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Moneylife » Life » Public Interest » How organic is your natural food?

How organic is your natural food?

Veeresh Malik | 15/11/2011 11:25 AM | 

For the domestic market in India, anybody and everybody happily places a sticker saying ‘organic’ on anything they want, after all this NPOP, NSOP and certifying agency system!

As with most such things, it starts with anecdotal personal experiences, and then it moves into research. This, therefore, was no different . . .
For years now, one has been keeping one’s eyes open for organic agri-products while travelling around the country. It has usually, been a pleasure as well as an education to look deeper into such discoveries, meeting people. They are really trying to keep pesticides and chemicals out of the growth chain, including the water being used. Typically, this has been an open experience, with people proud to show off their efforts. This is true from the Sunderbans to Mountain Kerala to Garhwal to Jodhpur, and more. However, of late, one has also observed the proliferation of signboards pointing to ‘certified’ organic farms, which on enquiring do not permit visitors inside.
Retail outlets in larger cities now devote increasingly more space, especially, in affluent areas for ‘organic’ products. Spices, tea, coffee, coconut, cereals, eggs, vegetables, fruits, juices and more—pretty much everything now has an ‘organic’ option available on the shelves, and it seems to cost a lot more too. The problem lies in the fact that somewhere in the fine print you can spot ‘like organic’ or ‘nature organic’ or even ‘organic approved’. Whether processed and packaged or sold fresh, there is still no clarity on the subject. So, it is pretty much about trusting the seller and parting with more money.
What has become even more visible of late is the term ‘organic’ being pasted on or over-printed onto the packaging of processed food imported into India. It is increasingly obvious that the original label, which may be in another language, has nothing to do with the product being organic. It has been added on by some entity usually as unverifiable as the sticker with the alleged importer’s provenance next to it.
There is more. Packaged breakfast ‘cereals’, amongst the most industrialised and mis-nomenclatured of all readymade convenience foods ever invented, are an example. Eggs in pretty cartons with little holograms pasted on are also promising in not just organic qualities, but also yellower yolks and browner skins.
So what’s really organic, to start with, in India? To start with, legally only those food products, which have had their production certified as per the National Programme for Organic Production (NPOP) as laid down by the Government of India, can use the term ‘organic’. Requirements vary by crop and product. They require intensive record-keeping and tracking, non-usage of a variety of chemicals for a number of years, and strict segregation, as well as, control at all stages in the production chain. This would include even the transportation and storage aspects—a truck used to carry non-organic produce, for example, would not be valid for organic food without serious cleaning up—organically. If a cold storage or vegetable or fruit shop does not clearly segregate organic from non-organic, then certification is at risk.
(This has, incidentally, been a mixed blessing for the smaller farmers. On one hand, they can join ‘groups’ which have moved into organic farming, thereby sharing costs and methods, and on the other hand, have to now deal with a ‘system’ that is as yet far from perfect).
Next, is an accreditation system—there are dozens of such certifying agencies in India. Obviously, where there is going to be competition of this sort, there is going to be room to manoeuvre.  So every, now and then, there are reports of such agencies indulging in fraudulent practices. Luckily, they also get caught, it seems. Genetically-modified cotton being passed of as organic cotton is one such popular scam. But, by and large, as of now, the system does appear to work. These certifying agencies are supposed to not just grant certification to farmers and others in the business of organic products but also carry out regular verifications. They are supposed to do this under the NSOP (National Standards for Organic Production).
Finally, there are the entities in the business of organic products. They ensure that the land used is fit for organic farming. They are also responsible for sourcing seeds and natural fertilisers. All of them need to be certified and that’s where the issue comes—as of now, unlike in other countries, there is no single ‘mark’ or ‘logo’ which provides a single-point re-verification on this for the eventual customer. Nor is there a requirement that the product or packaging (or even advertising) for the domestic market has to carry details of the certification under the NPOP or NSOP—as yet.
So, what happens is that for the domestic market in India, anybody and everybody happily places a sticker saying ‘organic’ on anything they want, after all this NPOP, NSOP and certifying agency system. Obviously, for the export market, documentation is strong enough to cover this lacuna; otherwise the NPOP/NSOP would lose the rest of the world as a customer.
But when it comes to the Indian customer, pretty much anybody from anywhere in the world, or domestic, can happily put the word ‘organic’ on it. That’s the real and simple truth as on date. And there does appear to be a bit of a racket in this—after all, it is the same ministry of agriculture that is involved, which is also pushing non-organic farming methods and products. So the conflict is clear and there for anybody to see.
What is the solution? Well, other than sitting with the retailer and getting her to explain the complete chain, not much else. Yes, there are shops and outlets which have built up a reputation over the years, but they are few and far between. They are in danger of being hidden by the louder and brighter smart alecks in the game. But at this point in time, if that package or display says ‘Organic’, then some amount of re-verification is certainly in order. Some how!

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gaurav 4 years ago

vegetables is shoddy and unforgivable. Grains would rather be allowed to rot, by the government, than be distributed, to people, whether free, or at a price.
We MUST ban all modern fertilizers, stop using pesticides which aren't of made from natural sources, and Complete Ban all GM foods. There is no other alternative.

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gaurav 4 years ago

The National Standards for Organic products (NSOP) under the National Programme for organic Production (NPOP), seems to be highly questionable. Firstly, the Indian Organic Certification Agency of India should start by certifying food as GM, Pesticide Sprayed, Fertilizer Enhanced (Specifying the kind of fertilizers used), and let us Indians know, what is the junk, that is going into our mouths. Then the government should start answering questions, as to why all good Organic Foods are exported to the EU, and other countries, where we get to eat the garbage, that we do, produced in India, and imported from the world, at MANY TIMES, the price, that they retail at, Around the World.

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malq 4 years ago in reply to gaurav

Dear Gaurav ji, thank you for writing in, and valid points.

Why not start by just sending an RTI application asking the very questions you want answers for, please?

My take is that the food industry, which has increasingly got stronger roots in India and links with the healthcare industry, will simply not permit truth in labeling and selling junk food in India along the same lines as they do in their other (developed??)country markets.

We need to expose' this, but more, need to also counter it.

Humbly submitted/vm

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Prakash Bhate

Prakash Bhate 4 years ago

There is no way you can feed 7 billion people by organic farming. You either pay through your nose for a genuine organic product and derive mental satisfaction for consuming something that is not really any different from what is available through commercial farming. Or get cheated by people who put false labels. Or consume commercially farmed products. The last choice is exercised by at least 6 billion people and they are all alive and getting on with their jobs.

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malq 4 years ago in reply to Prakash Bhate

Dear Prakash Bhate ji, thank you for writing in, and appreciate your candour.

Certainly, commercially farmed products are about the only viable solution going, but as you correctly stated - this business of false labels needs to be stopped. And more importantly, what is going into commercially farmed products needs to be looked into - start with the high-protein diet components that an "improvement" iin economic status motivates people towards - things like chicken, milk products, soya products and even some "new" types of fish. Can we have some rational solutions on the labels which cover much of the new-generation fish-meal, poultry-feed, ferts, chemicals and other raw materials used for commercial agriculture please?

Humbly submitted/vm

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