FiBL report: Group Certification. Internal Control Systems in Organic Agriculture: Significance, Opportunities and Challenges

About 80% of the world’s organic producers are smallholders in low and middle income countries, for whom individual certification would be unaffordable and administratively too complex to manage. These producers are recognised as organic due to group certification, a system in which groups of farmers implement an Internal Control System (ICS) and are certified by a third party certification body, which assesses the performance of the ICS and performs a representative number of spot-check inspections of group members.

The approach of using ICS based group certification was pioneered by IFOAM – Organics International (IFOAM) and Fair Trade over the past twenty years has been adopted by the entire organic sector, including the EU and the US National Organic Programme. Very similar approaches are used, and have been further developed, by other voluntary sustainability certification programmes. Group certification is the only way that smallholder farmers in low-income countries can access certified international markets and besides reducing certification costs and complexity it also provides other important benefits.

Yet, despite the (increasing) global importance of group certification in organic agriculture, there have been few studies that explicitly address the specific issues related to it. This study aims to fill that gap. It examines the current scale and scope of group certification by region and country and draws on a literature review, a stakeholder survey and expert interviews in order to identify the strengths of, success factors, and challenges facing, ICS. It assesses the importance of the individual elements of ICS, how effectively they are implemented and the opportunities for the further development of group certification.

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The United Nations Forum on Sustainability Standards (UNFSS) is a joint initiative of 5 UN Agencies (FAO, ITC, UNCTAD, UN Environment and UNIDO) that seeks to address these challenges. It is a demand-driven forum for intergovernmental actors to communicate among each other and engage with key target groups (producers, traders, consumers, standard-setters, certification-bodies, trade diplomats, relevant NGOs and researchers) to address their information needs and influence concerned stakeholders. It aims to provide impartial information, analysis, and discussions on VSS and their potential contribution to facilitate market access, strengthen public goods and achieve Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Most importantly, the UNFSS focuses on potential trade or development obstacles VSS may create, with particular emphasis on their impact on SMEs and less developed countries.