Practical experience

A Reflection on Small-Scale Farmers’ Participation in the Participatory Guarantee System (PGS)

June 2016

By Bai Yali (Supervisor of Rural Development Department, Liang Shuming Rural Reconstruction Centre, Beijing. Bai has been engaged in rural reconstruction initiatives since 2001.)

Editor's note:

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is an environmentally-friendly economic model that aims to support small-scale farmers and to promote cooperation and trust between producers and consumers. It is a rural development approach that is being explored as an alternative to unsustainable industrialised agriculture. However, there are numerous challenges. For example, a pressing issue in CSA is how to ensure that farm products are produced in an environment-friendly manner and that they are safe and healthy for consumption. Yet the certification system in the mainstream economic world does not correspond to the philosophy of CSA nor meet its development needs. CSA practitioners around the world are currently experimenting with the Participatory Guarantee System (PGS), a mechanism that guarantees the quality of CSA products, while seeking to ensure that the practice of producers truly embodies CSA philosophy and brings about its anticipated impact. Generally speaking, PGS does not rely on a third party’s certification to guarantee the quality of a product. Instead the emphasis is on a community developing its own procedures and standards and building trust with consumers through direct interaction. It also recognises that practices may vary in different places.

Bai Yali visited two communities in Chiang Mai, Thailand that practice CSA, to learn about how they implement PGS. In this article, she compares what she saw with similar initiatives in mainland China and sums up the important principles of PGS.

This article was originally published in Chinese in Issue no. 8 of Fragrant Soil, which features articles on “building trust between rural communities and urban dwellers and PGS”. The publication can be accessed from the following link:

PGS is an important certification system adopted by International Foundation for Organic Agriculture Movement (IFOAM) to promote organic farming. It was introduced to China two years ago and has since become a tool for some organic farming and fair trade practitioners. Some organisations in the field have also been disseminating ideas of PGS while studying and exploring its practice. Liang Shuming Rural Reconstruction Centre (1) has been promoting rural community development and ecological agriculture emphasising the subjective roles of small-scale farmers and cooperatives. It has been studying PGS from the perspectives of farmers and rural communities and has been exploring how it can be integrated into their work. In December, 2015, with PCD’s support, I spent a month as an intern in Ban Mae Ta in Mae Ta District and Ban Nong-Tao in Maewang District—two well developed CSA communities in Chiang Mai, north of Thailand. In the course of my internship, I observed, learnt from and talked with farmers from the two communities and also farmers in Chiang Mai’s organic farmers market, particularly on the subject of PGS. Based on what I observed and felt, I have the following thoughts as I compare my experience in Thailand with what is happening in China.

The relationship between PGS and the movement for ecological agriculture

China’s one-decade of experience with ecological agriculture is shorter than that of Thailand, where NGOs have been promoting ecological farming for over two decades. The two countries also differ in the ways the movement began. In China, the movement began in response to the demand for safe food among the urban middle class and to environmental pollution due to unsustainable ways of agricultural production. In Chiang Mai, the development of ecological agriculture originated from the inner drive of the rural community to give up a mode of production and a way of life that was dependent on mainstream development. The farmers were unhappy with mono-crop cultivation, the highly commoditised way of life and the debt traps that it brought. They believed that only through a shift to multiple cropping and ecological agriculture would they be able to reduce the production cost in farming. They could also reduce the volume of unhealthy food they bought from the market and meet their own needs in a self-reliant economy.

In China, in the initial five years of the movement to promote ecological agriculture, it mainly involved small-scale farmers experimenting in a small area on a community level. In some places, there were direct transactions between producers and consumers, though it occurred only on a local level and the scale of the transactions was small. On the one hand, the farmers lacked the skills and the ability to market their products and to disseminate the idea of ecological agriculture. They had to rely on third parties to provide the necessary education and training, to look for resources, and to organise promotional activities to interact with consumers. On the other hand, consumers were used to the mainstream model of consumption and rarely paused to reflect on and re-evaluate the meaning behind the consumption of ecological products. In 2006 when small-scale farmers organised by Green Ground Union (2) brought their farm products to the Xierqi Neighbourhood in Haidian District in Beijing, the expectation of the consumers in the community in terms of price, the outlook of the products, and certification by a formal authority were strongly influenced by mainstream consumer consciousness.

In the last five years, the issue of food safety has attracted popular attention, and urban consumers have begun to take part in the movement for ecological agriculture because of their concern for health and safety. In other words, there is a market demand for ecological farm products. New farmers who have had formal education have been fast to grasp the opportunity. Their participation has helped the CSA movement in China to move forward. Compared with traditional small-scale farmers, who have production skills, new farmers are good at integrating new ideas in their production and in explaining to consumers the values and ideas of ecological agriculture. In terms of discourse, it is the new farmers and third parties (such as NGOs, farmers’ markets, research organisations, etc.) who are leading the ecological agriculture movement. Personally I think that the concern for agriculture demonstrated by the various social sectors and the policy and structural issues involved have actually gone beyond the questions of the livelihood of farmers and the development of rural areas, which are two aspects of the “three rural issues”. In fact, the movement as a whole has shown more concern about producing healthy food products than the sustainability of the rural environment or the farmers’ livelihoods. Moreover, it is difficult for small-scale farmers to learn about changes in ecological agriculture through new media. For example, in the setting of a rural community, it is difficult to introduce the idea of PGS, itself the initials of a concept in English, and expect farmers to implement it. In addition, on a community level, farmers’ consciousness as the subject of the movement for ecological agriculture is still in the process of formation. Only a handful of small-scale ecological farmers in a few places have acted on their own initiatives. It is therefore still very difficult for farmers to take part in developing a discourse on ecological agriculture.

PGS Movement: Participate for who? Whose participation?

There is evidently a difference between farmers who have had 20 years of experience in ecological agriculture and those who have only had 10 years of experience, in particular in terms of their consciousness of the subject of the movement relative to outsiders. The farmers we talked to in Ban Mae Ta made a strong impression on us with their deep understanding of ecological ideas. Firstly, they have changed their own lifestyle. They believe that they themselves should consume healthy vegetables and grains so that they may have a healthy body. Secondly, they practice ecological farming because they are concerned about and care for the reasonable use of the community forest, land, water and seeds, which are all part of the ecological system. It is also because they want to preserve and pass on local wisdom and the culture of their community. Their resolve is due to their experience of forest degradation, loss of water resources and destruction of land resulting from mono-crop cultivation. They know that only when they care for their forest will they have unending flow of water for irrigation and drinking. The forest also provides them with wood for building houses and other resources for consumption. On the subject of their relationship with consumers, they said: “Visitors to the market are our longstanding friends.” As farmers, they only want a fair price for their products. When a new market opens, many take part on their own initiative regardless of the volume of sales, number of customers and convenience of location. “If we don’t go to newly opened markets to show our support, there will never be enough customers in these markets.” They regularly take part in the activities and the management of the farmers’ markets. Having control over their pace of life, they enjoy the process because they are not concerned about how much they are able to sell.

The farmers of Ban Mae Ta have a deep understanding of ecological agriculture through years of practice. When we asked them why and when they adopted PGS, they replied: “In the marketplace and in other occasions when we were selling our products, consumers often asked whether our products were certified or guaranteed. That’s why we adopted the tools of PGS a few years ago.” Farmers taking part in the PGS network in Chiang Mai have practiced ecological agriculture for at least 5 to 6 years. Some have practiced ecological agriculture for as long as 20 years. In other words, before PGS was introduced, they had already had a wealth of experience in and a lot of thoughts about ecological farming. When PGS was introduced, the farmers joined enthusiastically since they already understood its purpose. Members of the PGS convening group of the farmers’ market are mostly small-scale farmers and producers. They have abundant skills and are capable of teaching other farmers and are willing to support farmers in other areas. They are also capable of organising consumers’ visits to their farms themselves. Consumers who take part in PGS can therefore easily fit farm visits into their busy schedule.

Ban Nong-Tao is inhabited mainly by Karens, an indigenous people. With a strong sense of sovereignty over their natural resources, local knowledge and wisdom about community sustainability and a unique indigenous culture, they have been striving for autonomous development in the last three decades. When working with outsiders, they insist on villagers playing a dominant role. The community’s ecological farming group was requested to adopt PGS by Lemon Farm with whom they have been working. Lemon Farm claims that all the products they sell need the adoption of PGS. During our internship, we witnessed members of the ecological farming group sitting together in the evening to discuss how to fill out a 10-page document of PGS, which included information on farmers, land, crop varieties, etc. The farmers were even asked to show the location of the ecological farm in drawing. It was indeed a major challenge to the farmers. They admitted that they could not do it alone at home, and must sit together to discuss. Kwiv, a young rural returnee and a member of the group, explained that in their culture, trust did not have to be guaranteed by an agreement on paper. In their community, they had different ways to monitor and to ensure that a contract is honoured. That was why they did not feel very comfortable about filling in information on a contract in paper. This is quite similar to rural communities in China. In fact, any form of monitor imposed by outsiders on farmers is going to be costly. The most feasible way is farmers’ self-discipline and mutual restraint within the community. In Ban Nong-Tao, when PGS, a system from outside, was introduced, the local farmers did not accept it passively. Instead the community leaders thought that they could make use of PGS and turned it into a tool for their own use. In the course of implementing PGS, the ecological farming group has been very conscientious in ensuring that consumers know about how the products are produced, such as the cultivation and processing of coffee and the indigenous culture of the Karen people.

Reducing the cost of implementing PGS through self-governing communities

One main reason why PGS was designed was because small-scale producers often find it hard to pay the cost for organic certification. PGS should therefore be a system that should be relatively low cost for producers to implement. However, since the consumers are far away, unless a farmer has a strong consciousness, the restraint imposed by a familiar group of people in the community is often more effective. Facilitators in the community can also make use of local knowledge to help farmers in their community to deal with any technical problems they face.

In Ban Mae Ta there are about 10 community facilitators who have had years of training in PGS. Not only have they accumulated technical experience, they are also experienced in the informal management of the local community and farmers. PGS has a dozen standards, but the local community has developed their own standards based on PGS ones. Since every community is unique, and the natural environment and the crops cultivated vary in each community, standards of course have to vary. The monitoring body’s role is not only to monitor farmers occasionally, but more importantly to provide support to the farmers who face technical problems or have difficulty communicating with consumers. The community facilitators pointed out that it was a dynamic process, and it took them a long time to help and support farmers and to change the way they think, particularly farmers who had just turned to ecological farming.

The PGS convening group of Chiang Mai’s organic farmers market told us how they would lower the cost of PGS when they conduct networking activities across communities: “We would bring our own food and share the cost of the gasoline for our cars.” They were very active and enthusiastic about joining PGS visits.

In China, because of the vastness of the country, the diversity of the products produced by farmers, the heterogeneity of local cultures, and different stages of development, only a low cost PGS system can be implemented. If any practice or operation of PGS becomes costly, the practitioners must be reminded that they have diverged from the basic principles of PGS, which aims to be low-cost. When we promote PGS on a large scale, there must be a consensus that we accept the philosophy behind the instrument. Low-cost regional networks for local communities should be developed. Monitoring systems formed on the basis of recognizing the cultural diversity and self-governance of local communities is the most important basis on which we may implement a low cost PGS.

Finally, what I actually want to say is, compared with the tool itself or studies about the tool, the work that is most pressing is consciousness training of the stakeholders, in particular the need to give farmers the necessary support and to accompany them in the process. Concerned organisations must persist in making a long-term effort to facilitate farmers to acquire the skills, to develop the capacity to communicate with external forces on an equal basis and to reflect in depth on the values of ecological agriculture. All the organisations have to work together while agreeing on a common stand vis-à-vis small-scale farmers. Most of all, we observed that what drove farmers and producers to turn to ecological agriculture was not its economic value. Even though the poorest villagers of Ban Mae Ta have been able to pay off their debts through practicing ecological agriculture, when a couple was asked what they thought was happiness, both husband and wife responded in the same way: “To gain happiness, healthy food and time for leisure are more important than money.”

1. Liang Shuming Rural Recontruction Centre, which was originally China Reform Magazine's University Student Rural Support and Investigation Project, began to organise student volunteers to go to the rural areas to support farmers and agriculture in 2001. It was registered officially in Beijing as an NGO in 2004. Its main objective is to build new rural villages, and its main activities include promoting farmers’ cooperatives and fostering urban-rural development in a harmonious manner. It has been engaged in initiatives for new rural reconstruction drawing on Liang Shuming’s theories of rural reconstruction by carrying out studies on rural culture and building farmers’ cooperatives. It has also been facilitating university students’ education-in-action programmes and has been conducting research on and promoting a new rural culture.

2. In April, 2006, seven farmers’ cooperatives from Shandong, Shanxi, Jilin, Henan and Hubei formed the Green Ground Union, the first organisation of farmers’ cooperatives. It was an initiative advocated and led by Professor Wen Tiejun. The head office of the organisation is located in Beijing.