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Is that an organic carrot? A look at why it’s still so hard to tell

There are more organic farmers, more buyers. More government funding too. Why then is the movement still flailing? The short answer: It’s all about the supply chain.

more lifestyle Updated: Dec 02, 2017 22:16 IST
Rachel Lopez
Rachel Lopez
Hindustan Times
Organic,Food,Farm
India has plenty of government schemes for the organic grower, few for the supplier. Bio-fertiliser is subsidised, there are easy loans for setting up a farm. But there are no incentives for building a fleet of refrigerated vans or brokering deals with supermarkets. Much of the supply chain infrastructure that exists is linked to large companies, which export for higher margins. (Getty Images)

On paper, India’s organic movement looks fantastic. We’re home to almost 6 lakh organic farmers, the highest tally in the world. We rank ninth in terms of area under organic agriculture. This financial year, we’ll spend a record Rs 350 crore on organic farming.

Our educated middle class is already convinced that food grown with pesticides, hormones, chemical fertilisers and bio-engineered genes harms both the body and the earth. All the farms in one state, Sikkim, are now organic. And urban organic farmers are all over the place, smiling out of news reports about how they quit their corporate jobs to grow tomatoes.

Yet, in bazaars, supermarkets and restaurants, it’s hard to find certified organic fruit and vegetables. A shop’s ‘organic’ section stocks tea, spices, honey, even organic peanut butter and chocolate – the smallest components of our meals. Most product labels carry leafy logos. But no can quite recall one from memory, let alone explain what it represents.

Why hasn’t the party reached our plates? Because India’s organic revolution, well-meaning and steadily growing, is a bit of a mess.

Sure we have the most farmers. But the vast majority are on tiny holdings, whose output isn’t big enough to push up production numbers. The acreage that puts us in the top 10 constitutes only 1.1% of our fields. In contrast, 11 nations have 10% or more organic farmland. Our Rs 350 crore record pales against this year’s Rs 70,000 crore spend on chemical fertiliser subsidies. Sikkim’s journey took 15 years.

And those urban farmers from the headlines? There simply aren’t enough of them to make a difference. Meanwhile, India’s largest organic producers, companies with thousands of farmers and hectares, sell the bulk of their processed food abroad, where profits are higher.

But domestic interest is growing. In Goa, Karan Manral and his wife, Yogita Mehra, have been helping local farmers go organic and find buyers. “I get 25 calls a month in Goa from yoga studios, wellness farms, restaurants, and families who want produce. I can barely meet the demand,” he says.

Manral’s challenge echoes one that India’s farmers, sellers and even policymakers increasingly face: how to get fresh organic food from growers to buyers quickly, safely, cheaply and consistently.

“I feel I’m standing atop a hill, with the farmer and the consumer on either side. Neither can see the other,” Manral says.

Seed capital

Organic fruit and vegetables need a separate supply chain – down to their own delivery trucks and crispers in the local supermarket – because you can’t label every cabbage.

In cities, weekly farmers’ markets have met with some success. But they’re less convenient than the anytime trip to the bazaar or supermarket. There are also subscription services that home-deliver farm-fresh greens. But you can’t choose, or even know in advance, which veggies you’ll get.

The lack of assured sales is probably why farmers prefer to grow produce for companies that will process them into non-perishable, high-profit foods: mango jam, kale chips, ready-to-drink soup and white turmeric powder.

Surya Shastry, who heads the Bengaluru-based company, Phalada Agro, sells everything from organic tur dal to pasta sauce online. His company was started in 1999 and catered to exports until he found enough local demand to launch his processed-food brand, Pure & Sure, in 2011.

The trick to getting farmers to go organic and stay organic, he believes, is to make it financially worth their while. “Our focus has been to first create a market and a robust distribution channel,” he says. “If a farmer’s yield does not reach you and me, even for a year, he will go back to his old ways. We have 1,500 farmers and 8,000 acres – small for a company as old as ours. But keeping them engaged is what builds sustainability.”

Processed-food companies even help their farmers get organic certification from the government – expensive, but globally recognised proof that the yield was obtained without chemical shortcuts (see box).

But those who grow for direct consumption, typically the small farms at the edges of your city, have a tougher task of proving their produce is clean. They end up clustering to qualify for accreditation, get little expert advice and even after certification, struggle to find buyers themselves since there are no agricultural produce market committees set up to channel organic food into bazaars.

“From the beginning, the government’s focus has been on exports rather than its own people,” says environmentalist Claude Alvares, director of the Organic Farming Association of India who helped organise the Organic World Congress (OWC) in November in Greater Noida. “It took us nearly 15 years to develop domestic certification, and this has cost us credibility.”

At the inspection and organic certification firm Ecocert-India, Amol Nirban, a regional sales manager, says they’re now in the process of certifying an organic pineapple farm in Meghalaya – “the best quality you can find”.

But the logistics of delivering them inexpensively to even Delhi are still proving close to impossible. “There are plenty of government schemes for the organic grower, few for the supplier,” he says. Bio-fertiliser is subsidised, there’s help to build a compost pit. Loans to set up a farm come easier too. But there are no incentives for anyone building a separate fleet of refrigerated vans or brokering deals with supermarkets.

Green turn

The world is intensifying its efforts to convert more land to organic farming. This isn’t fuelled by the desire to eat better. It’s fuelled by fear that soon, there won’t be enough to eat at all.

Decades of fertiliser and pesticide use (to grow the high-yield hybrid seeds that fed the exploding population) have created farms where the soil simply can’t regenerate itself. A UN report predicts that by 2050, 33 years from now, we may have 2.1 billion more mouths to feed.

For many, the salvation rhetoric is to go organic – rotating multiple crops on the same field, using natural pest-control and fertiliser, and adapting to climate to keep the soil useful. The catch: Large scale conversion costs money. “And it takes a while before soil regenerates, before farms create their own compost and pollination and recover their costs of production,” says Jacob Zachariah, who grows fruit and vegetables along with his wife Mini Pant at their 12-acre farm in Gholwad, outside Mumbai..

It’s a long wait. Even organic farmers find it hard to eat organic food at every meal. For Zacharia and Pant, having an on-site orchard means there’s always enough fruit for two, but they have organic veggies only four days a week, organic rice twice a week. “Eating all organic is only if it’s available and can be sourced easily,” Pant says.

We must yield

But things are changing. Alvares recalls starting out in the 1980s, when neither farmers nor officials were interested in the issue. In contrast, the Union minister for Agriculture inaugurated the OWC, and top-ranking state ministers attended. “Ministers used to ask ‘What does organic mean?’, now they ask ‘How do we go organic?’” he says.

At the Congress, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India, announced new steps towards making organic food easier to buy, sell and understand. It launched new regulations for safety and standards for the category, a common logo to identify organic food across both certifications (it comes into effect next year) and a portal help consumers verify the authenticity of organic foods.

“The initiatives will not only help build consumer confidence, but also accelerate the growth of trade and commerce in organic foods within India and abroad,” says Pawan Agarwal, CEO, FSSAI.

India’s first university for organic studies is being planned in Gujarat and Alvares estimates that over the next five years, more urban consumers will take an interest in how their food is grown. Meanwhile, says Manral, the bulk of our farmers are in need of high-quality knowledge dissemination, to unlearn the chemical-heavy techniques of the past.

A better assessment of India’s organic footprint is needed, says Alvarez, one that accounts for the country’s many uncertified organic holdings, tribal and regional crops, and traditional knowledge.

Zachariah hopes that urban consumers make a start by committing to eat fresh, seasonal food grown within a 60 km radius of their city so they’re better able to track the source. But Manral has an even simpler suggestion: “Create a market for organic food, make it reach people consistently, get people to trust it and the problem will take care of itself.”

First Published: Dec 02, 2017 21:20 IST