FDA Reader
Simplifying Food Regulation


FDA Reader: Simplifying Food Regulation

Introduction to Participatory Guarantee Systems

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What is a Participatory Guarantee System (PGS)?

A participatory guarantee system is an alternative method for regulating standards of food production. A PGS can be easily understood by contrasting it with the traditional 3rd party certification system.  In that model, a food producer (e.g. a farm) aligns with a set of standards that have been defined by a government or private certification scheme. The farm’s implementation of these standards is enforced via an occasional audit which is conducted by a representative of the auditing firm.

Participatory Guarantee Systems were inspired by the early organic food producers of the 1970s and 80s who wanted to implement the standards of food production which we now recognize as principles of the organic movement. These pioneers in the sustainable foods movement developed their own standards and implemented a system of self governance based on participation, trust, and transparency. This framework is the model for the participatory guarantee system.

A participatory guarantee system (PGS) is a ‘locally focused quality assurance systems that certify producers based on the active participation of stakeholders and are built on a foundation of trust, social networks, and knowledge exchange’
— International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM)

Participatory Guarantee Systems are not currently recognized as certification tools in the EU or the United States. However, PGS are recognized as comparable to 3rd party certification schemes in several Latin American countries and they are being assessed as a potentially viable alternative to 3rd party certifications.

Example: How to Form a Participatory Guarantee System

Let’s suppose a group of farmers in California wants to create a set of farming standards based on sustainable water-use practices. Unfortunately, there are no certifications available which align with their vision so the farmers decide to form a Participatory Guarantee System called "Water Smart Farming". Here's how it works:

1. A group is formed of stakeholders in this system. The stakeholders includes local farmers, the buyers of their produce, and members of a local non-profit which manages local water resources. All of these groups are incentivized to see that the standards of the PGS are upheld.

2. The group writes a set of standards that the farmers will be held to. This includes "rules" which govern water usage and promote sustainable irrigation practices. This is what the farmers are agreeing to uphold and enforce among other members.

3. The group creates a framework for how the PGS will make decisions. This framework also describes when and how the group will convene and how the group will fulfill the roles of the PGS (e.g. inspecting farms, reviewing records.) This structure may be adopted from other successful PGS.

4. The group defines how they will conduct "quality assurance" -- in other words, how the group will make sure the system is being followed. This will entail site inspections to evaluate irrigation practices and water usage. Quality Assurance also entails meetings where the farmers can discuss their experiences and methods for improving. Typically, members of the PGS are rotated between two groups: one "visit group" conducts inspections and the other "evaluation group" evaluates inspection data. This aims to ensure fairness and minimize mistakes that could be made by one evaluator.

5. Participating farmers follow the application procedure that the group has created. They begin by evaluating how well their water-usage practices align with the standards of the PGS. If the application is approved, then a farm visit is scheduled.

6. Farmers who are in good standing with the PGS may label their product with the "Water Smart Farming" logo. This illustrates that the products were farmed according to the standards of the PGS. Membership with this PGS may also offer other perks provided by various stakeholders in the system: the local government will market products farmed by members of the PGS; a sustainability-conscious distributor will carry products created by member farmers; a local retailer agrees to only sell products created by member farmers.

Comparing Participatory Guarantee Systems and 3rd Party Certification 
Subject Area Participatory Guarantee System 3rd Party Certification System
Enforcement party Stakeholders A private auditing firm (or government agency)
Enforcement mechanism Continuous evaluation of materials, sites and practices through site visits and meetings Infrequent, scored audits
Consequence of repeated failure to achieve standards Removal from the PGS an dthe los of associated benefits (marketing and sales opportunities) Loss of certification
Themes Total transparency and universal accessibility of documentation.

Stakeholder participation in decision making and enforcement of standards
Confidentiality between food producer and auditing firm.

The food producers are non-participants in the creation of standards and the auditing process.


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