Some of the ideas currently creating the most excitement in the organic world have strong echoes of the early days of the modern organic movement. So, is organic going back to the future?
One of the big buzz phrases at this year’s Biofach exhibition was ‘PGS organic‘. Participatory Guarantee Schemes are defined by the global organic organisation IFOAM as “locally focused quality assurance schemes”. These schemes revolve around the active participation of local stakeholders and are built on a foundation of trust, social networks and knowledge exchange. It’s very similar to the ideas that kick-stared the modern organic movement in the 1970s and 1980s, which too were based on associative, trust based systems. It’s striking then that IFOAM is actively promoting PGS to a new generation of organic farmers and growers.
Something else we have been hearing more about is regenerative agriculture. The term was coined back in the 1980s by the Rodale Institute in the US, and describes an approach to food and farming built around natural processes that help to regenerate topsoil, boost biodiversity and strengthen the resilience of ecosystems. It’s a hot topic again thanks to the launch of a new Regenerative Organic Certification scheme. The new scheme is based on the ‘three pillars of regenerative agriculture’ – soil health, animal welfare and social fairness. If this also sounds familiar, it’s because these are the very same holistic principles that underpinned the process-orientated origins of the early organic movement.
Is this then a case of the organic movement going back to the future? In part, yes. IFOAM International says that Participatory Guarantee Systems “are revisiting the way organic certification started a few decades ago”. But it says that PGS organic is more importantly about widening organic’s reach and – the key word here – participation.
IFOAM sees PGS as “an alternative and complementary tool to third-party certification within the organic sector” and advocates for the recognition of PGS by governments. PGS schemes, it says, answer a specific need to include smallholders in the organic movement. The biggest concentration of the 300,000 PGS organic farmers worldwide are in developing and newly industrialised economies (India, Brazil, South Africa notably), where conventional third-party certified farms are often reliant on distant export markets.
“I think what we’re actually seeing is a reassertion of organic core principles, with a renewed emphasis on community level agriculture. And rather than being backward-looking this reorientation of organic is progressive”
But the appeal of PGS organic goes wider than that. In the last few years it’s quickly been gathering support in Europe and North America too. PGS appeals in particular to a new generation of farmers coming into organic with specific interests – localism, deep sustainability, social justice. These are organic’s new disruptors. They want to farm in ways that reflects their values.
Interest in PSG and regenerative organic approaches is also a reaction to concerns about organic regulation. At last year’s IFOAM EU conference in Tallin, Nik Lampkin, from the UK-based Organic Research Centre, examined the question of whether regulation had even ‘become a threat to the organic idea?’. Lampkin, who wants to see a “return to organic fundamentals”, warned that regulation, while serving a valuable purpose, can “fossilise current practice” and can create “narrow, black and white distinctions”. He also pointed out that “participation in organic is voluntary” – make it too prescriptive and people will start turning away from it. “New movements,” he noted, were “already rejecting the institutionalised organic model”.
I think what we’re actually seeing is a reassertion of core organic principles, with a renewed emphasis on community level agriculture. And rather than being backward-looking, this reorientation of organic is progressive; it actively embraces new technolgies (such as the Internet Of Things) where they present a collective opportunity. But it is also a corrective to aspects of the current market-dominated food and farming model, and an appeal to us all to reclaim organic as citizen-owned, open-source concept.