The process of certification is one of the bureaucratic aspects of a farming job, one which has very little to do with farming and a lot to do with paperwork. However, it is an essential part of producing and selling food if the farmer wishes to have a certified product. As Slow Food, we are working on an alternative and we piloted it jointly with indigenous communities and IFAD. But before getting into the details, a short introduction to certification.
Third Party Certification (TPC) systems are established by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), and generally consist of norms to be applied and controlled by external technical actors (e.g. inspectors) using generic guarantee forms applied globally. Organic certification is one of these.
However, in between TPC and farmers’ self-certification lies a third way, called “Participatory Guarantee Systems” (PGS).
PGS are low-cost, local systems for product or value chain quality assurance. They are based on diffused technical knowledge, inclusion and collective accountability. The main difference from TPC is that they include stakeholders other than producers and inspectors in the process and are based on trust, social networks and knowledge exchange.
Stakeholders decide the members of the governing bodies of the PGS and the indicators that will be checked, following the general guidelines for PGS initiatives.
Though initially seen mainly as an alternative to TPC for organic products, PGS are perceived as a promising tool for assessing sustainability in agriculture from other perspectives as well, because of their adaptability and flexibility to more varied contexts.
What does it mean to certify a Slow Food Presidium product in a participatory way?
Within the framework of the IFAD-funded project “Empowering Indigenous Youth and their Communities to Defend and Promote their Food Heritage,” a pilot PGS initiative was launched to increase Presidia traceability and the level of guarantee of quality according to Slow Food (good products, produced cleanly and fairly) of two indigenous Slow Food Presidia: Ogiek Honey and Oaxaca Mixteca Agave (Maguey in Spanish). At the same time another Presidium in Italy, the Lucca Red Bean, was also following the same path.
Slow Food and indigenous leaders were interested in adopting a bottom-up system to ensure that products are good, clean and fair with minimal intervention from Slow Food headquarters. This grassroots initiative would give local areas almost complete independence, be resilient over time and would add international credibility and value to the Slow Food system, in particular to the Presidia project.
Every product that is part of the Presidia project has to follow the product category guidelines and a production protocol drawn up specifically for that product. From this point of view, a Presidium must follow a set of rules very similar to TPC, with the difference that the sanctions for non-appliance vary significantly. A PGS initiative for Slow Food helps because the checks to make sure the guidelines and production protocol are being followed and decisions about sanctions come directly from local areas and the relevant Slow Food Community, and not from Slow Food headquarters (except in some specific cases).
Ogiek Honey Slow Food Presidium
The Ogiek are an indigenous people who live in and around the Mau Forest on the southwestern side of the Kenyan Rift Valley and in the forests around Mt. Elgon along Kenya’s northwestern border with Uganda. The entire belief and livelihood system of the Ogiek revolves around the forest and its resources, with honey being the most important product and a staple food for Ogiek families.
“We are not Ogiek without honey” Clare Rono, Ogiek Honey Presidium member
The Ogiek people face many challenges as they try to secure their livelihoods from their ancestral forests.
Logging followed by reforestation with exotic non-flowering species is a direct threat to bees’ foraging and therefore to honey production.
In 2012, a group of Ogiek honey producers joined forces and established MACODEV, a community-based organization responsible for marketing honey on the producers’ behalf. Then, in 2015, the Ogiek Honey Presidium was launched to help protect the Mau Forest ecosystem and promote the value of the ancestral culture of the Ogiek people through their flagship product: honey.
Young people are actively involved in the extraction and production of honey, and additionally many young people now occupy leadership roles in the local organization and are closely involved in the decision-making processes within the Slow Food Presidium.
Oaxaca Mixteca Agave (Maguey) Slow Food Presidium
The Mixteca people represent the fourth largest indigenous group in Mexico. They have lived since time immemorial in the southwestern Mixteca region, which straddles the states of Guerrero, Oaxaca and Puebla. Youth migration to urban areas is one of the main threats to the survival of Mixteca culture and traditions.
“Being part of a native community doesn’t mean that we are poor, sometimes in the communities we have a lot of richness, but we lack the knowledge to make the most out of it. Being in the Oaxaca Mixteca Agave Presidium implies hard work and knowledge building.” Micaela García Reyes, Oaxaca Mixteca Agave Presidium member
For the Oaxaca Mixteca people, maguey (the Spanish name for agave) has been part of the traditional cropping system for millennia, and both maguey and its by-products are fundamental pillars of their traditional livelihood and belief systems. The end of life of an adult plant coincides with the extraction from its central part of a liquid called aguamiel (“honey water”) which, when fermented, becomes pulque, a mildly alcoholic beverage traditionally consumed at home and during traditional events.
The drop in pulque consumption due to the import of new industrially produced beverages like beer led to farmers turning attention away from the pulque-producing varieties of maguey. A group of women came together to revive cultivation of the pulque-producing agave varieties and in 2016, 35 of them established a working group called Mujeres Milenarias. In 2018, this group of women created the Slow Food Oaxaca Mixteca Agave Presidium so they could be part of an international movement and protect and promote endemic varieties of Oaxaca Mixteca pulquero agave for the production of aguamiel and pulque.
Establishing the PGS with the two Presidia
The goals for establishing the PGS were to secure a better income for producers due to increased value for the Presidia products, to gain recognition of the cultural and environmental value of these products locally and internationally and to ensure the best available practices were being used for cultivation, production and harvesting.
Activities took place between August and December 2019. The first steps included the capacity-building workshops with Slow Food staff and external experts on the theoretical functioning of the PGS initiatives, discussing their strengths and weaknesses, and the mapping of stakeholders for the specific Presidia. Once the stakeholders had been mapped, the two PGS main governing bodies were selected: the Ethical Committee, which mainly coordinates the work, and the Guarantee Group, which actively takes part in field visits and compiles the checklist (Guarantee Sheet).
The first practical task was to draft the checklists for each Presidium and test them directly in the field. The experience was different for each Presidium, especially when it came to the field visits, since they vary significantly in size and number of members.
The final step was collecting feedback, which involved discussing the main challenges of this kind of system.
What are the strengths and challenges of a PGS?
“Since the PGS started there has been a lot of development, we are considerate of things we did not consider before” Martin Lele Kiptiony, Ogiek Honey Presidium producers’ coordinator
Overall, in the opinion of the producers and the other stakeholders, the Slow Food approach to the PGS was appropriate and contributed to achieving the set goals. The PGS has proved to be a valuable additional component to the Presidia projects, enhancing:
- Social sustainability: full control and ownership for the quality of the production process and the final product and more appeal for youth, who have better managerial skills and can better understand consumers’ preferences.
- Economic sustainability: higher returns and incomes thanks to better and guaranteed product quality and consequent expansion of marketing potential for all the products.
- Environmental sustainability: sustainable management of natural resources in the production process, verifying that all of the members adopt environmentally sustainable practices.
“The PGS is important because we rely on it to obtain good products and be sure that the products we offer are good quality and safe for the consumers and more natural and not industrialized” Micaela García Reyes, Oaxaca Mixteca Agave Presidium member
Strengthened cohesion and empowerment of participants, increased transparency and technical quality of production and marketing, higher returns from sales and expansion of the marketing potential due to enhanced consumer trust are the core elements to be expected when successfully establishing a PGS initiative, which has proven to intersect perfectly with the foundational elements of the Presidia project.
The biggest challenge was represented by the outbreak of Covid-19, which made it harder to gather the final feedback, stopped all social gatherings and restricted mobility, hindering the marketing of the final products. However, it is important to note that the concept of solidarity, implicit in the PGS, strengthens the resilience of local food networks in situations such as the Covid-19 pandemic, because members must develop the habit of trust and collaboration for the PGS to work.
The economic cost of the system itself remains to be defined—for example the cost of transport for the field visits—mainly due to the on-going pandemic.
In conclusion, it is safe to say that the structure of any Slow Food Presidium automatically builds on an existing spirit of collaboration and mutual learning among members. In addition to this, the PGS clarifies and makes more visible and tangible how the contribution of each and every member is a necessary condition for the success of the group as a whole.
For articles about the events and the project visit our page.
The collaboration between Slow Food and IFAD began in 2009, sharing a vision of supporting small-scale, diversified production and consumption mechanisms that focus on improving the marketing of local products. Such mechanisms reflect principles of quality, biodiversity and environmental conservation. They also guarantee the fair pricing of agricultural products that adequately compensates the work of smallholder families.
IFAD invests in rural people, empowering them to reduce poverty, increase food security, improve nutrition and strengthen resilience. Since 1978, we have provided about US$17.7 billion in grants and low-interest loans to projects that have reached some 459 million people. IFAD is an international financial institution and a specialized United Nations agency based in Rome – the UN’s food and agriculture hub.