India’s food safety regulator is getting stricter about who gets to retail food labeled organic. Small farmers are upset

Sujatha Rajeswaran made the kind of career shift those stuck in the corporate rat race tend to wistfully talk about, around the office water cooler. Eight years ago, she and her husband quit their IT jobs in Chennai and began farming on a three-acre plot near Puducherry, where they grow paddy, millets, pulses and sesame free of chemicals and pesticides. The switch meant losing a steady monthly income but Rajeswaran says they enjoy other luxuries, such as eating fruit plucked fresh from the garden. Some of the crops they grow, such as traditional varieties of rice, are sold directly to customers, while others are sold to a few retail outlets in Puducherry.


By the time you read this, though, Rajeswaran would no longer be able to sell her produce to retail stores under the organic label. A new rule framed by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), which kicks in on July 1, bans the retail sale of food labelled as organic unless it has been certified according to one of two processes. “I don’t know what will happen,” says Rajeswaran, who chose to sell by building trust with the stores over getting her products certified.


So far, certification was compulsory only for export. Farmers who wanted to export organic produce had to opt for third-party certification by one of 28 agencies recognised under the National Programme for Organic Production (NPOP) guidelines. Those selling at home could either get NPOP certification or choose the cheaper Participatory Guarantee System-India (PGS), under which farmers form a collective and vouch for the others’ produce. But neither was compulsory for domestic sales.


“It was a free-for-all situation where anyone could call anything organic and get away with it,” says FSSAI CEO Pawan Kumar Agarwal. “We are trying to create a clearer system.” The new rule will empower food safety officers to test samples from the market and prosecute transgressors.

A 2016 Yes Bank white paper on the organic market in India estimates the organised market to be ₹250-300 crore and the “uncertified, unmonitored” one to be ₹300-500 crore. On an average, organic produce sells at a 30% premium. At online retailer Big Basket, for example, a kilo of organic carrot costs ₹100 while local carrot is ₹80.


But small farmers argue the two certification options are either expensive, cumbersome or both and doesn’t always guarantee quality. The samples in a 2014 study by the Indian Agricultural Research Institute had found pesticide residues above permissible levels, though the samples had been certified by third-party agencies. Erode-based Ramaswamy Selvam, who started organic farming in 1996, says certification under NPOP would cost him ₹15,000-₹50,000, while the PGS system is cumbersome and time-consuming. For example, the fee structure of Bureau Veritas, an NPOP-recognised agency, includes ₹15,000 per man day for organic certification for one farmer, ₹7,000 as certificate fees and ₹2,000 for a transaction certificate, apart from expenses for lab analysis, travel and accommodation. A certification is typically valid for three years and renewals cost less.


Under PGS, which is supposed to be free, a farmer has to form a collective with at least four other organic farmers. “We would have to visit the others’ farms twice in one cropping season, which is not easy if the farms are not nearby. I see the new rules as a kind of punishment to me for having turned organic,” says Selvam, who has circulated an online petition demanding the rules be withdrawn.


Vishalakshi Padmanabhan, founder of farmer collective Buffalo Back, says they are trying to help the 35% of their farmers who have not yet been certified under the procedure. “But it is not easy.” Others, like NCR-based iOrganic, which sells 3,000 litres of milk a day, have been able to sidestep the rule by having organic only in the brand name. “We have not called our milk organic anywhere, we only say it is farm-fresh,” says founder Aditya Sinhal.


Kavitha Kuruganti, a former member of the government task force on organic and non-chemical farming, warns that the new rules will keep a whole set of farmers out of the organic market. “It will become an elite market dominated by big brands serving wealthy customers.”


FSSAI’s Agarwal argues that a clause exempts a “small original producer or producer organisation” directly selling to the consumer from certification. But Selvam asks why the exception for direct sales should be restricted to “small farmers”, a term that has not even been clearly defined.


For now, the non-certified farmers are hopeful of getting some leeway and the FSSAI says it is willing to listen. For starters, a small farmer is likely to be defined as one earning less than ₹12 lakh annually. “We might also extend the July 1 deadline. The regulations are final but in the course of implementation, if we face any difficulty, we are open to renewing these,” adds Agarwal.




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