The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) recently announced the Draft Food and Standards (Organic Food) Regulations, 2017, aimed at curbing sale of fake organic products. This regulation will require products sold in the market as “organic” to be certified by either the National Programme for Organic Production (NPOP) of the commerce and industry ministry, or the Participatory Guarantee Scheme (PGS) of the agriculture ministry.
The NPOP was designed for the export market and involves third-party companies, which verify organic status, while in PGS, a collective of farmers guarantee that everyone in the group is practicing organic farming. The draft, however, exempts ‘unprocessed’ organic food sold directly by farmers or farmer organisations to consumers.
On the face of it, this looks like an excellent regulation, with a promise of protecting consumers’ rights. But an analysis shows that it cannot curb sales of fake organic products, and it might do more harm than good to the organic farming movement in India.
The demand for a regulation on organics itself is suspect, as it is led by the Crop Care Federation of India (CCFI), which represents pesticide companies. In December 2014, CCFI released a report, prepared by the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), on pesticides in organic vegetables from Delhi. Interestingly, IARI has not made this report public.
The institute tested 150 vegetable samples from one organic store in Delhi and found traces in 50; in 10 of these, the levels were above the maximum residue limit (MRL). The store identified a certified farm in Sonipat as the source of the vegetables. The farm was certified by one of the largest NPOP certifiers.
To begin with, sampling from one store from one city is scientifically untenable. Second, finding small traces of pesticides in organic vegetables is not surprising because pesticides are present in water and air, and will find their way into a produce even if the farmer is practicing organic farming. This is why many countries prescribe a tolerance limit for presence of pesticides in organic products. Third, the 10 samples in which levels exceeded the MRL were sourced from a certified farm – which means certification cannot be an answer to the problem.
Let us accept that fake organic products do exist. But the scale is difficult to ascertain till we have a pan-India study on it. Second, a fake organic product is not a safety concern; it is an issue of ‘misbranding’ or ‘misleading advertisement’. Fake products can be as safe or unsafe as any other products sold in markets. So the question is: Is certification required to tackle misbranding?
The FSSAI has a definition of and penalty for misbranding of food and misleading advertisements. The penalty for misbranding is up to Rs 3 lakh and for misleading advertisement, up to Rs 10 lakh. The food safety act does not specify that to prevent misbranding or misleading advertisement, a product has to have a certification. Why, then, are organic products being singled out?
To understand how this new regulation impact farmers, one must examine the certification itself. First, both NPOP and PGS are process-based certification systems. Their main concern is processes and practices of farming and food-processing, not testing food for pesticide residues. The former (NPOP) being more expensive than PGS, is preferred by big farmers, companies and exporters.
Under NPOP, only the produce of a NPOP-certified farm can be processed by a NPOP-certified processor and sold as ‘organic’. The NPOP processor cannot take fresh produce from a PGS farmer, process it and sell it as ‘organic’.
Under PGS, only the food processed by the PGS group of farmers can be labelled as ‘organic’. The problem: PGS groups, run by small farmers, are not capable of processing organic produce. They sell their produce to other processors for value addition.
The draft regulation will make it difficult for small farmers, who are either PGS certified or non-certified, to sell their produce for value addition. They will be forced to sell fresh produce directly to consumers or get NPOP certification.
If a small farmer gets NPOP certification, it makes his product more expensive and so uncompetitive. If he sells only fresh produce, his value addition is low. So the draft regulation will dissuade small farmers from doing organic farming.
The Indian organic farming movement is witnessing a revival, largely led by small farmers. Consumer numbers are on the rise. This has happened without any support from the government. In fact, in 2017-18, the outlay on organic farming is a mere Rs 350 crore; in comparison, the annual subsidy for chemical fertilisers is over Rs 70,000 crore.
But the FSSAI’s regulation is going to hinder its growth. Instead of targeting organic food, why not make laws that require mandatory labelling of foods grown with pesticides, chemicals or GMO etc?
If the FSSAI is so anxious about fake organic products, it should set standards and use its ‘misbranding’ provision to penalise them. Like it does for every other food product.
Chandra Bhushan is deputy director general, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi