Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Organic agriculture: time to look ahead

In a recent posting I explained that for a company, the added value of having a certified product is much less if certification is ‘normal’. And the same is true for consumers; we are more likely to buy a product based on a label if it is exclusive to the product rather than being the norm. The more products in the same category that carries the mark, the less interesting the mark becomes as a differentiating tool, and it will move from the front to the back of the product, before it ultimately disappears.   

What does all this matter? It matters a lot to the future of the model of a separate organic market, based on premium prices and a set of standards, conformity assessment and a label, which is the main development model for the organic sector. The sector spends a great deal of energy discussing minute details in the standards and control system, often with the illusion that there is one standard or one certain control measure that is “right”. But what is “right” must be seen in relationship to what the system is supposed to accomplish, who it serves, what are the parameters for success? Very few organisations engaged in the Organic Guarantee System have a clear vision of where they want to be ten years ahead: many are just stewards of a system developed thirty years ago with little reflection of where it is heading.

‘Development’ is mainly viewed in terms of increasing service delivery in certification. For instance, development might be considered to be offering other certifications or using a web based interface for certification bodies; making more standards for standard setters and addressing loopholes or sharpening enforcement for regulator. Nothing wrong with any of that, but what does this really accomplish? Those that feel alienated in the system have been more innovative, for instance, the development of the Participatory Guarantee System (PGS) is a good example. Others just stand aside criticising, but often have neither a consistent alternative development model nor a consistent vision.

Through government regulations harmonisation has been forced onto the sector. Though, this harmonisation has had short-term benefits, by lowering costs, for all involved, it could, in the longer term, be a straight-jacket. Organic regulations have become the final ruler of what is right, instead of letting the consumers and markets chose what is right. The latter is a more evolutionary and less fundamentalist approach. Today already, some consumers and activist have left the organic fold, not – I believe – because the sector has betrayed its roots, but rather because it has no expressed vision to be enthused by.

The main point of this discussion is to stimulate a debate on what path the organic movement should take in the future. Initially, it needs to be decoupled from the daily discussions about regulations and requirements. Instead it should be based on the four principles of organic farming: the principle of health, care,ecology and fairness. Then, sometime in the future, this needs to result in practical tools for development, tools that will serve us as well, or better, than the certified organic model that has worked so well for thirty years.  

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