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October 16, 2012

Agri-value chain certification schemes may not quite deliver what they suggest

Certification schemes have in recent years been very successful at creating a niche for themselves in the value chains for various products. Amongst the best known are the ISO, Globalgap, the Rainforest Alliance, Fairtrade and various 'organic' certification schemes.

Each promises to deliver various socio-economic standards for the cultivating and sourcing of raw materials to producers, consumers and many others in between. While the business insiders in the sectors 'governed' by each of these certification schemes may know the details of what is verified and given the stamp of approval, most of the general public have only a hazy idea. But especially for some consumers in western countries, a product's seal of approval by one or more of these certification schemes suggests that the product is produced according to 'ethical' standards.

Among the assumed implications of what 'ethical' means are that no child labour is used (e.g. cocoa) or that farmers are paid 'fair' prices for their crops (fair trade).

But it turns out that the certification stamps may not quite mean what much of the public (western consumers mostly) assumes.

 For instance, it has recently come out that manufacturers of products containing cocoa as a key ingredient need only source 30% of the cocoa according to the Rainforest Alliance's criteria before they can use the scheme's logo as a marketing tool for the products.

To charges of misleading consumers about what it means for a product to carry a Rainforest Alliance-approved logo, the organization rather weakly protests that the acceptance of the 30% certified cocoa practice is based on a commitment by the maker of the product to up the proportion to 100% certified cocoa within five years (negotiable.)

It is understandable that a one-size-fits-all certification regime may not be practical in the case of a product like cocoa, grown and sourced in vastly differing agricultural and economic conditions across the world. But  there probably are many consumers who might feel that 30% is less than what the average person would think as an acceptable minimum requirement (certified cocoa content) for that finished product (chocolate, etc) to be able to carry the RA alliance.

Further complicating matters, certified cocoa can be mixed with uncertified (or differently certified) cocoa at several places in the value chain, meaning that 'certification' of the final product with which the cocoa will be  made can mean almost anything.

The standards for a product to win 'Fairtrade' certification are apparently higher than those of the Rainforest Alliance, but Fairtrade-certified cocoa can be mixed with non-Fairtrade cocoa before the final (certified) product's manufacture. The reasons given for this are the complicated logistics and high costs of keeping certified and non-certified coca separate. That is understood, but it also means that a 'Fairtrade' logo on a product may actually mean much less than the average consumer may think it does.

Despite all this confusion, the certification schemes partly defend themselves by stating that participant farmers are still better off than farmers who are not members, those who are totally at the whim of global supply and demand pricing.

Apart from these controversies, there have long been critics who allege that some certification schemes are merely a type of white-washing of the unfair-to-small-farmers practices of global corporates like those that dominate the cocoa/chocolate sector.

African Agriculture

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