Our Brazilian grantees report that farmers earned 40% more income through organic farming over five years than they had through conventional farming. Organic certification alone boosts crop value by up to 20%, and organic farmers also typically save money on inputs. For small-scale farmers, this means more money to invest in upgrading their equipment, improving their houses, and raising their families. But many farming families cannot afford the fee for getting certified by a third-party professional institution, even if their practices would qualify them as organic. Fortunately, farmers have developed an alternative for certification that saves them up to 95% of this cost.

In a participatory certification system, farmers volunteer to certify each others’ production techniques, resulting in a much lower cost to them. Participatory certification systems have become quite popular in Latin America over the past decade. In many countries, such as Brazil, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Paraguay, and Uruguay, participatory certification is regulated by national laws and has the same value as a third-party certification.

What Makes Participatory Certification Different?

Certified products are guaranteed to meet a certain standard. For example, vegetables and fruits certified as organic have been grown without pesticides, chemical fertilizers, or any harmful chemicals. Consumers can trust certified products because investigators visit the farms to check that they’re actually following those standards.

Just as with a third-party certification, farmers who participate in a participatory certification system need to follow rules about how to plant, harvest, process, and sell their crops. But rather than having outsiders certify them, each farmer participating in the system verifies that other farmers are following the same rules.

Participating in a certification system strengthens farmer networks and teaches them new skills. Farmers need to work together to verify each other’s compliance and learn about organic production standards and relevant laws. By organizing sustainable farmers into groups, participatory certification facilitates them creating cooperatives or producers associations. It can also push them to collaborate to be more economically sustainable, resilient to market fluctuations, and independent from intermediaries.

How to Organize a Participatory Certification System

  1. Organize a group of producers, consumers, and technical experts (agronomists) who are willing to abide by the standards of organic production and verify each other’s work.
  2. Set guidelines for mapping farms and carrying out verification visits, including who will be visiting the farm and how often. Countries with laws about participatory certification have set minimum standards here. The group should also consider environmental, social, economic, and cultural factors when deciding what standards they will establish.
  3. Establish a governing structure. The participatory certification system needs an umbrella organization to keep track of which farms and processing facilities are certified and report this information to governments. This is often a local nonprofit organization with technical expertise. Farmers typically pay a small annual fee to cover this organization’s administrative expenses—usually less than 5% of what the farmers would have to pay to a professional certifying institution.

Organic bananas, limes, and tomatoes are stacked on a table at a farmers market.

Brazil’s Ecovida Network: Strengthening Farmer Collaboration through SPGs

The IAF has supported dozens of organizations working to strengthen or create new participatory certification systems in Latin America, including grantee partner Centro de Estudos e Promoção da Agricultura de Grupo (CEPAGRO).

I joined CEPAGRO on several verification visits with a chapter of the Ecovida Network in Santa Catarina, Brazil. The visiting farmers asked questions to verify that the production processes were organic, learn from innovations such as using animal manure to create natural gas, and offer suggestions for improvement. After verification visits, this Ecovida Network chapter holds meetings with all members of the chapter to discuss findings and address issues.

Brazilian law requires participatory certification systems to provide farmers with training to update their knowledge of organic certification laws. Farmers in the Ecovida Network volunteer to share lessons learned in workshops on techniques like organic fertilizers, natural pest controls, or agroforestry.

These peer-to-peer interactions build community. The farmers often identify opportunities to establish partnerships to produce or market their products, such as combining their efforts to win public bids for school lunches, marketing jointly to supermarkets, or building a processing facility together to add value to their products and reach new markets.

Bringing Participatory Certification to Scale

Ecovida Network also hosts biannual gatherings to engage stakeholders beyond the network with the principles of sustainable agriculture, participatory certification, organic and healthy foods, and innovative marketing strategies.

To expand the Brazilian model of participatory certification into other countries, the IAF has supported the participation of an average of 20 grantee partners from 12 countries in past Ecovida Network meetings starting in 2012. Most participating grantees took home valuable lessons on sustainable agriculture and incorporated them into their daily practices. Now these grantees are at the forefront of sharing participatory certification with farmers and decision makers in their countries as an affordable option for certifying crops.

Participatory certification systems are the perfect example of the IAF’s approach to building sustainable rural livelihoods. They put farmers first, adapt to local conditions, create a win-win for producers and consumers, encourage collaboration rather than competition, and foster knowledge sharing.