Is organic food really organic in India?

There is a system in place to test whether farm lands, production processes and food products are following organic standards, and yet experts say that it is not entirely foolproof. What can we do to check how organic is fully organic? We took a dip in the dirt to figure it out.

 

Organic food is all about clean living and giving back to nature. We live in an age where pesticides and plastic are ubiquitous, but fresh apples that are non-lustrous or distorted are rare to find.


The organic food market in India touched a whopping 815 million USD in 2020. According to the market research firm IMARC, this is expected to grow at a CAGR of around 24 percent during 2021-2026.


The growing consciousness among people about the harmful effects of chemicals and synthetic fertilizers as well as the increase in accessibility to organic produce especially through ecommerce platforms are some of the factors contributing to the mushrooming demand.


Nachiket Udupa, who has been working in the field of sustainable agriculture for over a decade and is presently fulfilling the positions of Trustee at Gram Disha Trust and Director of Jaivik Haat reiterates this.


“There has always been a huge demand for organic items. However, now, people are willing to pay more for it.”


The foundation for the organic food market is laid by organic and sustainable farming which is not only limited to the renunciation of artificial chemicals, but also includes adherence to principles such as health, fairness, ecology and care.


Organic agriculture is one that sustains and enhances the health of all the elements in the natural ecosystem including plants, animals and humans. The organic farmers and other stakeholders involved in the supply chain ought to ensure equitable treatment and opportunities to everyone - from pickers, distributors to consumers. And finally, organic farming is bound to work in line with ecological cycles, and emulate, sustain them.


Kanchan Kumar interacting with an organic farmer. Image credit: Village Organica


Kanchan Kumar is the Founder of Village Organica, a Bengaluru-based startup working towards providing people with organic food products through their e-commerce platform. He elaborates on what really constitutes organic.


“A product can be called organic if and only if it is grown, processed and delivered naturally. For instance, the fruits or vegetables grown using hybrid seeds obtained from cross pollinated plants or spices produced using the application of machines generating high heat cannot be considered organic. This is because they involve artificial elements which in turn tend to reduce the nutrient content in the food,” notes Kanchan.

How do you know if your organic food is really organic?

With the organic food market expanding and the demand for chemical-free products spiralling, some farmers, manufacturers and brands are getting their products to pass off as organic even if they are actually not.


A study by Delhi-based Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (Icrier) in 2017, stated that the sector’s growth was mired in fraudulence. Very soon, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) rolled out a framework concerning the manufacturing, labelling and traceability of organic products with a view to check double standards. Yet, some malpractices continue to exist.


“There is a system and procedure in place to certify all the participants in the organic food market and establish their authenticity. Nonetheless, this is not entirely foolproof. A lot of middlemen are exploiting this situation and disguising even conventionally produced items as organic,” says Asokakumar V, a retired teacher and an active pillar of the Nalla Bhakshana Prasthanam (Good Food Movement), a local organic farmer-consumer market in Ponnani, Kerala.


Presently, there are two ways through which entities in the organic food production value chain whether they are seed suppliers, farmers (crop, livestock), processors, restaurants or brands can obtain organic certification. One is through the National Programme for Organic Production which is an arrangement established by the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA) under the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, Government of India. And, the other is a peer-to-peer method known as the Participatory Guarantee System (PGS).


Food products made by Organic Tattva. Image credit: Organic Tattva, Facebook


The NPOP certification system involves reviewing farming practices, production processes, storage facilities, transportation channels, packaging units, etc, by accredited and independent bodies. This is done with the aim of checking their compliance with organic standards before issuing the certificate.


On the contrary, in the PGS set-up all the parties evaluate, scrutinize and verify each other’s practices and take a call on whether to issue an organic certificate or not.

“Though there is a set process for testing farm produce, production processes and food products before issuing certificates, it is not fully reliable. There are a few loopholes. For example, if a representative from the lab visits an agricultural land to test the produce for the presence of chemicals, there is no sure shot way to tell if the nitrogen in the plant is from a fertiliser containing urea or cattle dung,” quips Nachiket.

In the interest of consumers

In 2019, a study called “Pesticides in agricultural runoffs affecting water resources: A study of Punjab (India)” showed an unreasonably high usage of pesticides in two villages of the Malwa region, namely, Arnetu of Patiala District and Wallipur of Ludhiana District, Punjab.


Not only was this contaminating the soil, nearby water resources and the groundwater, but also having a negative impact on the health of the residents.


Image credit: nrd, Unsplash


The prevalence of cancer and hepatitis C was found to be extremely high among villagers. Several cases of spontaneous abortions, premature births and delayed developmental milestones among children were also observed. Albeit no direct association between the trends could be established in the study, the results exhibited that heavy metal and pesticide exposure to be the potential risk factors for ill health.


So, there is a sense of awareness about the overall health benefits of organic foods and hence people are willing to pay a premium for it. Today, most food and edible items are available in the organic market - from pulses, honey, spices, oil to even tea and coffee. Despite all this, there is no unequivocal way to figure out if they are truly organic or not.


“One of the things consumers should definitely do before purchasing the products is check for organic labels and logos - India Organic, PGS-India Green and Jaivik Bharat. They also need to make an effort to do some research about the source of the item and try to find answers to questions like - who produced it, where does it come from, and so on. This does not guarantee that they will be 100 percent organic, but it is the closest they can get,” explains CR Patil, Professor of Agriculture and Microbiology at the Institute of Organic Farming, University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad, Karnataka.


Expectations from the government

As of 31 March, 2021 the total area under organic certification process in India was around 43,39,184 ha including both the cultivable area and wild harvest collection. The total production from this was estimated to be a staggering 34,96,800 MT.


A part of this can be attributed to the support being offered by the Government of India in the form of various schemes and initiatives like Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana, Capital Investment Subsidy Scheme, National Mission on Oilseeds and Oil Palm and National Food Security Mission among others.


Image credit: Organic Farm India, Facebook


Even so, the backing being provided to farmers shifting from conventional to organic farming seems to be insufficient.

“It takes almost three years for a farmer to convert a chemical-ridden piece of land into an organic one. And, there is a lot of time and effort that goes into this. Besides, during the process of conversion, the crop yield tends to decline to a large extent, thereby affecting the farmer’s income. The government needs to address this and offer more incentives to encourage the farming community,” adds Kanchan.

The Union government provides subsidies for chemical fertilisers upto approximately Rs 70,000 Rs 80,000 crore annually. The subsidies for bio-fertilizers come nowhere close to this amount. Cultivators who want to practice natural farming do not have a level playing field and lack adequate budgetary support.


“The Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana promotes natural farming through the adoption of organic villages and a cluster-based approach with PGS certification. However, the budget for it is measly and so is the overall budget for organic farming in the Union Budget,” says Nachiket.


 

Edited by Aparna Chandrashekhar

 

Some resources and links to help you learn more about the organic food market:

  1. Going organic: Here’s all you should know about the novel trend

  2. Sustainable Agriculture: What we know and how to scale up