Certification: An imperfect, but useful, tool

In ACP countries, certification allows farmers to guarantee the quality of their produce, enter new markets and increase their income. To ensure maximum impact, this certification should be part of wider development programmes.

With experience of working in government in Mozambique, Dr Carlos Oya leads research in the political economy of development © The Graduate Institute Geneva
With experience of working in government in Mozambique, Dr Carlos Oya leads research in the political economy of development © The Graduate Institute Geneva

Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Dr Carlos Oya, reader and research coordinator in development studies at SOAS University of London, details the potential benefits that product certification present to farmers, as well as the barriers to its implementation.

Your research suggests that despite the positive effect that certification has on product prices, certified farmers often do not see a significant increase in their household income. What are some of the reasons for this?

Positive effects on certified production prices may not translate into better household incomes because producers also depend on other sources of income – from non-certified agricultural products, for example. A small positive effect on certified farm income by itself is therefore unlikely to substantially impact total household income. The causal chain between income from certified production (for producers) and labour income (for wage workers) from certified production depends on a households’ relative dependence on these sources of income. However, context does matter, and in places where certification schemes or external agencies offer additional support to producers – to help improve productivity and/or quality – and where certified product markets are more developed and important, the effects on household income may be more substantial.

Several large companies have created their own certifications. How might this impact the producers who supply them?

The fact that large businesses adopt their own certification systems may mean an expansion in the market for certified products, unless there is a substitution effect – for example, if the rise of these new standards systems comes at the expense of other previously established systems. I expect the overall market to expand even if some standards systems may lose their proportion of ‘market share’. If the outreach and implementation methods improve then it is possible that producers may benefit more consistently and substantially.

Does the growing number of certification schemes available in the agri-food sector raise difficulties in terms of measuring their impact on sustainability?

It is always difficult to disentangle the effects of particular certifications on the wellbeing of producers and workers because of the wide range of contextual factors that come into play. If more certification schemes overlap and producers end up meeting the requirements of multiple schemes, it will be difficult to assess the relative contribution of one particular scheme. It may be possible to see whether the ‘mainstreaming’ of the adoption of sustainability standards has a wider scale impact, precisely due to this proliferation; if large supermarkets, for example, were to adopt their own standards, this would apply to a volume of traded production far exceeding what circulates as Fairtrade. For impact evaluators, however, a key issue is what specific interventions have what effects, and this becomes very difficult when each certification scheme adopts multiple requirements, involves a bundle of interventions and overlaps with other schemes.

In your research you insist on the need to take into account the context in which a certification scheme is implemented. Can you elaborate on this?

Context matters a lot because interventions associated with certification schemes do not happen in a laboratory-type social/political/economic vacuum. They happen in particular places, with specific – and often divergent – kinds of producers, histories, and social structures. Contextual factors influence the relative effectiveness of certification, and can include, but are not exhausted by, any number of the following: who adopts certification and why; how markets and supply chains are developed in that place; levels of infrastructure; the relative costs of certification; the particular environmental features of the location; local power relations; and how producer organisations work and who controls them.

How can technology and better data collection improve certification schemes to ensure they benefit both farmers and the environment?

Certainly better and more frequent data collection would improve our knowledge on the relative effectiveness of different interventions adopted by certification schemes. This way certification schemes can learn what methods and practices are most effective and why. Understanding the causal mechanisms when certification works or does not work is critical, as lessons may be transferable, so long as a careful contextual analysis is conducted. Technology does contribute to improvements in data collection and may contribute to more sophisticated and context-specific monitoring and evaluation systems, whereby timely information can improve the process of assessment, and revisions of standards systems and their procedures.

Sam Price

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With experience of working in government in Mozambique, Dr Carlos Oya leads research in the political economy of development © The Graduate Institute Geneva

SOURCE: UTZ based on

The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) is a joint international institution of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States and the European Union (EU). CTA operates under the framework of the Cotonou Agreement and is funded by the EU.