31 January 2019

The Farming of Trust: Organic Certification in Uttarakhand

In the Doon Valley of the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, the state government has supported certified organic agriculture since the early 2000s. Although practices of document keeping and inspections required by organic certification were intended to make agrarian practices legible and transparent, in practice they often failed to do so. Shaila Seshia Galvin, who has explored this issue in an article published last November in the American Ethnologist, shares her reflections below.

Can you explain the context in which organic farmers in Uttarakhand became obliged to regularly document their agricultural activities in diaries?

Since organic certification was introduced in Uttarakhand in the year 2003, organic farmers have been required to keep farmers’ diaries as a record of all their agricultural inputs and activities. This isn’t unique to Uttarakhand. Documents, like the farmers’ diaries, are a vital requirement of third-party organic certification around the world. This is because diaries, and other farm-level documents, are the primary written record that extension workers and certification inspectors consult when evaluating whether farmers are complying with national and international standards for organic agriculture.

In Uttarakhand, farmers’ diaries obliged farmers to record information about different inputs, tools and activities related to seeds and planting, composting, crop treatments, livestock and veterinary medicines, and so on. In the case of compost, for example, farmers would be required to document which type of compost was used, from where it was purchased or how it was prepared, in what quantities and on which dates it was applied. The detail required by these diaries was really quite extraordinary. One of my interlocutors described them to me as a “mirror of the field” and, indeed, if details of agricultural inputs and practices are recorded in this way, the diaries would produce a fairly clear picture of certain aspects of the everyday work and practices of organic farming.

Why did you decide to study this regime of documentation? What was your hypothesis?

I was struck right away by the importance of documents for certification and the level of detail demanded by this regime, and I wanted to better understand the practices of producing these documents as well as their role and significance in organic certification. But as I conducted my fieldwork, primarily between 2005 and 2008, my hypothesis shifted.

In my initial encounters with the certification process and documentary practices, it seemed to me that this regime worked to make agriculture legible and transparent for certification officials. It did this by taking temporally and spatially diffuse agrarian practices and obliging farmers to inscribe them, contain them if you will, in a set of inspectable documents. As James Scott has argued, legibility in various forms is an important dimension of modern state power. And so, along these lines, at first it seemed to me that organic certification also operated as a regime of legibility, enabling the surveillance of agrarian populations by the state and private sector institutions. To some extent this hypothesis was borne out – the expansion of this sort of surveillance power can be found in the introduction of an electronic platform launched by the Government of India in 2012 to manage, right down to the farm level, the different stages of the certification process. This system, called TraceNet, extends the surveillance powers of the national state over India’s organic farmers in a much more direct way than has been the case in the past.

But over time, I found that there was also much more to certification processes than surveillance and legibility. More often than not, documents like farmers’ diaries did not work as they were intended, usually because farmers simply did not write much in their diaries. So, because certification documents were often only partially complete, the regime did not generate legibility or transparency. As a result, certification inspectors could not really rely on the diaries.

This proved to be an important pivot point in my research, because it opened up a set of puzzles and questions that I had not previously considered. I became curious about what actually sustained certification, about what enabled it to proceed given the elusiveness – and even the impossibility – of transparency and legibility. If documents like farmers’ diaries did not yield details of agricultural practices, as they were supposed to do, how did certification work in practice? In other words, on what did certification rely, if it could not rely on documents? These sorts of questions led me to explore more closely the work of certification inspections and of how inspectors understood their work.

Is it this exploration that led you to argue that “rather than producing certainty and transparent knowledge, certification practices may generate forms of uncertainty that compel, and rely for their resolution on, sentiments of trust”?

Yes, in principle, the documentary and inspections regime of organic certification is intended to make agricultural practices knowable, by making them legible and inspectable. In this sense, certification practices are supposed to also produce certainty. It is worth noting that the idea of certainty, of producing certainty, is at the etymological centre of certification – in its Latin origin, “to certify” is “to make certain”.

What I observed in Uttarakhand, however, is that the two pillars of organic certification – documents and inspections – frequently did not make much certain at all. As I mentioned earlier, often little was written down in diaries, and during inspections discrepancies sometimes also arose in accounts of agricultural practice given by different members of the farming household. So, for certification inspectors, the very process of carrying out certification generated a great deal of uncertainty. I should add here that this finding – that uncertainty proliferates in systems intended to generate certainty – is one that scholars working on issues of audit and quality assurance in other regions of the world, notably in western Europe and the United States, have also noted. So, this is not something particularly unique to Uttarakhand, or India, or even to places where certification has been recently introduced, but a phenomenon that is observable in a range of settings around the world.

In these circumstances of prolific uncertainties, inspectors expressed how sentiments of trust became important for their work because they offered a way of atoning for all that could not be known. Confronted with limits on what they could discover in documents, inspect in fields or probe in interviews, certification inspectors came to understand organic farming as “the farming of trust”, or, in Hindi, viśvās kī khetī. Trust, viśvās, enabled them to reckon with the impossibility of complete knowledge, as their work “to make certain” necessarily demanded the resolution of lingering uncertainty.

This kind of trust, which proved to be extraordinarily important for inspectors and other officials involved in certification, is very different from the ways in which trust has typically been understood. We tend to associate trust with personal relationships, shared histories or values, ties of reciprocity and obligation, social capital, and so on. A deep and rich body of scholarship across different disciplines testifies to the many ways in which trust works along these lines. What I observed in Uttarakhand, however, is that sentiments of trust also arise from, and because of, intractable uncertainty and unknowability. By looking at how documentary and inspections practices do (and don’t) work, I show in this article how trust emerges as a managerial sentiment necessary for certification and as a crucial response to uncertainty. In this way, my ethnography of certification processes led me to develop a different account of trust, and the processes through which it emerges in contemporary systems of audit and certification.

What are the implications of your research for understandings of certification?

Although I would not want to suggest that the findings of my research in Uttarakhand are easily generalisable or transposable to other contexts, I do think that they raise questions that extend beyond the immediate issue of organic certification. Principally, with this research I hope to have demonstrated the scope that exists for further re-thinking, and extending, our understandings of audit and certification processes, as well as the relations among certainty and uncertainty, transparency and trust. My research also challenges a prevalent idea that trust is somehow an outcome of certification, that certification produces trust. Much public and policy discourse centres on this premise, that certification and audit are necessary in order to create or maintain trust. We see this in the proliferation of certification and audit across many sectors, and increasingly varied domains of social and economic life. At the same time, critics of what Michael Power has called the “audit explosion” argue that these systems are replacing and eroding trust.

My research pushes against both premises by showing how trust is integral to the working of certification itself, not simply an outcome of it; and, moreover, that trust need not be based on personalised relations, but can be generated in the midst of opacities, uncertainties, and even doubt. The implications of this may lead us to ask questions about the nature of trust that is ostensibly the outcome of certification, as well as the nature of trust that becomes important within certification and audit systems. Indeed, a second, related implication of this research is that close and careful attention needs to be paid to these different natures of trust, and particularly, to how trust of different kinds emerges, operates, is shaped and formatted, through institutional processes like audit and certification.

Full citation of the article:
Seshia Galvin, Shaila. “The Farming of Trust: Organic Certification and the Limits of Transparency in Uttarakhand, India.” American Ethnologist 45, no. 4: 495–507 (November 2018). doi:10.1111/amet.12704.

Interview by Marc Galvin, Research Office.