Despite paying as much as double the price, many health-conscious consumers who think they've gone organic really haven't. Information obtained by Crop Care Federation of India (CCFI) under the Right to Information Act proves that farms that claim to be organic regularly use chemical pesticides to protect their crops, yet market and sell their produce under the organic tag.
Evidence of this practice came to light after information from Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), New Delhi, disclosed its findings on pesticide residues in organic vegetables. According to the IARI laboratory analysis, 33% of organic products sold in Delhi over the last two years contained pesticides. The organic vegetable samples were collected from some popular organic retail stores in Delhi between January 2012 and October 2014.
The test results only proved long-held suspicion that organic farms do use pesticides to control pests and disease and sell the products as organic in order to gain from the premium prices. The vegetables that tested positive for pesticides included brinjal, ladyfinger, tomato, capsicum, chillies, cabbage, cauliflower, coriander and green peas. Many were found to contain residue from multiple pesticides.
So how do you navigate the shelves of 'organic' produce and products, when the tags are confusing and standardisation not strictly regularised or enforced? Consumers of organic food say they find companies they can trust, and then stick with them.
"I have been a consumer of organic food for about four years and I trust just the farmer's market and Nature's Basket stores," says entrepreneur Sabishi Shankar, 45. "Only with brands like Tata and Godrej can you be sure that you are getting your money's worth."
In fact, the dearth of reliable brands and sources is a major deterrent for those seeking to go organic. "If there were more stores that I could trust, I would switch to organic products entirely," says artist Aahana Mulla, 28. "Unfortunately, there are only one or two places in Mumbai where I can trust the tag, and their offerings are limited."
Experts stress certification as a means of confirming the authenticity of organic food products. India Organic certifies some organically farmed food products in India. The certification marks that an organic food product conforms to the national standards for organic products, established by the certification in 2000. These standards ensure that the product and raw materials used are grown organically and that no chemical fertilisers, pesticides or induced hormones have been used. The certification is issued by testing centres accredited by the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA) under the National Program for Organic Production of the Government of India.
"Consumers need to read labels carefully," says Kavita Mukhi, founder of the farmer's market in Mumbai. Though there is no specific regulation in India to punish those who commit this offence, the Food Safety and Standards Act of 2006 has a broad provision, which defines "misbranded food" as an article of food offered or promoted for sale with false, misleading or deceptive claim upon the label of the package. The Act imposes a penalty of up to Rs 3 lakh on those found guilty of selling misbranded food.
But this is a long shot. To date, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has not penalised a single violator for selling fake organic products. Companies should work to promote transparency, says Adrienne Thadani, founder of Fresh and Local, a non-profit organisation that works to promote organic food in the Mumbai. They organise workshops twice a month where they take customers to the farm where they grow fruits and vegetables and spend an entire day with them, discussing and answering all their questions. "More producers need to connect directly with customers. Creating awareness among users is the only way to ensure that people get to enjoy the benefits of real organic food," says Thadani.