Saturday, July 2, 2016

Indian organic food industry-A free for all situation!

Organic food industry globally is growing rapidly because of the dangers posed by the so called modern agriculture which uses a number of man made chemicals that include growth hormones, fertilizers, crop protectants and weedicides, many of them with doubtful safety credentials. Though organic foods cannot be considered as more nutritious or healthy as measured by well accepted yardsticks, their preference by many consumers is due to dramatic reduction of chemical residues in these crops giving some confidence that they are much more safer than their counterparts raised conventionally in many countries. When it comes to India the organic food industry is offering opportunity for many producers to compromise on their global standards and lull the consumers into apparent sense of safety though no one knows whether these products will pass muster if analysed as per global standards. After all Indians are more concerned about the acceptance of their organic products in the export markets while least bothered about domestic consumers. The fact that India's share of export in the international market is practically negligible because foreign buyers are not convinced about their reliability and credibility. The pitiable export figure of hardly 0.5% of the global market place speaks for itself. It is against such a bleak scenario that a report appeared recently in the media in India that government of India is "contemplating" setting in motion a "policy" to address this problem. Here is a take on this "information" from a "government source" about its "intention".

"ndia is creating its own organic products policy with clearly defined safety standards, traceability norms, soil certification guidelines and good agricultural practices.  The aim of the new policy is to boost exports of agricultural products and processed food from the country. The good agricultural practices (GAP) followed by countries such as the US, Brazil, the Netherlands and France are being studied by trade experts and officials to generate adequate inputs for the policy, a government official told BusinessLine. The Commerce Ministry is framing the policy in collaboration with the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI). "The idea is to have one uniform policy for the organic products sector so that domestic consumers as well as foreign buyers gain confidence that the items that are being sold to them as organic meet certain laid down standards," the official added. While the global organic food market is estimated at an annual $72 billion, exports from India are a mere $298 million. India exports mostly to the US, Europe, Korea, Australia, New Zealand and countries in South East Asia. In India, organic products for exports are certified by various certifying agencies accredited by the National Programme for Organic Production (NPOP), India, under Agriculture and Processed Food Products Export Development Agency (APEDA). For organic products sold in the domestic market, the certification process is largely voluntary, but FSSAI and Agmark are taking some steps to regulate it, the official added. Certification of organic soil in the country is a problem as there are no domestic certification agencies for that and the services of foreign certifying agents is use to certify the soil. With a proper policy in place, the process of cross checking guidelines by importing countries would become smoother. The same guidelines would also apply on items for exports, imports and domestic market. Traceability of inputs, especially in case of processed food to determine if all ingredients in a certified organic product are also organic, is also expected to improve once the policy is in place, the official added. India produced around 1.35 million tonnes of certified organic products which includes all varieties of food products such as sugarcane, oil seeds, cereals & millets, cotton, pulses, medicinal plants, tea, fruits, spices, dry fruits, vegetables and coffee."

How credible is this information? Looking at the past record of the successive governments, one is not inspired by such reports because such statements are more political in nature with very little possibility of any follow up action. The monolithic organization set up to ensure food safety and standards in the country has already proved to be a damp squib and except for grand standing from time to time and frequent photo op conferences and press briefings from the corridors of power, the pathetic situation vis a vis food safety  continues unabated in the country with adultererators and fraudsters having a roaring time in fleecing the citizens as they please with very little fear about any deterrent action by the government. One really gets flabbergasted by the news that another agency will be created to "oversee" production of organic foods in the country  which will help a few retired bureaucrats to find refuge in fancy offices and derive immense pecuniary benefits from the tax payers' money! While international standards do exist for almost all organic foods, the present attempt to evolve "Indian" standards is nothing but a ploy to rehabilitate a few scientists under government patronage under the excuse of a "technical committee" to "reinvent the wheel"! With government's resources stretched to the limit, a number of private players with doubtful credentials may get the opportunity to "certify" organic products made in this country for the benefit of the domestic consumers. Probably it will end up like the ISO certification system presently working in the country with every "Tom, Dick and Harry" claiming the expertise for providing the certification! A more practical approach could be to license established foreign certifying agencies with impeccable credentials to work in India along with Indian partners to overhaul the industry and build trust with the consumers, domestic as well as international. 


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