Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Organic foods with pesticide residue? An unenviable Indian situation!

Organic foods are supposed to be free from pesticides as the they are produced using no chemicals at all. Though some countries like the US permit limited use of chemicals and still call the product organic, this is not an acceptable option in many other countries. Fear of adverse effect of "artificial" or unnatural substances in raising crops or meat animals or during processing drive consumers in droves to the open arms of the organic food industry, willingly paying almost 50-100% more prices for them. But is the consumer guaranteed about the genuineness of organic foods, branded by the industry or is there an overseeing agency mandated to monitor the market and ensure the consumer is not defrauded? Obviously such controls by regulatory authorities in countries like India are at best nebulous. With such an unfettered access to the market, fraudsters and deceitful producers are having a field day! 

It is not that Indian government has not done any thing to encourage organic farming and processing but the progress in bringing the organic food industry to international level is less than encouraging. Organic food market world wide is estimated at $ 50 billion (bn) and current cultivation covers an area of 35 million (mn) hectares, spread of 141 countries involving more than 1.2 mn producers. Australia is the pioneering country that sets the agenda for organic food production and innovations related to it. USA is the major producing and consuming country accounting for more than 40% of global production. Compared to this India produces about 0.12 mn tons valued at $ 20 mn,  the cultivation area being mentioned as 2.5 mn hectares but these figures are some what skewed because a more reliable estimate puts it at 40, 000 hectares. India produces and exports about 30 products under the organic product banner which include Basmati rice, mango pulp, pineapple pulp, cashew nut, sesame, honey, walnut, spices, coffee, tea and tea and Indian products are imported into more than 70 countries through out the world.. 

Standards for organic foods are not uniform in all countries and even definition of what constitutes an organic food varies some what among the producers. In the US one can see 100% organic, 95% organic, 70%  organic etc throwing lot of consumers into confusion. World standards, about 61 in number, accepted among most nations include IFoam, Codex, EU, Demeter, JAS etc. In 2000 India government came out with the National Program for Organic Products (NPOP) to organize the production on a scientific footing and National Standards for Organic Products were set up to monitor the industry. Presently Agricultural Product Export Development Authority (APEDA) has been vested with the task of ensuring quality standards for organic products produced in the country. There are 11 accredited certification agency approved by the National Accreditation Board for checking the veracity of claims made by the industry vis-a-vis organic foods.

The malpractices in Indian organic food industry came to light recently when Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), New Delhi, came out with its findings that many organic food samples tested in Delhi by it contained pesticide residue. According to this institute its laboratory analysis showed 33% of the samples it checked  during the last two years containing pesticide residues which are not supposed to be there at all as per mandatory regulations. Probably it may be a shock for the consumers but the practice of using pesticides must have been there since long without any hindrance from any quarters. The vegetables that tested positive for pesticides included brinjal, ladyfinger, tomato, capsicum, chillies, cabbage, cauliflower, coriander and green peas. Many were found to contain residues from multiple pesticides. Dearth of reliable brands and sources is posing a major challenge to genuine buyers of organic foods in the country. Consumers have to be convinced about the authenticity of the organic food certification as only such a situation will  ensure that organic food product conforms to the respective national standards established by the certification procedures set out in 2000. 

What is disturbing is that this fact was known since last two years from the on-going testing program in IARI in Delhi, located just a few kilometers from the offices of APEDA, the government agency earmarked for certifying organic foods and supposedly to be looking after the welfare of Indians domestically and other citizens in importing countries where Indian products are exported! Can such callousness be condoned? World over organic food industry is growing at a fast pace and to day the value of these "safe"products churned out by the industry is about 1% of that by the mainstream industry which generates a business volume worth $ 5 trillion. If India continues to neglect the organic food industry by not putting in place an effective surveillance mechanism soon, the faith and trust of dedicated consumers wedded to organic foods will be badly shaken, if not lost once for all. Millions of denizens across the world want their children at least to grow in an environment not vitiated by the main stream food industry which uses thousands of chemicals and other unnatural additives to make their products look "sexy" and taste "glamorous" so that consumers get hooked on to them without realizing the terrible consequences of eating them regularly! Probably government of India could set up a dedicated organic foods certification and monitoring agency with adequate powers to enforce the national standards for organic foods, in stead of the present ad hoc arrangement involving APEDA.


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