRC.

One thing that makes PGS different from the third-party organic certification model is the range of practices that fall under the purview of certification. Many PGS assess farms according to agroecological principles, where agroecology is viewed as an ecological, social, and political practice. To be certified as agroecological in a PGS like Rede Ecovida’s, a farmer is required to describe not only the ecological management practices used, but also practices influencing working conditions, or access to education and training opportunities for themselves and their family. In addition, they must actively participate in the entire process; as Rede Ecovida states, “certification is treated as a pedagogical process where farmers, technicians, and eaters come together to express the quality of the work they have co-developed” (my translation).

As it currently stands, Rede Ecovida is comprised of more than 3500 farm families spread across Brazil’s three southernmost states (Figure 1) and is now expanding into São Paulo state. This model is low-cost or free (since farmers don’t have to pay for third-party inspectors), transparent, inclusive of multiple food stakeholders, brings participants onto farms, and facilitates the network-building/peer-to-peer component of agroecology. On the other hand, Rede Ecovida members told me that the process can be time-consuming, which can be a barrier for growers who are already committed to the time- and labour-intensive management activities (for example, weeding) that come along with not using industrial practices. But they also said that the process opens up opportunities for political development, peer learning, and community-building that many participants find invaluable. And by certifying through Rede Ecovida, Brazilian growers still receive state-recognized organic certification through the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, and Supply, and as a result can benefit from preferential access to structured markets and price premiums.

Figure 1: Rede Ecovida structure and distribution. Source: Sacchi et al. 2015 (p. 7403).

Can PGS succeed in North America?

So, could the PGS model take off in countries like Canada and the US? For one thing, scale could be an issue; agroecological and organic farmers in parts of North America can be very spread out, making regular meetings and certification visits challenging. In addition, part of what has made PGS so successful in the Global South is the fact that the agrarian transition has a history of being heavily contested by small-scale and peasant farmers, who have pushed for land reform and alternatives to industrial agriculture for decades. While movements with similar demands exist and are growing in the Global North, it remains to be seen whether these efforts can be coordinated at the scale necessary to organize around alternative, participatory certification models, and whether or not such models will be given priority among the various options for food systems change in the Global North.

While not well-known in North America, Certified Naturally Grown is one notable example of a PGS — maybe it has the potential to scale out. If the PGS model takes off in the Global North, it could signal a shift away from paying for external services toward more equally distributing food system control and decision-making power while developing a shared sense of responsibility for our collective food future(s) — key demands of the global food sovereignty movement. In the meantime, perhaps nothing can quite replace the trust that comes from personally connecting with the people who grow and harvest your food.

What do you see as the potentials and pitfalls of PGS? Do you think a system like this could take off in North America at scale, or is third-party certification the way to go (or is there a hybrid scheme that could combine the best elements of both)? Do you think there’s an appetite in North America for eaters and growers to forge deeper connections for broader food system transformation? Let me know: @dmjames_

the nature of food

reflections of an interdisciplinary research lab studying agriculture, food security and the environment at the University of British Columbia.

Dana James

Written by

PhD Candidate at UBC’s Institute for Resources, Environment, and Sustainability & the Centre for Sustainable Food Systems, unceded Coast Salish territory.

the nature of food

reflections of an interdisciplinary research lab studying agriculture, food security and the environment at the University of British Columbia.

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