In recent decades, certification and sustainability standards have become increasingly important in the global governance of production and trade of agricultural goods.
This led to a reduction of the negative impacts of agricultural practices. However, the growth of and access to certification has been inhibited by factors such as high costs for small-scale producers. Furthermore, the homogenisation of organic standards and verification procedures led to a decrease of agency on the part of the farmers themselves.
A variety of stakeholders have sought alternative certification schemes that are better adapted to the needs and circumstances of specific local contexts, such as Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS). Shifting authority from technical specialists to a multi-stakeholder group, PGS initiatives put strong emphasis on involving all stakeholders in the development of standards for organic agriculture, implementation of control mechanisms and participatory decision-making.
World Wild Fund for Nature (WWF) recognizes the challenges faced by smallholder farmers and hence supports alternative certification models through collaborating with local non-governmental organizations (NGOs). For instance, WWF Germany provides assistance to farmers who participate in PGS in Northern Thailand and Paraguay as part of projects on Sustainable Consumption and Production (SCP). The project teams in both countries focus on developing organic agriculture as a strategy to reduce the environmental footprint of current input-intensive production practices.
This intervention does not take place in isolation. The project takes on a systems-based framework linking consumption to production, and tackles three different leverage points at once:
- working with businesses to adopt sustainable practices and business models
- raising awareness and mobilizing the public
- and supporting the government in developing transformative policies to enable transition towards SCP in agri-food systems.
Promoting PGS in Thailand
The impact of climate change on food producers in Thailand is evident, especially with extreme weather conditions on the rise. Linked to large-scale deforestation of watersheds, northern Thailand faces longer and more severe droughts, and unreliable rainfall patterns which ends up affecting agricultural yields. Large areas of forests have been encroached upon for monoculture plantations, primarily for maize production.
Replacing harmful monocultures with a more diversified crop production system, combined with sustainable farming practices, offers a solution and helps make the areas and communities more resilient. Thailand has been registering a stable expansion of organic agriculture in the last years and the rise of Thai PGS initiatives is linked to a growing domestic demand for organic products which, in turn, is connected to a growing middle class. The Thai government has deployed a range of small supporting measures for organic agriculture within the country and actively supports the development of PGS.
The promotion of PGS was one tool of the SCP project’s work with businesses. At the beginning of the project, two pilot areas were selected for conversion from maize monocultures to a diversified system of perennial trees, fruits, and vegetables using agroecological principles.
In 2018, a financing mechanism was created jointly with the Thai Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives to support farmers for six years, i.e. during the transition period and to provide monitoring in the first years. In fact, the large Thai retailer Central Group partnered with the project to help PGS farmers from the project landscape to access the market. In workshops and meetings in the field, WWF Thailand started to discuss with farmers whether using PGS as an alternative to third party certification would be useful. With most of the project sites being in sloping, remote areas, without clear land records, PGS can be used to certify areas without clear land tenure arrangements which is another advantage for farmers. The rights to use these areas are granted by the Agricultural Land Reform Office or the Ministry of Land Tenure.
Key project partners such as the Thai Organic Agriculture Foundation provided training on agroecological approaches, and on the PGS peer reviews. PGS was promoted to smallholder farmers, especially in the provinces Nan and Chiang Mai, and a total of 1560 farmers linked to the project are now using the scheme. It has been well received by the organic food market as well as by several retailers who since 2019 have offered various PGS-certified agricultural products from the project landscape on their shelves.
South to South Exchange and PGS in Paraguay
The project has pursued an exchange of knowledge and approaches between implementation offices located in countries of the Global South (a South-to-South exchange). Through virtual and electronic exchanges, the Thai project team shared their experiences of working with smallholder farmers and PGS with the colleagues in Paraguay. Inspired by the Thai experience, the team in Paraguay sought means to promote PGS as one tool towards sustainable food systems as well.
On the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Paraguayan government realised that the country relies heavily on exports. As a result, the government has shifted its focus on enabling shorter supply chains. Alongside, the demand for organic products has taken a big leap and organic fairs are taking place across the country. The project team is now part of the “National Organic Program”, a joint endeavour between producer groups, certifiers and private sector companies to foster organic agriculture, specifically using agroecological approaches.
At the beginning of the project, a study was developed to look into the barriers to access markets faced by farmers in project areas. The main barriers were found to be poor communication between different stakeholders, informality in terms of documentation and a lack of adequate infrastructure and market channels. The report also shed light on a range of solutions to overcome such barriers, including the promotion of associations and organic agriculture through PGS to adapt to climate change, and to increase sales at organic fairs and supermarkets. Following the report’s recommendations, a link was established between an already existing PGS initiative called EcoAgro and the producers in the project areas, resulting in a fruitful partnership.
Support was given to 27 producers, providing them with training on local medicinal plants and market opportunities, as well as promotion of the PGS approach in three districts through the organisation Paraguay Organico. Soon after, 27 producers carried out verification visits and internal inspections of farms distributed across several Paraguayan districts (Itaúgua, Pirayu, Yaguaron, Ita, Piribebuy and Itacurubi de la Cordillera).
The Way Forward
The systems-based approach of the projects through three different levers, linking consumption to production, is enabling the transformation towards sustainable consumption and production in agri-food systems in Thailand and Paraguay. Value chain development and market access for agricultural products from the project landscapes are offering the participating farmers a long-term perspective and are motivating them to move away from unsustainable practices for good. The farmers continue to have market access for their PGS products as the system is self-sustaining and collaboration with partner retailers is ongoing. WWF seeks to continue integrating PGS as a locally adapted tool to strengthen organic agriculture in new initiatives, to ensure short supply chains and local supplies of sustainable food.
 Smallholder farmers interested in PGS certification must provide detailed information about their land, including the location with coordinates and detailed information about how the land is used, such as the type of crops and the production period. In this way, Officials must verify the areas and coordinates of the land to be certified and the surrounding areas.
We would like to highlight and thank Lisa Christel, Advisor Sustainable Food Systems WWF Germany for her contribution to this article. Lisa has been working at WWF in the field of sustainable food systems and is particularly motivated to strengthen local supply chains and PGS jointly with the project teams in the implementing countries.