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Empowering smallholders by group certification

by Redaktion (comments: 0)

Smallholders play an essential role in food production and food security, in sustaining rural economies and as stewards of biodiversity. The FAO estimates that about 1.5 billion men and women farmers are working on more than 400 million small-scale farms of less than two hectares. Today, group certification is a powerful tool that helps smallholders to become organically certified and provides them with access to global organic markets and the benefits these bring. Organic Services, an international consultancy based in Munich has developed  in combination with the certification body CERES, the "Group Certification (GC) Management" - a very useful tool for professionalising small farmers’ organisations.

(Picture: Local farmers' markets often provide an alternative for selling products when there is no market access)
Grower groups are major suppliers of products such as coffee, cocoa, tea and more. Markets and consumers in
 the North depend on these smallholder groups, who benefit from participating in global organic markets. If the market access of such grower groups was to be restricted it is likely that there would be a substantial decline in the availability of organic coffee in the main consumer markets.

Third party certification systems can be a burden on small-scale producers and innovation with a focus on cost efficiency can help to improve their situation. Organic regulations require all certified operators to undergo at least one inspection a year, carried out by a third party inspection body. Especially in developing countries the costs for certification are often too high for smallholders to afford. This rigorous certification system excludes individual small producers from participating in organic markets (and others with sustainability criteria, such as Fair Trade, UTZ Certified, GLOBALG.A.P. etc.). (Picture: Cocoa is an important organic crops produced by smallholders)

Already in the 1990s various groups and certifiers voluntarily developed group certification systems based on internal control in order to reduce the costs and time involved in certification, some even before governmental organic regulations were in place. Later on, IFOAM came to play a key role in harmonising the concept of group certification, through extensive consultation with the global organic movement. These systems ensure compliance with organic standards and require groups to implement an internal control system (ICS) operated by a central body of the group. This central body is responsible for ensuring that the applicable standards are complied with, for implementing the ICS and for co-ordinating the marketing of the group’s produce. (Picture: In India, there is an increasing number of smallholders looking for access to the organic markets in Europe)

When an ICS is in place, a group is considered as a single production unit. Provided that the ICS functions well, the third party certification body is able to inspect and certify the group as a whole, issuing one single certification for all individual producers as well as for the collective processing and handling activities operated by the group. In 2003, IFOAM submitted a ‘Position on Smallholder Group Certification for Organic Production and Processing’ to the EU. This document showed the consensus reached by the global organic sector on ICS requirements and resulted in the EU recognising group certification, largely accepting all the criteria established by IFOAM. In 2004, IFOAM published a training kit on ICS for smallholder group certification. These materials are still key resources for anybody involved with group certification. (Picture: Rice fields in Odisha/ India)

Today, group certification is a powerful tool that helps smallholders to become organically certified and provides them with access to global organic markets and the benefits these bring. The concept is accepted by relevant regulations; but has never formally been integrated within any of the regulations. Instead, the concept has been recognised through inclusion in the guidance notes of, for example, the EU Organic Regulation and the U.S. National Organic Program (NOP).

Continuous efforts are needed in order to maintain the group certification option in the future. While it is important to lobby regulatory bodies on this issue, the real challenge for stakeholders is the effective and harmonised implementation of ICS systems in line with the group certification requirements. The implementation of a group’s ICS is a demanding task and involves consistent administration, implementation and documentation of internal functions in conformity with the applicable ICS requirements. This concerns especially the workflow of internal control, certification and corrective actions. (Picture: Local market in Bhugashnewar/ India)

It has been observed that there are great differences in groups’ performances in these respects, as well as in the practices of the certifiers of groups. Critics of ICS rightfully complain about this. There is lack of consistency in the control measures applied by, and to, organised groups implementing an ICS. This has led the two main regulators (the NOP/ EU) to increase the percentage of external re-inspections, which has resulted in an additional financial burden. It has even led to discussions (in the lead up to the revision of the EU regulation) about whether to eliminate the option of the grower group ICS system entirely. These are alarming signs as raising costs, or even the complete loss of the grower group certification concept, would make it far harder (or in the latter case virtually impossible) for small-scale farmers to access organic markets. (Picture: Women often do the farm work in developing countries)

Various organisations, including IFAD, FAO, UNEP and development and export agencies, are taking very welcome and concrete steps towards supporting small-scale farmers. However, more activities, and especially instruments, are needed to create sound and stable groups that can provide support in developing reliable access to relevant markets. This is where a new initiative comes into play, one which aims to close this gap. Organic Services, an international consultancy, in combination with the certification body CERES, has developed ‘Group Integrity’ a tool for professionalising small farmers’ organisations. Other certification bodies (including the Instituto Biodinamico, the IMO and the Naturland Association) have also participated in its development. Group Integrity supports self-organised groups and businesses working with small producers on a contract farming basis to better manage their ICS. (Picture: Talk at BioFach -  representatives of an Indian company working with farmer groups discussed with Lea Michalzik and Frank Gerriets from Organic Services)

Group Integrity builds on Ecert® – a generic and modular workflow based audit, certification, customer relationship management and management tool for certification bodies, which is widely used around the globe. The software has been simplified to create a lighter version that is suitable for use by groups and more affordable. Its development has been (and is being) supported by a public-private partnership co-financed by DEG (Deutsche Investitions- und Entwicklungsgesellschaft mbH), a German development finance institution.

Group Integrity facilitates groups to meet the complex administrative and documentary requirements of various standards by focusing on the workflow of the internal control process (picture). All the internal procedures and data are managed by an efficient database, which includes reports, e.g. lists of farmers and crops and corrective actions, as well as data about exports that make it easier to provide the external certifier with the information required. This system helps avoid problems with loss of data or retrieval of paper documentation and ensures that the data are kept up to date and available at any time. This helps avoid the group management system being compromised when, for example, administrative personnel or officers change, thereby increasing the group’s stability and reliability, helping to contain or even lower costs. Group Integrity is multi-lingual, and can be globally accessed through the internet. No installation is required. The system 
is updated regularly and offers multi- standard inspection checklists showing the control points/ indicators for the main organic standards (e.g. those of the EU, the US and Japan, Naturland, Bio Suisse, Demeter) and sustainability criteria (e.g. the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN), Fair Trade, UTZ Certified, GLOBALG.A.P). Additional standards and languages can easily be added in the future.

Implementation of Group Integrity is through local or regional implementation partners (IPs), or, where no IP exists, directly by Organic Services. The IPs support the grower groups, and provide them with training (they themselves are trained and assisted by Organic Services). IPs are the best vehicle for guaranteeing fast service and support in the local language and also have more detailed knowledge of local conditions. The United Nations General Assembly has declared 2014 to be the ‘Year of Family Farming’. We hope that the launch of Group Integrity will contribute to the improvement of the livelihoods of small farmers around the world and help them to better work together and thus strengthen their market position in local, regional and international markets. It should also help to improve food security, sustain rural economies and biodiversity and keep traditional systems and knowledge alive for future generations of small family farmers. (Picture: Shake hands at BioFach -  Paul Espanion, Group Integrity Implementation Partner in Brazil, Lea Michalczik and Frank Gerriets from Organic Services)

Authors’ details
Gerald A. Herrmann and Mildred Steidle are the Directors of Organic Services - International Management and Strategy Consultancy, Germany. For more information about the functionalities and capabilities of GC Management please visit or

The long version of the article by Gerald A. Herrmann and Mildred Steidle was published in Ecology and Farming.


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