PGS in China – A Development Tool for Local Organic Agriculture?

Introduction: The EU-China NGO Twinning program is an exchange program for the employees of European and Chinese Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). Each year, 7 exchange fellows working for European NGOs and 7 fellows from Chinese NGOs are given the opportunity to work and study for 4-8 weeks in their partner organization in the respective other region. The program aims at establishing sustainable partnerships and cooperation between non-governmental or non-profit organizations and think tanks from both regions. In this article, Cornelia Kirchner discusses the use of Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS) as a way to promote organic agriculture in China in light of her experience working with the Beijing Farmers Market.

Thanks to the EU-China Twinning Program, a project of the Stiftung Asienhaus, supported by Robert Bosch Stiftung, I was given the opportunity to spend one month in Beijing in September 2014.

During this month, I worked with the Beijing Farmers Market (BFM) on Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS)1 and was able to gain in-depth insight into the local situation in China. It is now planned that a PGS trial will be launched at BFM in 2015, and preparations for the drafting of criteria are currently underway. During my stay, a 4-day PGS workshop with representatives from farmers markets and other short-chain marketing initiatives from all over China was organized. The workshop had the aim to develop a better understanding of PGS among the stakeholders and to discuss practices that are presently being implemented. Additionally, challenges and needs in the various regions were brought up.

In recent years, frequent food scandals have unsettled consumers in China and created great demand for organic food, that can achieve high prices at the market2. The Beijing Farmers Market was launched in 2010 and is regarded as a successful model case. It is being copied in many cities throughout the country. For most of the farmers selling at the market, organic certification is not an option. The Chinese organic regulation requires inspection and product testing for each crop grown on the farm at least once per production cycle. This results in high certification costs that small farmers who sell their crops locally cannot afford. Consequently, the BFM and other short-chain marketing initiatives around China have to set their own criteria and to develop their own means of verification.

Producers that sell at the BFM are carefully selected. The types of farms involved are diverse and include producers well experienced in organic agriculture as well as farmers who are not yet complying with all aspects of organic agriculture. Usually, they are small farmers in and around Beijing and the personal background of the farmer as well as his/her motivation and vision are well known. Instead of applying the same criteria to all, each farm is dealt with on a case-by-case approach. For many consumers in China, the priority regarding food is safety, i.e. they want food free of toxins, heavy metals, pesticide residues, hormones and antibiotics. Other characteristics of organic, e.g. the source of feed or the seeds may be only of secondary concern for them. Since the supply of organic products is lagging behind demand, there is a tendency to accept farmers that are not fully complying with all principles of organic agriculture to sell at the organic market, as long as they comply with some basic rules. At the same time, the organizers of the market encourage and support new farmers to convert to organic and to refrain from using agro-chemicals.

For several reasons, including trust and credibility issues, the BFM as well as many other similar initiatives in China feel an increasing need to establish a more formalized system. This system would fulfill the purpose of verifying the production methods of the related farms and providing more support to the farmers to improve their practices. This is why the BFM started looking into PGS. During our workshop, we conducted some on-farm inspections and received divergent opinions about one of the farms concerning organic practices. This is not an uncommon situation if criteria are not clearly defined. Inspection team 1 felt the vegetables produced on the farm were fine, but they were concerned about the pigs’ welfare conditions. Inspection team 2 believed the pigs were kept in good conditions (animal husbandry practices a lot better compared to average conventional pig farms) but they were concerned about the vegetables that were fertilized with chicken manure from a large conventional farm. While the groups did not find a final consensus, they did agree that “better than average” is not enough of a criterion, but more concrete rules need to be set.

In my opinion, the biggest potential of PGS for these initiatives lies in its functionality as a development tool and as an instrument to support farmers to improve their systems. The primary reason why not all farmers participating in these initiatives are fully complying with organic principles is the lack of knowledge as well as lack of resources. With PGS, recommendations can be drafted and development goals can be set for each farm. The PGS can then be utilized as a monitoring tool to oversee the progress of the farms over the years while providing adequate support and assistance.

There are many challenges on the path to creating PGS. Since opinions and practices vary, defining criteria will not be an easy process. Building-up knowledge requires long-term effort. Ways need to be found to engage and motivate farmers and other stakeholders to participate and share responsibilities in the development and implementation of PGS. At the same time, many of the basic conditions are already fulfilled, which leaves me optimistic. Market access is already established and demand for the products is undeniable. Furthermore, there are close relationships among the stakeholders. BFM is already conducting trainings for farmers and consumers, farm visits by stakeholders are already being carried out. Now, they need to be formalized and made more participatory.

During my stay in China, I met passionate, active and engaged people from all over the country. There is lots of work ahead, but I am confident that these grassroots initiatives will bring forward organic agriculture in China and make a difference especially in regards to local consumption, smallholder production and rural development. I look forward to remaining part of that process and hope that full embracement of organic will become an achievable goal for these initiatives within the next years.


  1. Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS) are locally focused quality assurance systems. They certify producers based on active participation of stakeholders and are built on a foundation of trust, social networks and knowledge exchange (IFOAM Definition). IFOAM is promoting PGS as a credible method to assure the organic quality of products, suitable in particular for smallholder farming and local food systems. For more information visit the IFOAM PGS information platform: www.ifoam.org/pgs

  2. Each year China experiences numerous food scandals. The 2008 milk scandal with 6 infants dying from kidney damage and another 300,000 victims affected is one of the most prominent ones. Another serious example is the cadmium pollution of rice, particularly severe rice in Hunan province, China’s largest rice producing province. 

IFOAM PGS Coordinator. The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) is the international umbrella organization for organic agriculture uniting close to 800 members in more then 100 countries.

Edited by CDB Staff

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