Small farmers and primary producers are the starting point of the food supply chain. In the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS), some 60% of the region’s 340 million smallholder farmers are engaged in small-scale agriculture and many are switching from growing rice to producing fruits and vegetables to obtain higher incomes.
Food Safety is increasingly a key concern globally and organic agriculture offers an attractive alternative to chemically-based agriculture, as organic inputs are cheaper and safer than chemical fertilizers and herbicides. Organic production also practically eliminates all concerns over chemical residues in food.
To help assure food safety, customers and buyers - particularly those involved in big retail markets, such as supermarket chains or exporters/importers - ask for quality standards to be respected to purchase the producer's products. Thus, farmers and food producers need to show they are certified in relation to standards of food safety. In the past several years, there has been an increasing demand for and use of certification. This situation is true both in the international markets as well as in the Asian regional, national and even local markets.
Governments have a critical role in helping to safeguard food safety from the ‘farm to the table’. In this connection, government are required to have regulations in place and to provide clear and viable options for certifying fresh and processed agriculture products.
There are several certification options available to farmers at different steps of the agricultural production process, starting from inputs up to the farm gate. Among these are: Good Agricultural Practices (GAP), Organic Third-Party Certification and Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS) using the IFOAM standard.
The GAP are a set of codes, standards and regulations aiming: to ensure safety and quality of produce in the food chain; to capture new market advantages by modifying supply chain governance; to improve natural resources use, workers health and working conditions; and/or to create new market opportunities for farmers and exporters in developing countries. According to FAO (COAG 2003), the standards primarily address environmental, economic and social sustainability for on-farm processes, while resulting in safe and quality food and non-food agricultural products. In recent years, multiple stakeholders - including the food industry, producers’ organizations, governments and NGOs - have further developed the different codes, standards and regulations of GAP to serve as guidelines for a range of commodities at farm level.
Third-Party Certifications are provided by large retailers or international organizations. They have been growing recently as consumers tend to trust independent bodies, in some cases, more than their own governments. Certainly, Third-Party certification is viewed as more trustworthy than self-certification and thus provides a practical option despite the fact that it may not be able to provide complete certainty in safety and quality of a product. However, a drawback to third party certification is the much-higher and sometimes excessive costs that are generally involved in the certification process.
Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS)
The PGS is a community-oriented certification system wherein small-holders are encouraged to form a participatory network of producers, consumers and value chain actors to develop a credible peer certification system. PGS rely on grassroots initiative and are grounded in the local contexts. It has emerged as a cost-effective alternative to Third-Party certification. Indeed, high costs of certifying food products have contributed to preventing small producers from participating in and integrating into the food value chains and from expanding their markets. PGS proposes to build the capacity of smallholder farmers in agri-food certification and food traceability.
Oversight and guidance of the PGS at the international level is provided by the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM Organics International). IFOAM, established in 1972, is a global organization with membership from 84 countries world-wide. Among its many functions, it provides advice to policymakers, national organic movements, NGOs and others, on strategies to develop sustainable and credible organic sectors. Included in its programs is the maintenance of an Organic Guarantee System, a global non-profit independent evaluation program that helps to provide an understanding of which organic labels can be trusted. IFOAM promotes both Third-Party and PGS as complimentary organic guarantee systems. To provide consumers with confidence in the PGS certification, governance of the certification should be coordinated at the national level, ideally by a multi stakeholder body supported by the responsible government agency.
The experience gained from implementing PGS under Asian Development Bank (ADB) TA 8163-REG Core Agriculture Support Services Phase II (CASP2) with the Governments of Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar demonstrates that PGS is an effective way for smallholder farmers to gain organic certification using peer-review mechanisms; to link to new markets; and to build consumers’ trust. Furthermore, PGS provide a lower-cost certification mechanism when compared to the GAP Standard (safe fruits and vegetables) and to the even more expensive Third-Party organic certification.
Among the CASP2 pilot projects, the most successful PGS models have been those that cooperated tightly with the private sector, which was able to provide a market. Examples include Lemon Farm and Sampran Riverside Resort in Thailand; Viet Nam PGS that has organized and facilitated the engagement of the organic retail sector; and NAV PGS which has demonstrated the importance of market-led activities in Cambodia. A key learning from the pilot projects under CASP2, is that a primary step for PGS is for Governments to put into place a PGS certification system. It ought to be based on the experiences in the GMS so that it is widely accepted as a legitimate organic certification tool. This could be done both at the national and regional levels. The system should explain what PGS is and how it is to be done and how this benefits all the key supply chain stakeholders. Another key learning is that the PGS is not an end in itself but rather it is a grassroots or community-led system to assist farmers to help themselves through peer certification and to facilitate market linkages.
In the GMS, FAO has also piloted the PGS in Cambodia and Lao PDR to demonstrate its educational value with young organic farmers. PGS methods are low-cost, which help farmers break the debt cycle. It promotes good nutrition as farmer producers get to consume healthier fruits and vegetables, and, finally, it provides quality assurance for organic agriculture and increased participation of stakeholders in their own development.
At the 2nd GMS Agriculture Ministers’ Meeting held at Siem Reap, Cambodia last 8 September 2017, the Ministers, in their Joint Declaration, mentioned their continuing support to the establishment of Participatory Guarantee Systems. Furthermore, the Ministers endorsed a regional strategy on developing agro-based value chains for SEAP in the GMS together with a Siem Reap Action Plan (2018-2022). Given this impetus, the GMS countries can confidently move ahead towards its vision to become the hub for safe and environment-friendly agriculture products for all and increase market access for small producers and ensure inclusive food safety for the GMS.