A new transparency

This is my 35th article in the Mercury Food and Wine supplement. This article also appeared on the site, Verdant Life

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The importance of knowing what is in our food and and how it is produced has grown in relevance. There have been the recent issues with mislabelled meats and the fight to have GM foods labelled. In their pursuit of profits many food suppliers seem to have put ethical values on the back burner.

The organic food market place is no exception to this trend.The term “organic” has become a marketing buzzword with some suppliers using it to capitalise on a growing consumer segment that is driven by ethical choice, but without real substance behind their claims. This was one of the main reasons for the development worldwide of an organic standard. This standard was to provide a minimum baseline of compliance to acceptable organic practice.

Organic farmers and processors would have to be audited on an annual basis on their compliance to this standard and receive a certificate to this effect. This system would then reassure consumers that the food they purchased genuinely adhered to the accepted standard. The organic certification system also achieved another important goal, which was to enable the transfer of knowledge and skills to all participants. The inspector, in addition to auditing would also advise the farmer.

In South Africa this system has run into a few problems. The government has not embraced the organic movement and as a result has not gazetted the organic standards, thus giving them force in law. This means that anybody using the label organic without complying with the standards could not be held criminally liable. It also meant that there were no uniform standards for South Africa.

However the majority of third-party certifiers used the EU standards as their baseline, as these were considered to be of the best quality. Recently, two new developments have come about. Firstly there has been an effort to draw up a South African standard and to register a uniquely South African organic labelling system. The standard and labels are being developed through the South African Bureau of Standards. The process is about to enter the public comment phase. The other significant development has been the international adoption of the Participatory Guarantee System (PGS). This is an organic certification system that uses both peer review and public and consumer participation in the inspection process. Under the old third party system, an independent organisation would inspect a farmer and issue a certificate. This system proved costly and was out of reach of smaller farmers. This meant that many small farmers were excluded from the system and had their marketing opportunities limited.

The PGS system uses the farmers themselves, interested members of the public and retailers to carry out the inspections. The same organic standards are used as with third party certification. There is an advantage in it being affordable to the smallest farmer, but by far the greatest advantage the system has is its transparency. Consumers are actively encouraged to participate in the inspection process. The system is suited to a local marketing model and will encourage communication between the farmer and the consumer, which is one of the aims of organic farming.

This is an exciting development and some progress is being made in establishing a PGS for the KZN Midlands and the coast. There needs to be trust between the farmers and those who rely on them for their nourishment, and this will be an excellent way to achieve this.

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About Rob Symons

My name is Rob Symons. I live in Pietermaritzburg, kwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. MuthiMuthi is my Zulu nickname which means tall tree. I am an Organic Farmer and an environmentalist. I live and work on Broadleaze Farm in the Mkondeni valley on the eastern outskirts of Pietermaritzburg.
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