In Mexico, a network of local markets called Tianguis y Mercados Organicos is working to make the organic label more accessible to small-scale farmers. Using a Participatory Certification System, Tianguis y Mercados Organicos nearly eliminates the cost of third-party certification. In the process, they are creating a community of producers and consumers working toward a more sustainable food system.
In Mexico, roughly 98 percent of organic producers farm less than 30 hectares of land, and approximately 83 percent of organic producers are indigenous. With the high cost of certification and the technical nature of the organic standards, many of these small-scale producers are unable to obtain official organic certification. Not only does this mean that certain sustainable farmers cannot access the benefits of an organic label, it also pushes organic farmers to make up their costs by exporting. Roughly 85 percent of certified organic produce from Mexico is exported, as selling within the domestic market simply could not make up the cost of certification.
With Tianguis y Mercados Organicos, local markets within the network put together a certification body, which is made up of experts and producers themselves, and are able to take on most of the cost of certifying. This participatory model creates a low-cost alternative for small-scale producers and gives them a seat at the decisionmaking table. The organization expressly focuses on localized networks of producers, experts, and consumers, giving organic farmers an incentive to keep their produce within the community. In each step of the process, producers have access to clear educational materials on organic production methods. This means that even producers who do not meet all of the standards yet have the information to improve their methods in the future.
Victor Flores, one of the network’s regional organizers, describes this system as a fundamentally social way of educating and certifying. “Participatory Certification Systems, in addition to creating an alternative of low-cost recognition for good agroecological practices in small producers, also serve to generate ties of confidence and co-responsibility between producers and consumers,” he says. “These systems are normally immersed in the functioning of markets for local producers, so they also serve to strengthen the sustainability of the market itself and the products available.”
The goal of typical third-party organic certification is to determine a set of standards to give consumers confidence in the quality of the organic product. Tianguis y Mercados Organicos on the other hand, has much broader aims. The network focuses on how various stakeholders benefit from sustainable farming practices, ranging from rural development goals to increased biodiversity. They strive to create meaningful links between the city and the country, using local markets as a key space for education, socialization, and advocacy.
Today, there are nearly 30 market members of Tianguis y Mercados Orgánicos operating across Mexico. These markets range in size and in their specific focus because, ultimately, this national organization is designed to empower the needs of local communities.
In 2006, the Mexican government officially recognized products certified through Participatory Systems as eligible to carry the organic label, though only for domestic markets. The Participatory Certification System has also been endorsed by IFOAM – Organic International, a leading international certification and advocacy body for the organics movement.