Traditionally, the Indian diet has had a strong preference for fresh fruits, vegetables, pulses and meat with most of it being self-grown or raised. Our ancestral societies grew crops and reared animals for their own consumption and any excess production was bartered / sold in the neighbourhood and eventually in community markets. Cultivation techniques with the understanding towards sustainability of bio-network, involved using natural manure minimizing adverse effects to the planet and future generations.

In modern day, 2016, rapid urbanization has led to more people moving from agriculture as their primary source of livelihood. With more people moving to the cities the availability and quality of produce is in question as awareness about its source remains low. The face of the Indian agriculture has changed drastically over the last few decades with natural manure giving way to chemical based fertilizers and pesticides to achieve early and abundant produce. Increased use of pesticides results in toxic effects on the production potential of the land and health problems for the ultimate consumers of the products.

Observing the perceived ill effects of chemical based farming, the “organic food” phenomena is quickly gaining global scale. Broadly speaking, organic produce and other ingredients are grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms, or ionizing radiation. Animals that produce meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products do not take antibiotics or growth hormones.

Organic food industry in India

The Indian organic food market was ~INR 2,700 cr. (US$ 415 mn) in 2015, a mere 0.5% of the global market. The global organic food market at ~USD 90 bn in 2015 has been growing at a CAGR of ~12% for the last 14 years. The Indian organic food market is largely driven by exports to developed nations with exports having doubled from INR 1,155 cr. in 2012-13 to INR 2,100 cr. in 2014-15; however the vast domestic organic market remains largely untapped.

The Indian market has the potential to grow to above INR 50,000 cr. by 2025. Both export & domestic markets are crucial for this to happen. Various Indian states are looking to implement policies to advance the cause of organic agriculture with Sikkim taking the lead to become India’s first fully organic state in January, 2016 with 75,000 hectares certified organic. Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan have made significant progress to turn to organic farming.

Is it for real?

Various studies by the Crop Care Federation of India (CCFI), Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) and other agri-research institutes have found traces of chemical pesticides in organic produce over multi-year studies. These tests confirm the notion that organic farms do use pesticides to control pests.

As a result consumers of organic food are disillusioned and find it difficult to trust the myriad “organic” labels on the store shelf. Major organic providers have flouted FSSAI norms for labelling and displaying unscientific product information without receiving any flak from the regulator. The FSSAI has not booked any violator for mis-labelling / mis-branding over most of the last decade. This lack of regulation, standardization and enforcement of food safety standards has hurt the organic market.

Though there are various studies that highlight the benefit of organic food there is also a Stanford study highlighting that organic food is not necessarily healthier than conventionally grown food. It may be true that consuming truly organic food may prevent you from consuming pesticide / fertilizer residue but there is scant scientific information to support the thesis that natural manure residue is healthier for human consumption.

Are the higher prices justified?

Lower yields, certifications and converting soil for full-fledged organic crop production may take up to five years. As a result organic farmers target exports where they benefit from higher prices and the domestic market is not their focus. Prying on the perceived value of organic food many organic brands in India charge a premium of ~10% – 50% as compared to conventionally grown produce and yet there is no assurance that the produce is truly safe and healthy. Exorbitant pricing of organic branded produce has kept many potential consumers at bay due the serious affordability issues.

Complicated Certification Process

Globally, inspection and certification of organic foods is based on both statutory as well as stricter voluntary / civil certification norms. In India, statutory certification norms regulate organic exports only and not the domestic organic food industries.

India’s organic certification standards are set by the National Programme for Organic Production (NPOP), based on standards set by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture (IFOAM). A handful of certifying agencies (APEDA, Tea / Coffee board, spices boards) are accredited by NPOP. Farmers and producers must register with one of these agencies.

Once certified, these organic products are then sold with the logo ‘India Organic’. This expensive and complicated process deters even truly organic farmers from getting certified as they are barely able to make sustainable returns from this process.

The road ahead

While there is well-meaning intent for supporting the organic food revolution in India, but, a cautious approach with a deeper understanding of the entire farm to fork supply chain is essential. Blindly following the global organic food fad without studying the benefits, its effect on ecology and the feasibility of Indian certification process, may not be in the best interest of India’s agri-ecosystem. Stricter implementation of certification guidelines and standardized pricing will instil faith in the minds of the Indian consumer.

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