02/02/2018 11:40 AM IST | Updated 02/02/2018 11:41 AM IST

Helping Indian Farmers Go Organic, One Step at A Time

If there is one thing that the world seems to be obsessing on right now it is about the food we eat. We have stopped looking for the exotic (not altogether, but to a large extent) and are seeking the local. Seasonality has become a catch word and farmers' markets are seeing more footfalls. In the midst of it all, we are also trying to get back to being organic in the way we produce our food. And that means encouraging our farmers to make this change. And an easy task it is not!

Ruth Dsouza Prabhu

At the recently concluded Tasting India Symposium in New Delhi, there were several animated discussions over working towards a sustainable food culture. The question of Indian farming going organic was highly debated.

Meera Mishra, Country Coordinator, International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), India Office said that there are 3 fundamental reasons why organic food is being promoted around the world.

1. We want good quality food to be provided to people; food that is free of toxic and chemical residue.

2. We want to improve the health of the soil which is also good for the environment. This comes from a long history of having promoted chemicals for enhancement and suffering the consequences.

3. We want farmers to get better remuneration for their work. And this is the most important factor. Unless they produce, we cannot have anything.

With this in mind, she went on to say that there are therefore three pillars of organic food, the producers, the organic trading companies and the consumers.

Ruth Dsouza Prabhu

Explaining what it means for a farmer to go organic and from a producer's perspective, Aparna Rajagopal, of Beejom, a natural farm in NCR along with a cattle preservation center explains, "When you expect farmers to grow food without chemicals or go organic – for the first 3 years they have tough time with weeds. There is a loss of balance in the soil eco-system, pests increase and there is lots of labour involved to manage this. In such a scenario, the current certification system can be a burden. There needs to be some hand holding involved. In trying to make a farmer organic, you are rather punishing him in the bargain".

The certifications referred to here are the likes of the National Programme for Organic Production (NPOP), which is run by the Agricultural & Processed Foods Export Development Authority (APEDA) of the Ministry of Commerce and the PGS-India programme is run by the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmer Welfare.

"As consumers, we are always wondering how one can tell whether the produce we are getting is actually organic or not," says Gaurav Bedi, Manager (Sourcing), I Say Organic. Speaking from an organic retailer perspective, he adds, "We have not had a standard domestically till now for organic food. This void has been taken into consideration by the government now".

What Gaurav is referring to is that as of a year ago, the Food Safety and Standards Association of India (FSSAI) has taken up the lead in organic certification in the country. It has brought under its umbrella, the NPOP and the PGS-India programs. By doing this is has given organic certification the legal tooth it did not possess to penalize non-compliance.

FSSAI CEO, Pawan Kumar Agarwal adds that they have also come up with an organic food integrated database. "The idea is that all organic food sold in the country has to find a place in this database. This is based on data collected by APEDA now serves as a common one for the country.

Ruth Dsouza Prabhu

Now while this works really well in putting things in perspective at the retail and even the consumer level, there still remains the question of feasibility for farmers.

"Considering current situations, the cost of being certified organic is not really conducive to the average farmer," asserts Meera. "The second aspect she pointed out was being able to reach a niche market. "With the current retailing scene, the cost to the farmer to create organic produce is at a mark-up of 5% to 15%," Meera points out. "How to make it feasible for farmers is the main question to deal with".

Gaurav has a suggestion of an independent third organization that can take responsibility for a set of farmers in a region and ensure their produce is organic and then collected and delivered. "This can then help moderate the pricing of organic produce, making it feasible for farmers to go down that path," Gaurav believes. He points out however that for an independent farmer this may not be possible – getting certified, transporting produce to the market etc., all hikes the price of the produce and that is where the problem can lie for marginal farmers".

Aparna strongly feels that the onus on the organic farmer is way too high. "If you want them to turn organic, you will have to give them a long rope. Today we only label produce organic or non-organic. We need to consider grading it for farmers who are going organic. They don't use topical chemicals, but these will exist in the water, soil and air around. We are surrounded by farmers using chemicals. So while a farmer may be trying to go organic, there are limitations. We need to grade produce according to levels of food testing. We need to give farmers a better platform, free of immense paperwork and one that is decentralized leaving no scope for bribery".

Pawan Kumar Agarwal says, "We understand that the path to maintaining the integrity of organic food in the country is going to be a difficult one. We are training food safety officers to take samples, how to conduct tests; we are coming out with manuals for retailers on how to sell organic food. All food businesses require FSSAI certification. Organic certification is a horizontal regulation which would mean that different kinds of food available in the market will have an organic variant. Accommodating this difference is what we are working towards and we have our work cut out of us".

He also adds here that there is now a special clause in the draft FSSAI (Organic Foods) Regulations, 2017 which will come into effect on July 1, 2018 stating that small farmers need not get their crops certified. "This is a specific provision that can be inserted into the certification processes," he explains. "They can even sell directly to the consumer".

Considering the number of farmers we have in the country, the role of organic certification definitely needs evaluation of the right sort. More importantly, the credibility of the entire value chain system needs to be looked into as well. An overall system of caring – for neighbouring farms, growers, pollinators and all those who make up the entire farming system also needs to come into play. Transparency, progress and easily-understandable processes are important. We are making moves in the right direction and hope that the organic sector grows and flourishes.