Organic farming and associated conundrum
by K P Prabhakaran Nair on 16 Aug 2018 16 Comments

Many Indians, if not all, have woken up to the virtue of organic foods, as compared to those derived from the highly soil extractive, chemically driven intensive agriculture, euphemistically known as the “green revolution”. There are even States within India which “officially” are “organic”, like Kerala, Odisha. The wealthy can afford “organic” foodstuff, be it vegetables, staples like rice, wheat or fruits, which are, on average, three-fold more expensive than the others grown in conventional ways.


But, the moot question is, are the products sold in the market today truly organic in nature? The general perception is that if an agricultural crop is grown without the use of chemical fertilisers and/or pesticides, it is organic. But, this not correct. The term “organic” goes much beyond this narrow definition. And, therein lays the rub.


Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala, held hosted the second “Global Organic Meet” (April 21-25, 2018) where more than 2,500 delegates from all over the world met and deliberated the problems and prospects of organic farming, and marketing of organic products. In fact, there was a special TV crew from Berlin – Germany has gone organic in a big way – to cover the week-long event. The delegates were served organic food served on banana leaves, starting from breakfast to dinner. And everyone was obliged to eat with hands, no fork, knife and spoon, to the delight of this author and his wife, who were invited; I had the great privilege of delivering the keynote address.


There were Government of India representatives involved in the organic movement, like the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA), representatives from Indian agricultural universities, also from overseas agricultural universities which are involved exclusively in research and development in organic farming in a big way, and, needless to mention, scientists of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), including the president of the Indian Organic Association.


What is most important to examine is, how has the Government of India (GoI) come to the aid of the true organic farmer of this country, to spread the “organic message” across the length and breadth of the Indian subcontinent? Has it created more confusion than clarity? The following example illustrates a classic example of the organic conundrum.


As per the new regulation of the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI, a seal on food packets), an organic farmer can obtain certification of his products through two routes, as a farmer wishing to sell his produce as “organic” must first possess this certification. The first route is to get a certification, valid for one year, from one of the 28 third party certification agencies accredited to APEDA (Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority), under the National Programme For Organic Production (NPOP).


This process can cost the farmer anything from Rs 15,000/- to Rs 30,000/- per annum, and an existing organic farmer has to wait for a whole year to get the certification, as per the Participatory Guarantee System for India (PGS) stipulations, which require that the farmer must join a group of at least five with similar farming type, and then apply for the PGS certification introduced in 2015 under Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana (PKVY, Traditional Faming Development Programme). The registration of a new member takes a minimum of three years. Also, a farmer has to peer review his fields thrice, each cropping season, during the sowing, harvest, field operations, and, once in between. It takes about a fortnight for this review to complete.


The NPOP requirement is as follows (source: Organic industry experts and farmers): Both farmers and processors can obtain a certificate from agencies accredited by NPOP, which is in operation since 2001. Those farmers who grow perennial crops like coconut, arecanut, Black pepper etc., need to wait three years to obtain a new certificate. Those growing annual crops like sugarcane, maize, rice, wheat etc., need to wait only two years. Those who already are organic can obtain the certificate under one year. The cost may vary from Rs 15,000/- to Rs 50,000/-, depending on the size of the farm and the fee of the third party inspecting team.


Though the certification process is a mark for genuine organic farmers, the moot question is: how many in India, who practice organic farming on a small to medium scale, can go through all this rigmarole before they can bring their produce to the consumer? For many of the large majority of small scale organic farmers, the regulations will slash their farm income by over 70 to 75 per cent. While PGS certification can be obtained for free, obtaining the certificate can take as long as three years, which is a very long wait for a small/medium scale organic farmer. It is important to note that prior to the enforcement of the new regulatory system, only farmers and food processors exporting their produce needed mandatory certification while domestic players could operate without it. 


What would be the impact of the new regulation on organic farmers?


Agriculture in India is practised in such differing conditions that no common yardstick can be applied throughout. For instance, in many of the north eastern Indian states, excluding Assam, ten million hectares are organic by default since the farmers have no access to either chemical fertilisers or pesticides. These farmers will no longer be able to sell their produce as organic. This will have a serious consequence on Indian economy because tens of thousands of these organic farmers will be pushed out of business.


The new regulation comes at a time when PKVY, initiated in 2015 to promote organic farming, is yet to take root. Among northern states, in Punjab and Haryana, the “granary of India”, only 131 and 488 farmers, respectively, are covered by the scheme. On the other hand, Uttar Pradesh has 38,781 farmers under the scheme. Of the 95,688 farmers who have been issued the certificates so far since its initiation, 18 per cent have now withdrawn from the certification procedure.


Simultaneously, “Not For Profit” organisations have taken the lead to issue certificates to more than 14,000 farmers in fourteen states under what is called “Participatory Guarantee Systems Organic Council” (PGSOC). But these farmers will have to again go through the expensive and time consuming procedures to obtain pucca certificates from NPOP or PGS.


What is the way out?


If the Government is committed to take India forward on the “organic route” because of all the very adverse fallout on food stuffs thanks to the chemically-driven “green revolution”, the mandarins in New Delhi will have to rise above bureaucratese and show more imagination than so far. At the same time, there is the threat of GM foodstuffs creeping into our foods. A thorough investigation by the New Delhi-based Centre For Science and Environment has clearly shown that GM products are found in 32 per cent of the 65 products tested, and while 80 per cent of these are imported, it is very worrisome that some Indian players are using these prohibited products, especially in the manufacture of infant foods. This will have a long range deleterious effect on the health of unsuspecting Indians. If India earnestly wishes to go forward the organic way, it should put in place a cost free, simple and time bound certification procedure to truly help organic farmers. Right now, that is missing.


The author was formerly Professor, The National Science Foundation, The Royal Society, Belgium and Senior Fellow, Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, The Federal Republic of Germany. He can be contacted at

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