Signed, sealed and jiggered?

In her opening speech at last week’s Biofach exhibition and Congress, IFOAM president Katherine DiMatteo commented that organic’s future success lay “not with standards and seals but with the authenticity and application of its values”.

How prescient, I was thinking a little later in the morning.

I’d just been sitting in on a fascinating discussion on the big theme of this year’s Biofach — Organic+Fair (see story below). The two presenters — Tuulia Syvänen, chief operating officer of FLO International, and Dietar Overath of TransFair, Germany — both gave excellent accounts of the growing areas of co-operation between organic and Fairtrade and the many “overlapping ambitions”.

Syvänen outlined environmental criteria that form part of existing Fairtrade regulations, many of which were “also social standards”. She explained that Fairtrade producers were often gently encouraged to go organic, partly because it would secure a better market for their produce. Overath provided some statistical support to this idea of organic-Fairtrade convergence — one third of Fairtrade products globally are also organic he pointed out. He also revealed some interesting data about markets for Fairtrade products — Britain, impressively, is number two in the world for retail sales and per captia consumption.

But the pair had to field some challening questions from growers and producers in the audience. Vitoon Panyakul, a Fairtrade rice grower from Thailand, questioned the centralised structure and inspection systems of Fairtade’s governing body FLO. He asked whether “it is either fair or sustainable for the whole of the inspection system to be centered in Germany?”.

Then it was the turn of Equadorian Fairtrade and organic rose grower, John Nevado, to add to the discomfort. “I am sick and tired of talking to 10 different certifying bodies — organic, Faitrade, national, local,” he said. He wanted to know what progress was being made in simplifying the certification and inspection process.

Later John showed me his brochure for Nevado Roses, peppered with certifier logos. “I’m a big boy and it’s bad enough for me, for small producers this level of bureaucracy is almost impossible”. Some producers he said had been working together to “try to get rid of this jungle” but were being hampered by the sometimes “nationalistic” activities of certifiers.

John and Vitoon’s questions didn’t in any way sour the day’s discussion and there were friendly exchanges between growers and certifier representatives at the end of the session. But they were a reminder that processes and procedures, while necessary, shouldn’t be allowed to become a deterrent to deeper progress.

By Jim Manson

Natural Products editor and environment journalist
Jim Manson is editor of Natural Products magazine. He’s written widely on environment and development issues for specialist magazines and national media, including the Financial Times, The Guardian and Time Out.