Community-Based Certification Makes Organic Food Available to All

Women selling organic vegetables at a market in Viet Nam.
Women selling organic vegetables at a market in Viet Nam.

By Sununtar Setboonsarng, Haidy Ear-Dupuy

The participatory guarantee system is a win-win for both smallholder organic farmers and consumers.

In Hanoi, where the population of 7.5 million is rapidly increasing with the influx of migrants from other provinces, the demand for fresh, safe food is higher than ever before. A recent survey about food safety in 8 Asian countries shows that those most worried about pesticides being used to grow the vegetables they eat are in Viet Nam.

This concern, though, is creating new opportunities for local farmers and civil society to come to together to promote healthy, pesticide-free, sustainable agriculture to meet Hanoi’s growing demand for safe food.

But organic food must be certified as such, and that can become very expensive if smallholder farmers are to adopt the third-party certification system, which requires them  to navigate a labyrinth of paperwork and shoulder the cost of an independent auditor to verify compliance with international norms and regulations that often don’t account for many of the challenges of farming in a developing nation. This in turn raises the price of organic produce so much that it became out of reach for many consumers. 

In 2008, the Agriculture Development Denmark Asia-Viet Nam Farmers Union (ADDA-VNFU) started working on organic vegetable value chains with a group of ten women farmers in Than Xuan Commune, 40 kilometers north of Hanoi. ADDA-VNFU introduced the smallholders to the participatory guarantee system or PGS, an alternative way for farmers to monitor and support one another in certifying their produce, based on the strict requirements issued by Viet Nam’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development,

PGS is a community-based certification system that organizes farmers into groups and coordinates regular peer reviews or inspections of their members. The groups then come together and connect to consumers, traders, local officials, agronomists and NGOs working in the area. The groups are responsible for making certification decisions, maintaining the PGS standards and procedures, issuing approval seals, assuring compliance with ministry regulations, and publicly promoting the PGS system. Most of the work is conducted on a voluntary basis, which brings down the cost dramatically.

Systems similar to PGS have evolved globally, and in 2004 the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) formally endorsed PGS as a viable certification system for organic produce for smallholder farmers. IFOAM currently leads a worldwide initiative to systemize the process with formal guidelines that ensure quality assurance through an active participatory process for stakeholder inclusion, and support for governments to recognize the system as a complementary tool to third-party organic certification. PGS initiatives are now serving thousands of smallholder organic farmers and their clients all over the world, and the numbers are increasing every year.

With the initial support from ADDA-VNFU in 2008 and further assistance provided by ADB, the Thanh Xuan Commune increased its farmland area under organic cultivation from 0.7 hectares in 2008 to 12 hectares in 2014, a 171% expansion. From one group of 10 women farmers, the number rose to 14 groups of 113 female and 5 male farmers, all of whom reported significant gains in their income and health after converting to organic farming.

Today, Thanh Xuan is one of the most advanced organic farming communes in Viet Nam. Visitors from all over the country and even abroad regularly visit the farm to learn its model and try to replicate its success. Scaling up PGS certification within the region is precisely the goal of an ADB-supported regional cooperation project that advocates including PGS in national agriculture policies as a pro-poor institutional arrangement for inclusive value chains in the Mekong countries.

ADB’s experience in Viet Nam demonstrates how community-based certification systems such as PGS promote local ownership, as all stakeholders are involved in the decision-making process; encourage knowledge sharing that directly benefits the farmers themselves; and strengthen local markets by developing integrated supply chains.

Finally, PGS raises awareness of the benefits of organic food and makes healthy eating affordable for everyone  – not just the rich.