6 Jun 2019

Group Certification back in focus

Internal Control System (ICS), the right concept if supported by useful IT-tools

We are all aware of the importance of smallholder farmers. These comprise about 90% of all farms worldwide and produce a substantial proportion of the world’s food, estimated at about 70%. Large scale agriculture embedded in the current global food system will continue to fail in feeding the world’s population, least the poor. This is one of the reasons why the organic sector (IMO and Naturland and later on IFOAM) developed what is called the Internal Certification System (ICS) for Grower Groups. Another reason is that small farmers as single operation could never afford the regulatory (and private) systems’ burden of external inspection and certification, being too costly. The EU Organic as well as the USDA NOP Regulations and some other regulatory systems (e.g. India, Canada) have incorporated the ICS is its implementation.

Since about 20 years not much has happened – apart from the implementation of the ICS concept in hundreds of smallholder groups worldwide. Depending on the group and the external certification body, its quality ranged from merely paper pushing to excellent. Accreditation reports of USDA and EU Accreditation of certifiers show the deficiencies in ICS implementation and oversight. Consequently, USDA under its Sound and Sensible Initiative in 2014/ 15 assigned Organic Services and US consultant Katherine DiMatteo to analyse policies and concept of ICS. Group Integrity, a social business of Organic Services, is one answer to the weak ICS implementation. Knowing group systems since the first were certified in the 1980ies, Organic Services adapted ECERT®, Intact’s ERP certification management software for group certification. Some major certifiers took part in its adaptation. Unfortunately, despite the current still too few users, neither regulators nor certifiers or development organizations have pushed this helpful tool for the benefit of groups.

In the meantime, the EU has sparked off a discussion around ICS with incorporating group certification in its revised regulation for being applied within the EU. At the same time, the USDA NOP under its enhanced enforcement is said to have taken the issue up and higher on its agenda. During last year FIBL conducted a short survey on the state of grower group certification that was presented at BIOFACH and led to the interesting conclusion that the implementation of ICS is fairly weak, although the right concept if supported by useful IT-tools. Finally, IFOAM initiated a working group on ICS, at which Organic Services’ director and expert Mildred Steidle participates, to discuss the group certification concept and its implementation. The (first) meeting took place in May 2019. Our conclusion is that there will not be much development and or changes to the ICS concept. It is tested and has shown to produce reliable results. Implementation is where the problem lies! Group Integrity with its flexibility to be adapted to any set of standards, its multi-standards’ checklist and many other useful functionalities, e.g. the integration of product flow into Check Organic, is the answer to any group’s ICS performance. In addition, Group Integrity is affordable and saves money and time both internal and during external inspection.

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