IFAD Asset Request Portlet

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Gabriela Soto Muñoz: Empowering farmers while going organi

02 mars 2016

Gabriela Soto Muñoz, Eco-LOGICA, President

Thank you very much. Good afternoon to everyone. Thank you especially to IFAD for this wonderful opportunity to talk about the link between the consumer and the producers, and the organic certification. To do that I want to take you to three moments in history.

The first moment will be at the end of the eighties/beginning nineties when organic farming was starting in Latin America and where the smallholders were the first organic farmers to be certified. I was fortunate enough to be the first inspector to visit many of these groups. When I went to 4,000 metres to visit the quinoa producers in Bolivia, or I went to visit sugarcane farmers in Paraguay or cacao growers in Panama, they were surprised at my task. They asked me, what do you mean? They prefer our products? They prefer them because we have not used pesticides, so our traditional farming was the right way to farm? Yes, they prefer your products because you are protecting the rivers, and you are protecting biodiversity. This was such an empowering force for them. I saw them flourish. I kept coming year after year to do the inspections and you can see them grow. Of course, it was not just empowerment of the consumer; it was also the premium they were getting – fair prices make a big difference. Also, there was a middle man, a buyer, between the consumer and the producer that wanted to know the producer. He visited them, he invested in water tanks, water wells, roads, computers; schools were built in this community because the producer believed in this process and believed in the producers.

Also, he was very honest with the consumer. He educated the consumer about what was happening in the field. The connection was really good but this is just how organic farming started. The first standards were written in an effort between the consumers and the producers. So, for example, the transition organic farming has to do to be able to sell their products as organic is three years. Three years he has to apply the organic standards and he cannot sell them organic. The consumer said, is that enough to guarantee that I have a clean product from clean soil or should it be five years? And the producer will say, me farming for five years without being able to sell it organic? No, let us make it three years, so they come to an agreement and most of the standards were written like that. Was certification expensive? We tried to do everything to make it more accessible. At the beginning the inspectors came from Europe or the States to visit our farms; some of them had never seen a coffee plant but we guided them through the process. Then we trained local inspectors with the help of the International Organic Inspectors Association from Chile to Cuba to Guatemala. We did training to have local organic inspectors. We started local certification agencies like the one I direct, that is a non-profit certification agency. It is owned by the Organic Association in Costa Rica and we started group certification for large coops of thousands of farmers that if you go visit each of them it is going to be very expensive. So they have to have an internal control system and their extension office has to visit each of them.

The idea was working. We saw the group grow. I think organic farming as a development strategy was really happening in the field. The consumer demand increased, the market grew steadily – 20 per cent every year – and then two things happened, and we are coming to the second moment in the certification process: governments got involved in this process. Right now there are around 70 countries in the world that have legislation in organic standards. This is very positive, the chain, the custody of the products, the traceability between the consumer and the producer is achieved but imagine this cocoa grower in Panama who wants to sell, he does not know very well when he is planting the cocoa where the market is, so he has to follow all the standards of potential markets. Therefore he follows the standards of the United States, Europe; probably he will sell to Switzerland so he also follows the Swiss standards. At the end they are very similar but they are small differences between all of them that make a big difference in the farm. So I have to make compost, I cannot use this manure but I can use that one. Also these standards are always changing a little bit in each country. If you are in the United States and your standards change a little bit every year you do not feel it very much, but if you are in Costa Rica or in Panama and you have to follow all the standards and they are all changing a little bit each time, it is like the producers tell me, when I go visit as Inspector, you are changing the rules every time you come here.

As a certification agency we are in the middle of this, trying to support the producer but also trying to continue accredited by the different governments and this has become a spiral of control that is asphyxiating, more or less, the producers. We are in the middle of that as certification agencies. We try to do our best. Just as an example, our government passed a regulation last December saying that the producers have to comply with any no conformity within ten days. So you have to improve a storage area, you have ten to do it. You have to plant a buffer zone between a conventional and an organic field; you have ten days to do it. There we are, the certification agencies trying to stretch that time to give more time to the producers. The message I am transmitting, the message I transmitted before was of empowerment. We like what you are doing, we like the way you farm, I am now coming with a message of documentation control and trust. I am achieving exactly the opposite. If before I was empowering the producer, I feel now that we are disempowering the producer.

On the other hand, the market kept growing, the consumer very interested in health and environmental issues, kept buying organic products and it became a good business. These diagrams were developed by the University of Santa Cruz in California, they publish one diagram like this one every year, showing how the small organic buyer was purchased by big buyers, so the large food corporation started buying all the small companies. And now, who is in between the consumer and the producer is this big buyer who is not all that concerned and does not understand the producer as well and is not transmitting the same message to the consumer. So the link is broken. What are we doing now and that brings us to the third moment and it is today. What are we doing today? We need to change that. We went into organic production because we believe in the principle of care, because in the principle of fairness and we are not achieving that. We are doing the right work in the field, we are protecting the environment. About that I am not concerned. Organic integrity here is not at stake but we lost control of the value chain.

The International Federation of the Organic Movement, with all its 800 members around the world, we are all looking for solutions. I have to say this has not happened to every farmer, there are still small buyers there that are giving the premium to the producer but we need to change this structure. The value chain is as important as what is happening in the field. There are groups that have promoted participatory guarantee systems, alternative certification systems, we are going back to the idea of the consumer going to the farm, visiting the producers, this system of certification is being accepted by regulation in many countries already, Brazil for example has accepted these regulations for exporting good. Many countries such as the Philippines, India, Taiwan had accepted for local markets, Costa Rica, Peru. Also we need to promote a closer link between the producer and the consumer; that is the main strategy. Local markets are a key factor that is being promoted. In general people complain about the prices of the organic products, but organic products sold at conventional prices in the local market are a good strategy for the producers because when we bring these two together, the fair price reaches the consumer. We feel that in this strategy to bring the principles back, the principles of care and fairness, we need to have the consumer well informed of what is happening in the field, on the farm, so when they choose a product on the shelf they know that they are deciding on the livelihood of the farm.

Thank you very much.