By H H Mohrmen & Dakapaya Bareh

In early 90s when the trend had just started, organic certification became essential when progressive farmers wanted to export their farm harvest for western consumers. Eventually certification agencies brought norms in farming practices with an expensive fee structure. Obviously it was not viable for small and tribal farmers. This paved a path for an alternate certification mechanism which then led to the formation of the Participatory Guarantee System (PGS).

The PGS is fairly recent in its adoption and recognition all over the world. It is being used in different parts of the world and is now on the way to becoming a major certification mode for India’s organic farmers. The introduction of PGS will finally help farmers be able to get rid of the entirely unnecessary burden of the expensive third party audits.

Under the PGS, organic farmers regain control over the certification process and are able to produce a far more credible and effective system of quality assurance compared to third party certification systems.

PGS procedures are simple. The documents are easy to follow and are available in the language of the farmers concerned, where even an uneducated person can be a farm inspector and the option of conducting the inspection can be on video, with oral recording of answers. The farm visits are conducted by people who have a day-to-day knowledge or acquaintance of the farm since it is within the village and the farm inspectors reside in the same area. The PGS is ideally suited for small and marginal farmers who would otherwise be out of the certification process.

PGS is the preferred system of organic farm certification emerging out of the experience of the organic farming movement worldwide. PGS is now recognized by International Federation or Organic Agriculture Movement (IFOAM), Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and by the Government of India. With the introduction of PGS, organic farmers are relieved of the difficulties in certification of their farm produce.

Under Participatory Guarantee System (PGS) organic farmers are vested with the responsibility to produce a credible and effective system of quality assurance. Each farmer pledges that his/her production process is free from manufactured chemicals.  The “Local Group” (LG) of five or more organic farmers is the basis of the self-regulatory support system of the PGS. The quality assurance standards are harmonized by the PGS Organic Council of India, which permits the use of its PGS label on a product as a mark of quality.

To strengthen the practice of traditional and chemical free farming, the Society for Urban & Rural Empowerment (SURE) in collaboration with North East Slow Food Agrobiodiversity Society (NESFAS) under the project, “No one shall be left behind: initiative funded by Rural Electrification Corporation (REC) embarked on the journey to help farmers with the certification process.  In the process Field Coordinators of the NGO mobilized PGSOC initiatives within the project area of 28 villages in the case of SURE. Major steps taken include group formations, setting basic organic standards, farms appraisal form, farmer’s pledge and meetings.

SURE now promotes 9 PGS groups consisting of 56 farmers. Iaraplang  of Mulum village, Iahluti Shaphrang & Lyngdoh Organic Mynso B village, Lamlynti Mukhap village, Iatreilang Mutem village, Iakyntiewlang & Ryntihlang Skhenpyrsit village, Muphlang Wahshnong & Dongnien Muphlang from Muphlang village.

Any farmer committing to practice organic farming can take the initiative to form a Local Group (LG). PGSOC permits existing groups like village level organization, farmer associations, and Self Help Groups to form LGs in their area. A group of 5 or more organic farmers (or willing to convert to organic farming) and having land holding nearby can form a LG and enrol into PGSOC certification system. A minimum of 5 farmers is mandatory to form a LG for PGSOC certification.

As in the case of SHGs, the LG too should have a name. Each LG will appoint a Convener who will keep and maintain all the group records. It is mandatory that members know each other and each other’s farms well. There is no limit to the numbers of LG that can be formed in one village; there can be many LGs in a single village.

The LG convenor conducts regular meetings to discuss organic farming, marketing, knowledge sharing, sowing, and planning for peer review and other issues. The LG maintains the attendance and minutes of each meeting in the meeting register. Farmers who enrol for PGSOC take the organic farmer’s pledge that his/her production process is free from manufactured chemicals. Farmers will sell their products as “organic” only when they are grown on certified land and uphold organic principles.

The next stage is individual Peer Appraisal or Review. It is a process by which some peer members of the same local group physically inspect and assess the production practices of their colleagues as peers. Peer appraisal has to be conducted for all the LG member’s farms at least once in every season. It may also be mentioned that the Certification is on the land and not on the individual crop. The certificate is obviously issued to a group and not an individual and the validity of the certificate is 3 years from the date of issuance. The same can be withdrawn anytime if the farmers are found not adopting to the PGS principle.

The Iaraplang PGS group of Mulum has also revived the Community Seed Bank a concept initiative by NESFAS under the name Iaraplang Community Seed Bank. The objective of the Community Seed Bank is to promote, manage and encourage sustainable use of local varieties of seeds for food security and to improve livelihoods of farmers. Some individual farmers and Self Help Group (SHGs) contribute their seeds to the community seed bank. The community seed bank is doing very well now.

The PGS group in Jañtia Hills initially sold their produce in the Farmers Market organized regularly by SURE at Jowai and stopped because of lockdown due to COVID-19 pandemic. During lockdown the PGS in collaboration with the local online platform Syllad online store has bridged the gap by linking the farmers to the consumers in the town. This partnership also helped in delivering the goods to the homes of the community members in Jowai and its suburbs. Only during the lockdown period the total turnover through this medium is a little over six lakh rupees.

In another major development three PGS groups one from Mulum and two from Mynso B village under the Laskein C&RD Block of West Jañtia Hills started the ‘Farm on Wheels’ (FOW) initiative. Farm on Wheels is a project in which with a little seed money, farmers hire a car to sell their produce at the doorstep of the consumer. People will not require to visit the crowded market anymore, as they can shop right where they live. The initiative is considered timely as the country is encouraging social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19 pandemic.

Farm on Wheels run by the Iaraplang PGS group, Mulum was launched in September 2020 and Iahluti Shaphrang & Lyngdoh Organic of Mynso B was launched in October 2020. The objective of this program is that farmers groups can directly sell fresh organic vegetables without a middleman and also to create a sustainable livelihood opportunity for the farmers.

PGS offers numerous benefits for small-scale producers which includes improved access to organic markets through a guaranteed system, increased education and awareness among consumers and farmer capacity building and empowerment.

As a Facilitation Council, NESFAS identified and formed 46 local PGS groups consisting of more than 230 farmers. These groups are from different areas under Khasi Hills, Ri-bhoi, Jañtia Hills and Garo Hills. On October 2, 2019, NESFAS received certificates for 20 PGS groups, who are also partner communities of NESFAS, from across Meghalaya.

This system of organic certification is affordable and more importantly it is not burdensome for farmers as it can be easily understood and practiced. This can serve as a model if the State Government is interested in promoting organic farming via PGS certification and NESFAS is already a recognised Facilitation Council in the state.

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