Traceability of organic food is the only way to build trust - Hindustan Times

Traceability of organic food is the only way to build trust

Apr 17, 2024 10:15 PM IST

This article is authored by Shashi Kumar, co-founder and CEO, Akshayakalpa Organic.

In 2017, the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER) came out with a scathing report highlighting the prevalence of fraudulence and malpractices in India’s organic farming sector. Seven years down the line, the consumers’ ability to distinguish between fake and real organic may have improved a bit, but it is still not enough. Allowing fake organic food market to thrive and grow is a serious problem for two reasons. One, it is straight up stealing money from unwitting consumers and that too at the expense of their health and two, it is setting us back on our way to becoming a healthier nation by making organic food commonplace. Within the larger agriculture and food sectors, the organic market in India is a tiny sliver, but it has been growing steadily. Recent estimates place the domestic market for organic food is around $1.3 billion and is expected to grow nearly fourfold by 2028.

Food (Shutterstock) PREMIUM
Food (Shutterstock)

Organic food is not exactly unregulated in India. In fact, it is governed by a legal framework under the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) and all organic products must be mandatorily registered, certified, licensed and labelled. There are two standards for organic food -- National Programme for Organic Production (NPOP) and Participatory Guarantee System (PGS).

NPOP certification covers all aspects of organic farming, including the production, processing, packaging, labelling, and marketing of organic products. The PGS certification covers only the production aspect of organic farming. NPOP standards are far more stringent one because it is conducted by third parties that are independent of the farm, meaning it is more reliable. PGS is a local and community-driven standard, meaning this is a certification provided by one farmer to another within the same geographical locality, which leaves a big question on reliability.

Irrespective of which standard one follows, the most important thing is the traceability of the organic produce. By its very nature and the framework on which it is built, NPOP provides for better traceability than PGS. Consumers of organic products must be able to trace it all the way back to the producer or farmer, which will allow them see if due processes have been followed to get the NPOP certification and logo as a seal of assurance for consumers.

The Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority’s TraceNet is an online mechanism used by exporters and importers (in foreign countries) to check the validity of certification and trace the produce back to its source. TraceNet collects, stores and reports quality assurance data provided by producer groups and certification bodies within the organic supply chain in India. But we do not have such a robust mechanism for the domestic market.

While packaged organic food comes with certification for quality and processes, in many instances, consumers are left to their own devices to ensure that any claim of being organic is authentic and reliable. For example, organic fruits and vegetable bought from local greengrocers rely heavily on word of mouth assurances. All this brings us to something very important but seldom understood well. Organic food is all about process and standards. From soil to harvesting to packing, there are standard operating procedures at every step of the way. Consumers must understand what makes up organic grade food, and without this knowledge it would be hard to distinguish it from regular ones. For example, genuine organic dairy brands invest a lot of effort, time, money and training to ensure the produce is free from any possible contaminant and it starts with the soil in which the animal feed was grown.

This brings us to the bigger point--consumers’ awareness about their own rights. Consumers should question everything a brand claims, not just with organic brands, but anything they buy. In the case of organic there is an additional promise of something more than just the basic product and hence the need for a greater emphasis on caveat emptor.

Organic food market in India today is more mature than it was even a decade ago. From just a handful of brands, it has grown to a point where it is not uncommon to see aisles in large format grocery stores dedicated to organic food. Brands have a big role to play in educating consumers on processes and quality. From my own experience, I know small-batch farm visits is a very effective way to educate consumers. It also builds brand trust.

The Indian organic food industry looks very promising thanks to the growing awareness among consumers about its long-term benefits, even if it costs more. We still haven’t reached the tipping point for exponential growth. Creating better awareness about organic food, processes, standards and most importantly about fakes will be essential to reach that point.

This article is authored by Shashi Kumar, co-founder and CEO, Akshayakalpa Organic.

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