Last Forest is a company on a journey - the journey for a more sustainable world. One major step on their way is the marketing of organic products. Many of these are certified with a Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS) label, so that you can recognise them easily. But what does PGS actually mean? How does it look in practice and what makes these products special? Jestin, the CEO of Aadhimalai Producer Co-Operative, Last Forest’s main supplier which has been procuring from PGS organic farmers for many years now, has shared his thoughts.
“PGS certification was started in the Nilgiris by Keystone Foundation”, he remembers. Keystone is the NGO which has brought Last Forest to life and has been working with the tribal communities for almost 26 years. Most indigenous farmers they work with have been growing their plants traditionally without the use of chemicals. Jestin explains how farmers have been using plant waste instead: “If you take coffee as an example, they will have to cut down the top portions of the coffee tree. It is like leaf litter. But they do not throw it away, they just put it below the plant so that it decomposes and becomes the manure for the coffee plant.” Obviously, this coffee has been organic all along, but without certification it still had to be sold as a regular product. So, the farmers did not get paid what their product was actually worth, even though their local customers were aware of their natural farming methods.
This was when Keystone introduced PGS certification. It is especially designed for small farmers selling their products locally and cannot afford a costly and complicated third-party certification conducted by an external auditor. Instead, PGS is built on trust, transparency and horizontality. The organic guarantee comes directly from the place and people where the product was grown and the customers who buy these goods know the farmers, maybe even see them working on their fields and trust them. So, PGS basically puts that mutual trust into a label.
If a product has a PGS label, it is free from any chemical pesticides, fertilizers, genetic modification or hormones. But PGS is more than just a label on a product. It is a way of empowering and including small farmers in the organic movement and creating a network of mutual responsibility and knowledge exchange among the farmers.
The certification is based on a “peer review system where your neighbouring farmers are your testing fellows”, Jestin explains. They form local groups of five or more and review each other within these groups. On the one hand, this is their way of ensuring that all members are following organic standards, and on the other hand every review is a learning experience for the farmers and they keep supporting each other to find sustainable solutions for their fields together. The final decision on who is eligible for the PGS certification is also taken by the farmers in their groups and then reported to Keystone Foundation. The NGO is responsible for the documentation, hands out the organic certificates to each farmer and makes sure that the reviews are carried out properly. It also reports to the PGS organic council, which is representing the totality of the different PGS groups across India towards other stakeholders. However, the final decision remains with the farmers. This system keeps cost and effort low for the producers and pays tribute to all the hard work they put into growing their plants. Jestin likes the direct participation of the farmers: “If it was my farm, my crop and my farming means, I would want to be heard in the decision making.”
And who knows the practices of a farmer better than their own neighbours? It would be very difficult to hide something from them. Moreover, Keystone Foundation would be able to suspend a group’s certification if they were not staying true to organic values. So, each individual farmer is dependent on the credibility of their own local group. This and their eagerness to do justice to the customer’s trust sometimes makes them review each other even tougher than an external auditor would.
To become PGS certified in the first place, each farmer pledges to follow organic and agro-ecological farming practices. Then they need to go through a three-year conversion period. “If you have been using chemicals, that time is needed for the land to heal out”, Jestin says.
For those farmers, who have been organic all along, this was hard to understand. As their produce was already organic, many of them asked for the benefits of the certification. Once they learned about the market for organic produce and the higher rates they would receive, they agreed to give it a try. Since then, the farmers themselves have seen the impact PGS certification is having on their lives. The farmers have a better means of livelihood, take part in workshops on organic agriculture and were able to actively chose to be and most importantly stay organic. Jestin adds: “Since the farmers are getting benefitted from PGS, now they are the agents of change in the field and changing the others too. I think this is a very good thing about PGS.”
The farmers, who have only shifted to organic farming upon registering for PGS, have seen even more meaningful impact. “The taste and the quality of the product is really good. And the water sources around them, the soil, everything is really good.” They get a first hands experience of the positive impact of organic agriculture on the environment. It keeps our surroundings healthy and free from poisonous chemicals, helps pollinators and encourages biodiversity. Moreover, its holistic approach to farming makes it sustainable on the long run. On top of that, organic products are healthier for producers as well as consumers. Jestin points out that “the farmers are very happy to give first class quality products to the people. They really believe in organic agriculture now.”
And it was only through PGS, that these farmers were able to shift their way of farming. Its inclusiveness to all those who are interested, the support is gives to its farmers and the connection it builds between consumers and producers make PGS truly unique. It has spread all over India and is even used as a certification by the government.
So, let us hope that it will reach out to more and more people in the years to come, who will join Last Forest on the journey to a sustainable world. Or, as Jestin put it: “If everything became organic, just imagine, that would be the greatest!”