Organic: to certify, or not to certify?

with 4 Comments

ifoamI’ve been very fortunate this year to have taken part in the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) EU Organic Leadership training. This programme involves 9 monthly online webinars plus two week long face to face interactions, as a group. We spent a week in July in Dornach, Switzerland and are meeting once more to conclude our training in Germany in February 2014.

I am also currently writing my MSc Organic Farming thesis on the topic of whether Participatory Guarantee Systems and Group Certification can make a valuable contribution to the UK organic movement. I speak to many farmers who consider themselves to be ‘organic’ growers but do not go down the route of certification and consequently cannot legally, under EU regulations sell their produce as ‘organic’. There are many reasons cited for not certifying such as the extra paperwork involved, inspections, not receiving a high enough premium etc. In the EU I feel our organic movement is at times very driven by certification and regulation, and although many see this as essential in order to maintain the integrity of organic agriculture it can be off putting for some. So it was a revelation to me to learn that IFOAM aim to encompass all organic growers, including those not certified.

organic-logoWhen you read IFOAM’s definition of Organic Agriculture it puts into perspective what it is that’s involved in being an organic farmer and you see how those who are not certified can still be classed as organic farmers. “Organic Agriculture is a production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems and people. It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects. Organic Agriculture combines tradition, innovation and science to benefit the shared environment and promote fair relationships and a good quality of life for all involved.”  (IFOAM, 2008)

That is not to say that I am against certification, as at the end of the day to sell produce as organic within the EU you must be certified, and certification and regulation are one way to ensure quality and standards are achieved & maintained. It is rather that I feel it is better to have strength in numbers, rather than discounting those who believe in organic principles and practices but do not certify I would prefer to recognise these people and ensure they are actively involved in the organic movement.

And that brings me to one aspect of Organic Agriculture that is sometimes overlooked, the importance of ‘people’. This is where I think Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) schemes score well. Again they are not always certified as organic but very much adhere to the above definition of Organic Agriculture.

Globally IFOAM has a family of standards and for anyone interested in becoming a member and supporting the work of IFOAM you can find more details here.

There are some very interesting conferences coming up over the next couple of months discussing sustainable food production, and this topic appears to remain high on the agenda for many people, so I look forward to what next year holds for Organic Agriculture.

Check out the:

Please feel free to join in the discussion and comment on any of the points raised in this post.

4 Responses

  1. Peter Mundy

    I think certification (or some form of oversight) has an important place – the key is to make it affordable for the smaller producers. I used to work on a telephone helpline, giving basic advice to farmers (and occasional growers) who were looking to convert to organic. Often, they would say “Well, I am basically organic anyway,” but upon discussing their systems, you’d find they weren’t following organic standards; perhaps they were routinely worming their sheep or spot spraying with herbicide, or feeding significant quantities of grain to fatten their cattle. Sometimes they were very far off the mark. Now, they weren’t purposefully seeking to mislead people; they just weren’t fully aware of the organic standards or the underlying organic principles. Similarly, from a consumer’s perspective, just because you’re buying ‘local’ produce doesn’t necessarily mean the farmer or grower is growing to organic standards either. Without independent third-party assessment, there is no guarantee. And although EVERYONE should visit a farm to educate themselves about how their food is produced, is it realistic to expect consumers to have the expertise to properly assess what they see when they get there? Just because you can see a few hens out in the field, does that mean they are being raised in accordance with organic standards? I certainly couldn’t tell without a full inspection. It’s a tough one: I know that cost is a big issue for small producers, and I passionately believe that small producers have an absolutely essential role to play in developing truly sustainable food systems for the future. But some form of oversight is important in my view (for what it’s worth!) to ensure people really are supporting the kind of food systems they want.

  2. Peter Mundy

    Just to say that I don’t see ‘certified organic’ as the be all and end all, either!

  3. emma.burnett

    Here’s what some of our members have told us about the importance of Organic and Local: