In an effort to counter the rising industrialization of organic agriculture, Laércio Meirelles has developed a participatory approach to organic certification, placing greater control in the hands of small-scale farmers.
La idea nueva
Due to increasing consumer consciousness and growing fears about the environmental and social impact of conventional agriculture, demand for organic agriculture has taken off in recent years. Paradoxically, however, the small-scale farmers for whom the organic movement was created have found it increasingly difficult to compete with their corporate counterparts in the face of such high demand. Laércio has introduced an alternative model to organic certification, which he calls Participatory Guarantee Systems (SPGs), combining regular peer-led visits with frequent training programs. These programs—together with legislative reform and efforts to build consumer awareness—aim to empower rural small-scale farmers and to increase their access to the market. Laércio is working to eliminate the burdensome rules and many complexities that distinguish certification in one country from another, and to replace them instead with a more unified approach that incorporates the shared insights and best practices of farmers from across Brazil, the Americas, and beyond. Having already implemented the model in the South of Brazil, Peru, and Bolivia, Laércio is working to secure international legitimacy, building a powerful cohort of farmers and allies in the field. By enabling an ever-growing number of farmers to take advantage of consumer demand, he thus aims to popularize organic agriculture, transforming what was once merely a niche market into a powerful new standard for sustainable and economically productive agriculture.
From the outset, Laércio understood that the successful rollout of alternative certification would depend on three critical pieces: Securing producer and consumer acceptance of organic agriculture as a reasonable alternative to its conventional counterpart; acquiring legal recognition for participatory certification; and finally, garnering enough international legitimacy to encourage more widespread adoption. In developing the process itself, Laércio’s first priority was to give small-scale farmers a direct say in what constituted high-quality organic production. Secondly, he aimed to ensure consumer confidence by maintaining high standards and ongoing accountability. His certification process thus incorporates a combination of knowledge sharing and regular renewals. To maintain up-to-date standards, the SPG certifiers, all of whom are farmers from the same region, typically visit farms on at least a yearly basis, though vegetable farming and a few other more intensive crops demand more frequent inspections. Farmers then sign a document each year, certifying that they have maintained wholly organic practices. These visits are supplemented with regular trainings, ensuring even greater accountability. The farming communities develop business and management skills, creating an ever-widening knowledge network. This group approach to certifying organics has proven to be a remarkably effective tool for trust-building, generating self-confidence, and challenging participants to better understand the problems and market forces at work in their lives. In an effort to restore the fading ties between the local and organic movements, Laércio prioritizes selling the certified products of the small-scale farmers in his network to local fairs and specialty food stores. By using local fairs to secure a viable income for farmers, Laercio is then better positioned to negotiate with larger chains, including Wal-Mart and Rede Ecovida in Southern Brazil. In so doing, he ultimately aims to build a bridge between small producers and the market, believing that the market can be shaped to reflect the movement's ideals. Yet even those along the chain of production who would like to support SPGs are subject to the regulations of their respective governments; indeed, cloth manufacturers outside of Brazil, who would otherwise support the certification approach, are unable to import organically produced, SPG-certified cotton. A major piece of Laércio’s work is thus to influence legislation, helping the Brazilian government create, for example, its first law and set of norms to address organic agriculture that incorporate alternative certification measures. Initially told that alternative certification—while interesting—was an idea with limited suitability to other contexts, Laércio sought early on to confer international legitimacy to the idea. In 2002, he began organizing an international seminar to discuss various approaches to alternative certification. Held in April 2004 in his own town, the seminar brought together representatives from twenty-one countries and all six major continents. His goal was to build a network of committed experts in the field, gathering together those with experience in alternative certification with those who could serve as key change agents, including two conventional certifiers from Italy and Sweden who were both receptive to the idea. It was here that Laércio first introduced the term “Participatory Guarantee System,” or SPG. The meeting marked the creation of an international working group, which went on to adopt his use of the term “participatory system,” and began collecting practices and methodologies used in organic production around the world. Serving as its Latin American representative, Laércio helped form an “Ethical Committee” to monitor the process and guarantee quality, serving as its official Advisor. At the recent World Conference on Organic Agriculture held in Italy in 2008, Laércio received requests from a number of countries to take the SPG model elsewhere. With the majority of these requests coming from similarly situated countries in Africa and Asia, this growing demand has the potential to achieve global credibility and to influence European law. Already, Laércio is beginning to attract interest from European lawmakers, and is developing a set of allies among European national governments. Indeed, two members of the EU Commission on Agriculture have already pledged their support, and there has been an emerging backlash in Italy, Spain, and Sweden against the growing complexity and inefficiencies of EU certification. A core element of his spread strategy is thus to create an environment of mutual learning, using shared insights from around the world to establish a new and unified approach to credentializing small-scale agriculture. Each of these strategies is designed to work toward a single goal: Namely, to alter the fundamental agricultural paradigm by supplanting conventional agriculture with organic farming. To date, Laércio has successfully urged the governments of Brazil, Chile, Bolivia, and Costa Rica to accept his certification system. There are currently pending legislative drafts that would likewise accept SPG-certified agricultural products in Uruguay, Peru, El Salvador, and Paraguay. Yet acquiring legal recognition is only one of many steps: He is now working to adapt the SPG model to the contextual needs of farming regions in the North and the Northeast, and to concurrently influence policies in “buyers’ regions,” like Europe and the U.S. Already, he has become the central force in effecting such changes across the Americas, developing a host of partnerships with related international COs, including the Swedish Nutrition Foundation and International Friends of the Earth, and has begun more recently to work with the Brazilian oil company, Petrobras, on a “Zero Hunger” scheme. His participatory certification scheme and his unique approach to spreading it, moreover, can serve as a valuable tool for legitimizing other locally based fields. Indeed, he is currently in talks to sell the SPG methodology to the Fair Trade Movement, and hopes to devote more of his time in the coming years to spreading the SPG approach globally.
Laércio grew up in a city outside Rio de Janeiro, and spent each summer with his grandparents on their farm in the countryside. It was there that he learned to milk cows and grow rice, and to engage in related farming pursuits. In addition to his resulting interest in rural agriculture, Laércio was profoundly committed to issues of social justice from a young age, having regularly accompanied his mother to the favelas outside Rio, where she worked as a volunteer. Drawn to the tranquility of rural life, he chose to break from his parents’ path and to instead study agronomy at a leading university in Brazil. He spent his first two years preparing to work with conventional methods, but found himself increasingly interested in alternative approaches to agriculture. Wanting to work directly with small-scale farmers, he found that the organic movement best aligned with his emerging worldview and vision for modern-day agriculture.Upon graduation, he began working in Parana on a state-run rural development scheme. When a new state administration took over in 1986, however, Laércio was forbidden from working in organic agriculture, and he quickly moved to the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, well-known as the cradle of Brazil’s environmental movement. He began working with Ashoka Fellow Maria José Guazzelli and her pilot project, Vacaria—a laboratory farm that later became Centro Ecológico Ipê. There, he and two fellow agronomists were able to institute several leading innovations that had already demonstrated success in the U.K., Germany, and Australia. Over time, he began to transition into a more social role, and took over as head of the organization. He ultimately became a recognized leader in organic agriculture, serving as a vocal critic of standard certification. Compelled to seek an alternative, however, he began experimenting with other options for certification in 1999, serving as the basis for the SPG methodology.