Peer-Reviewed Produce?

by Elizabeth Nolan Brown

K. Annabelle Smith notices that many small farmers aren’t bothering to get certified “organic” because the paperwork is too much of a hassle:

Data from this year’s census shows there are 18,513 certified organic farms and businesses Credit: Atomicity/Flickrin the United States, a 245 percent increase since 2002. But New Jersey is among 17 states that have seen a decline in organic certifications since 2008. [Jennifer] LaMonica’s CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) is one of 40 organic farms the Garden State “lost” in recent years. Though there are a number of reasons for the decline—farm consolidation and limited water resources among them—one major explanation is that formerly certified organic farms are simply dropping their USDA stamp of approval.

(…) It’s not necessarily prohibitive startup costs that are turning farms off of the organic certification process. Depending on the size of a farm, it only costs between $200 and $1,500 to have a USDA inspector survey land for certification. But the required recordkeeping can be unmanageable for a farm of Sea Salt’s size. Farmers with a certification are only inspected by the USDA once a year, but they are required to keep daily records of everything, from how often they irrigate to total hours spent weeding. And the more diverse the crop, the more complicated the paperwork.

The rules also prohibit organic farmers from sharing any equipment with non-organic counterparts. And should a farmer use the label improperly? They can face up to $11,000 in fines per violation. Organic farmers have been long been complaining that the USDA certification process, with its intensive record-keeping requirements and potential risk, puts small farms and food companies at a disadvantage to the organic brands run by food conglomerates.

But how can consumers rest assured their “organic” food really is organic without the aid of USDA certification? Interestingly, a non-governmental certifying board may already be answering that question. It’s called the Certified Naturally Grown program, Smith explains:

It’s based on the USDA’s organic standards, but offers a less bureaucratic method of inspection: peer-to-peer. Each farmer in the program is required to do at least one inspection a year for another CNG farmer. The program, which has been around since October 2002, continues to expand. Farms in 47 states are registered as CNG, and the program received more than 300 new applications last year.

Steven Zwier and Robyn Weber run Asbury Village Farm, a CNG operation in New Jersey. Like LaMonica, they grow a small, diverse crop, but Zwier and his wife have no other hired labor. The USDA organic program was not a good fit for their farm, Zwier explains, because, with a two-person workforce, he needs to put all of his energy into the fields. Like LaMonica, he relies on the farm’s strong community reputation to keep a steady customer base, but wanted the extra level of credibility CNG offers.

“CNG strips down the red-tape bureaucracy of us paying the government our certification fees to keep statistics for them,” he says.

The CNG approach is called a participatory guarantee system (PGS). “While the PGS concept is still new to many in the United States, PGS programs have been in place for decades” elsewhere, the organization says.

Farmers in the Philippines this week launched a such a system, finding their country’s main organic-certification process “too slow” and labyrinthian. “In a second-party certification system like the PGS, we are well-represented in the committee and our opinions and knowledge are recognized,” Jose Ben Travilla, an organic farmer and PGS inspector, told MindaNews.