The government is drafting new rules to ensure that products carrying the tag “organic” are truly so. The move comes at a time when the market for organic products, which are grown without the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, is trebling each year and is expected to touch Rs 10,000 crore by 2020.
When the new rules are in place, regulators and hence, customers will be able to trace the origins of agricultural products and ensure if they were grown as per “organic” conditions. Products can then be labelled organic if the produce has adhered to specified quality control measures and demonstrate its traceability.
In India, the organic sector was largely unregulated and uncertified making it easier for dubious products to claim as authentic or organic. Organic products largely operate on 30 to 40 percent of premium compared to their regular counterparts and in many instances, lack even a brand name. Further, branded companies ten to overprice their products and demand a premium their products may not deserve.
“There is so much of skepticism when it comes to organic products in India. Because of the absence of authenticating norms, people think most of the brands that claim to be organic are actually not. Because of this, the authentic organic farmers bear huge losses, “said Navina Pathan, an organic food enthusiast and promoter based in Delhi.
But all is not bleak for the organic food industry in India as norms are gradually becoming more stringent. Currently estimated at $0.50 billion, the organic food market in India is estimated to jump to $1.36 billion by 2020, a study jointly conducted by industry body Assocham and private research firm TechSci Research shows.
To address the issue of traceability, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has specified labeling and certification standards. The draft regulation is aimed at establishing traceability at the producer level itself. It reads “any seller of organic food either exclusively or as a part of their retail merchandise shall display such food in a manner distinguishable from conventional food so that the consumers are not mislead”.
In a statement, Pawan Agarwal, CEO, FSSAI said that the food safety authority will soon come up with quantifiable metrics to accurately gauge the performance and efficiency of each food business operator vis-a-vis their resolution of consumer complaints.
When it comes to organic farming in India, Sikkim has shown the way. Declared the first Organic State of India by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2015, Sikkim State Co-operative Supply and Marketing Federation Ltd (SIMFED) recently launched its brand of organic products for the masses. SIMFED works with more than 40,000 farmers on almost 35,000 hectares of agricultural land in 10 states of the country. But even this flagship brand is struggling with the issues of traceability.
“Traceability is very important and the government needs to work towards it to bring in more strict norms. Right now, government has approved 25 to 30 food processing organizations to certify organic produce. There needs to be more awareness with regard to organic produce in India. It is costly because it is limited in number and has less demand,” said Devraj Dewan, General Manger, SIMFED.
In 2016, Sikkim’s state government made the use of chemical pesticides a criminal offence. A heavy penalty of Rs 100,000 and up to three months in jail awaits the offenders. Even though the state’s farmers have become 100 percent organic since the last year, the farmers seldom get their due. Since their produce is more expensive than other varieties in the local market, their products rarely find any takers.
“Traceability is important in organic food is because the reason why someone is buying something as organic is because the assumption is that they are grown in a certain way following certain guidelines. In India, certification is given by government approved third party certifiers.
One has to obtain a certificate at each stage of production. The food without any of these certificates is not considered organic. Even we do not call ourselves organic in that sense,” said Ishira Mehta, Co-founder, CropConnect, a company that has been building market based models to connect farmers to markets more efficiently since 2013.