Why is it worth being certified for the sustainability of agricultural production? What does this process involve and how to carry it out? We are talking about it with Aleksandra Jeleń, Head of certification at SGS Polska Sp. z o. o.
Can you tell us what SGS does?
SGS Polska is one of the largest inspection, verification, testing and certification bodies. In Poland, we have a team of several dozen qualified auditors operating throughout the country. We are part of SGS global organization with a network of over 2,600 branches and laboratories with 93,000 employees. In the area of agricultural certification, we certify such standards as Farm Sustainability Assessment (FSA), GLOBALG.A.P., Organic Farming and Integrated Production. All standards are aimed at supervising food safety and sustainable production of agricultural products, and each of them confirms the proper management of the farm and the natural environment.
How does knowledge and experience from other markets help you in Poland?
SGS is a globally operating entity that provides comprehensive services to a wide range of customers. This includes all kinds of certification and testing services that our customers may need for business purposes. This gives us a very broad understanding of what is currently happening in the agri-food sector and what are the current challenges for the industry and for the farmers themselves. From the customer’s point of view, the cooperation of the Polish branch within our network gives us the opportunity to serve customers faster thanks to international accreditations for some of the standards. International accreditation enables us to carry out certification for global companies operating in many countries. This business solution allows us to offer our customers an audit in their native language.
In addition, cooperation with auditors from various countries gives us the opportunity to obtain knowledge about the requirements in individual countries. Thanks to this, it is easier for us to carry out audits abroad, if the customer needs it. Of course, during foreign audits, it is always a challenge to face the legal requirements in the field of food safety which are in force in a given country. They also differ within the European Union itself. In the case of audits in the agricultural sector, we must always take into account that each country has its own list of plant protection products which are authorized for a given crop, so in each case we must use appropriate databases to verify the information received during the audit.
What is sustainable agriculture certification?
Farm Sustainability Assessment (FSA) supports food and beverage companies and farmers throughout the value chain with the goal of gradually moving towards sustainable agricultural production. FSA certification increases the sustainability of production throughout the supply chain and improves long-term economic prospects.
The certification process begins with an application to the certification body. The first step of preparation for certification is to get acquainted with the checklist prepared by the SAI, which will be later used by the auditor, and carrying out a self-assessment of the farm. After the self-assessment, the producer needs to prepare all missing documents, so that there will be no problems with obtaining the certificate. After the audit, the producer is given 28 days to close the non-conformities, if any. Then the unit has another 28 days to verify the documentation and to make a decision on granting the certificate. The certification must be renewed annually. Certification costs are in the range of net PLN 3,000-5,000 depending on the type of certification chosen. In the long run, the producer notices the benefits of running the system and obtaining a certificate. Proper management of the farm, the use of plant protection products and fertilizers rationally reduces production costs, and the certificate itself increases the competitiveness of the farm in the eyes of food processing companies.
Do you prepare farms for certifications?
SGS is accredited for its services and, like other certification bodies, it is not allowed to prepare farms for certification. This ensures impartiality and prevents a possible conflict of interest. However, at the request of each customer, we can indicate companies that support farmers in this process. These are acknowledged entities, with whose work we were never disappointed and we can recommend them to farmers who are interested in such a service.
How is sustainable agriculture certification different from other certifications?
The basic feature that distinguishes sustainable agriculture certification from other certifications is its long-term impact on the farm. Most of the other certifications confirm the safety of food produced in a given growing season. Certification of sustainable agriculture is based on building a plan for the subsequent years, which would affect the entire farm and optimize the use of fertilizers and plant protection products, and thus affect the optimization of production costs.
In turn, GLOBALG.A.P. certification is a product certification, and the certificate is issued for a specific plant that has been submitted for certification. However, GLOBALG.A.P. in cooperation with the SAI Platform has created an additional FSA module, which allows for an additional assessment of aspects of social responsibility, the way of management and financial stability of the farm, which are not assessed within the basic GLOBALG.A.P. checklist. In this case, a farm will receive two certificates confirming compliance with the requirements of both standards.
Integrated Production is a Polish certification system supervised by the State Plant Health and Seed Inspection Service. The products are subjected to strict control for residues of plant protection products and fertilizers. The grounds for the system are correctly selected items, such as correct crop rotation and agricultural activities, rational use of plant protection products and fertilizers.
In the case of animal production, the own standards of processing companies are most common, but at the same time the industry associations are also busy with the development of possibly effective methodologies for sustainable animal breeding, e.g. Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef or European Roundtable for Beef Sustainability. At the same time, welfare-focused systems are available with more and more emphasized elements of sustainable production, such as Animal Welfare Approved or Red Tractor standards.
In your opinion, what are the main barriers to the popularization of sustainable agricultural production certification in Poland?
Farm certifications are becoming increasingly popular in the food production market as consumer awareness increases. In their choices, the consumers pay more and more attention to both food safety and the impact of the production process on the natural environment. Therefore, the interest in certification is gradually increasing. However, so far this is due to the requirements of food processing companies and retail chains who wish to improve their competitive position by satisfying the changing expectations of Poles. On the other hand, the awareness that the certification also translates into the optimization of the functioning of the farm itself in terms of finance is still low. Producers also do not know how sustainable agriculture can affect the activities of the entire farm. It is one of the basic barriers influencing the interest in certificates among Polish farmers. That is why we decided to support the activities of the Polish Association of Sustainable Agriculture “ASAP” and become an active member of the organization. This allows us to exchange know-how with other members throughout the food chain and thus better share this knowledge with the farmers themselves.
Thank you for the interview!