(NaturalNews) With so much uncertainty surrounding the integrity and future of the certified organic label, grassroots alternatives that offer fresh new ways of identifying healthy, chemical-free foods are gradually gaining ground. One new program, known as Certified Naturally Grown (CNG), is proving to be particularly beneficial for small-scale family farmers that are often unable to pay exorbitant fees to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for organic certification, but that still want to let their customers know about their exceptional growing methods.
Superior to certified organic in many ways, CNG is a farmer-driven certification program that adheres to many of the same standards as certified organic -- synthetic herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, hormones, and genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) are never used by CNG-certified farmers. But CNG goes a few steps further by not certifying processed foods, for instance, and by requiring that CNG-certified livestock have primary access to open space and pasture.
Beyond this, CNG caters particularly to small-scale farmers that have a much harder time complying with the laborious paperwork and bureaucratic requirements of the certified organic program, which were designed primarily for medium and large-scale farms. Intended to complement the certified organic program, CNG allows vendors who sell clean food products at farmers markets and roadside farm stands, for instance, to communicate with their customers that they adhere to organic growing standards without actually being certified organic.
"Certified Naturally Grown is a grassroots alternative to certified organic for direct-market farmers and beekeepers who use natural methods and want a way to communicate with their customers about their growing practices," explains CNG Executive Director Alice Varon about the merits of the program. "One of the things I like a lot about Certified Naturally Grown is that it's an organization of the farmers who participate, and while we have a small staff that keeps the trains running, it only works because the farmers are so committed to what it stands for."
CNG farmers keep each other accountable to meeting standards, which fosters community
Varon refers, of course, to CNG's unique Participatory Guarantee System (PGS), which enables certified CNG farmers to "peer review" the farms of other certified CNG farmers, and hold each other accountable. Since everyone involved in the program already holds high regard for natural growing methods that respect the earth and promote vibrant health, it only makes sense to utilize the program in this way to foster community and build a wide network of rapport among like-minded folks.
"Our members farm without any synthetic inputs, just like organic farmers," adds Varon. "But we're different in that we rely on peer inspections, and we feel this strengthens the farming community because it creates rich opportunities for farmers to learn from each other and share techniques and build a greater support network among the local farming community."
"That's really what inspires us -- farmers getting together, sharing their information and knowledge with each other and supporting each other. So it's really more than an inspection process, it's about building community."