Monday, October 17, 2011

Looking further than the constraints of the certified organic market place

In her closing speech for the IFOAM General Assembly in South Korea, the President Katherine di Matteo called upon the organic movement and IFOAM to spend less of its energy on standards and certification and more on market development, support to farmers and alike. I couldn’t agree more.

It should be recognized that the development of standards and certification has been very useful for the organic sector and there are parts of the world where this is a task that still needs priority. But we also have to realise that the whole guarantee system takes an enormous amount of resources and energy, from producers, from national organic movements and governments and from the international community: resources and energy which could be used for market development or advising producers. The guarantee system ensures that each producer is audited every year. But who will ensure that all producers get an advisory visit, or that producers are helped in their marketing efforts?

The World Fair Trade Organization says that, “the certification systems have changed Fair Trade to such an extent that sales of products are the main measure of success instead of the welfare of producers.” Unfortunately, this tendency is not isolated to Fair Trade, but is also found within other social and environmental labelling systems, including organic ones. The developments of guarantee systems are almost uniquely driven by the actors who have a vested interest in them, such as the standard-setters, certification bodies and accreditors; not by the constituents (consumers, producers and the trade) they are supposed to serve. There are diminishing returns on the ever-increasing demands and procedures. For many years organic standards and certification systems have established credibility for the sector. Yet all the procedures added over the past decade have added little extra credibility, while increasing the complexity and costs considerably. For sure, the standards and certification systems need development, but development should not always mean more procedures - it could also be the opposite: to get rid of unproductive procedures.

Standardization brings some benefits if it facilitates trade. Yet this is also somewhat contradictory to the values of the organic movement, which heralds diversity. There is surprisingly little understanding of this paradox within the organic sector. Those who believe that standardization is the right tool for evolution should read Darwin once more; diversity is the driver of evolution. Excessive standardization, especially when standards are prescriptive and not goal oriented, stymies development and will leave organic behind other, more flexible, concepts. 

It was apparent at the Organic World Congress how many other huge challenges the organic sector faces and that we need to be more outward looking instead of studying our navel. The challenge is to transfer the whole world’s food production system into something that is truly sustainable or, as I prefer to say ‘regenerative’.  To take on this challenge we need to be brave again, as the early organic pioneers were. We need to have visions and we need to look ahead, far beyond the narrow constraints of the certified organic market place.  

Column to be published in Ecology & Farming

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