Is the two certification system harming India’s organic food market?
When some farmers in Tondoli, 35 km from Aurangabad,Maharshtra, decided to form a group in 2000 to practice organic agriculture and sell their produce, they knew they had a long road ahead of them, particularly in convincing customers.With the help of the Institute for Integrated Rural Development (IIRD), which has been promoting
organic farming in the region, they brought consumers from Aurangabad to show that they do not use chemical fertilisers or pesticides on their lands, which is why what they grow deserves a higher price.
Tondoli is in the semi-arid, drought prone Marathwada region and only 2% of its cultivable area is irrigated. This means the village has to make judicious use of water by growing crops native to the region and preserve the health of the soil. The villagers are convinced that organic farming is essential to that. Kailash Garad, a farmer in the group, says they get up to twice the price of inorganic vegetables and 20-25% more in pulses.
The 20-member farmers’ group, which grows tur-dal (pigeon pea), maize, millets, vegetables, wheat and cotton, does not get its fields vetted by a certifying agency. As small farmers owning between two and five acres each, they cannot afford one, so they follow another, cheaper system, which has been gaining ground across the developing world over the past few years.
The Green Seals
Since 2001, the government had been promoting organic farming through third party certification under the National Programme for Organic Production (NPOP). It was only in 2015 that the present dispensation officially recognised PGS.
The NPOP, which is run by the Ministry of Commerce, was originally meant for exports and requires adherence to stringent standards. There are 24 accredited certifying agencies that verify farms, storages and processing units. Products certified organic by them carry the India Organic logo. In 2015-16, the latest period for which data is available, there were 1.5 million hectares (1 hectare = 2.47 acres) of cultivable land certified under NPOP. In the same year, India exported a fifth of its certified organic production of 1.35 million tonnes.
The PGS-India programme, meanwhile, is implemented by the Ministry of Agriculture through the National Centre of Organic Farming (NCOF). Presently, there are 2.1 lakh farmers under the initiative, owning 1.5 lakh hectares, which is just a tenth of the third-party-certified area.
Produce from farms that are being converted to organic carries the PGS-India Green logo during the transition period, and after three years of not using any chemicals, the farm will be eligible for the PGS-India Organic symbol.
According to a recent report by the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) and the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), India had 5,85,200 organic farmers in 2015, more than any other country and a quarter of the world total.
Still, organic farming accounts for just 1.7% of India’s cultivated area. The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) last month released draft regulations on organic certification, the first of its kind, which recognise both the third-party system and PGS. Chandra Bhushan, deputy director-general of the Centre for Science and Environment, says India is unique in that the government has taken the lead in organic certifications, while in the rest of the world it is left to autonomous bodies.
“Fake organic products are not a health issue. It’s only about false claims. There are a lot of food products claiming they are 0% trans fat or 0% cholesterol. There is no mandatory certification for that.” Pawan Agarwal, chief executive of the FSSAI, counters that by saying even mislabelling falls within the Food Safety Act of 2006. “We are not getting into certification ourselves. We are only recognising certifications.” He adds that if there are more valid certification systems in the future, even those might be included.
PGS vs Third Party
Having two systems comes with its own hitches. Bhushan says there is no linkage between the two certification systems. For instance, exporters cannot process foods with PGS-certified ingredients because developed markets like the US, the biggest for organic products, and the European Union do not accept PGS yet. But Krishan Chandra, director, NCOF, says over a hundred countries are willing to trade in PGS products.
“Mauritius, Nepal and Taiwan are willing to import from us.” PGS certification will soon cover not just farms but also food processing, he adds. Sikkim, which last year became India’s first state to become fully organic, wants its land producing exportable commodities to remain under third-party certification, while introducing PGS in other areas.
Third-party certification is normally done for groups of 500 farmers each, and fields of 35-45 farmers are tested in each group. Sandeep Bhargava, CEO of OneCert Asia, one of the largest certifiers, says it costs between Rs 150 and Rs 500 per farmer per year for certification and the cost of internal audits and documentation could be Rs 2,500 per farmer. However,he notes, the costs are defrayed by companies and through government schemes. Joy Daniel of the IIRD says in PGS if the contribution of volunteers working with NGOs were to be monetised, the cost could be Rs 1,000 per farmer in the firstthree years and a tenth of that there on.
Supporters of PGS question the veracity of third-party certification, given its small sample sizes N Balasubramanian, CEO of Sresta Natural Bioproducts, says the company foots the cost of certification of the farmers it sources from. Sresta, which sells the 24 Mantra Organic brand of products, is India’s largest organic foods company, accounting for 28% of the Rs 3.2 billion packaged organic foods and beverages market in 2016.
Since 40% of its business comes from exports, which necessitates third-party certification, it follows the same for the domestic market.
“The draft regulations are a step in the right direction but PGS will have to be handled with care,” says Balasubramanian, adding that a dual certification system might create some confusion in the minds of consumers initially. Shrikant Sharma, CEO of Sanjeevani Agro Foods, another organic foods company, says they”Consumers don’t believe PGS as it is self-certification.” Madhav Pandit, who used to be with the Maharashtra Organic Farming Federation, says PGS’ biggest failure is its inability to create a market for the produce.
“Whatever prices farmers get is because of their own efforts and individual identity and not because of PGS.”Kalyan Paul, president of the PGS Organic Council, says while small retail stores are open to selling PGS products, it’s not easy convincing big retail chains. Future Group, which owns Big Bazaar and Foodhall, a premium store, and Godrej Nature’s Basket did not respond to requests for comment.
But Seshu Kumar, head of merchandising, Bigbasket, an online grocer, says the company spent a lot of time trying to decide where to source its organic produce from. “We met people working in the organic field who believed PGS is more attuned to the Indian farming conditions and it can get a lot of farmers into the system.”
While Bigbasket sources vegetables and fruits from around 100 PGS-certified small farmers in Mysuru and Gokak in Karnataka, for its in-house brand of organic rice and pulses, it has tied up with a couple of third-party-certified farmers’ cooperatives in the state. There are sound arguments to be made to favour thirdparty certification over PGS and vice versa.
But both are here to stay — while exporters will always prefer third-party certification, given the conflict of interest in farmers certifying each other in PGS, the only way for small organic farmers producing fruits and vegetables to have some sort of label is through PGS. The need of the hour is for both systems to be linked seamlessly so that India’s efforts to promote organic farming do not get lost in a tussle over which logo should be on the back of a pack.