Organic food is popular these days. But, few consumers know that not everything that claims to be organic is really organic. Here’s what you need to know.
Organic food is fast becoming a lifestyle choice for many urban consumers. The health benefits they offer over food that’s grown using regular farming practices (including the use of fertilisers and pesticides) is why they are becoming popular despite the hefty price premium. But is everything that claims to be organic really organic? Is there more to it than meets the eye?
About 600-700 people come to the farmers market every Sunday and the good news is that 50% are new consumers being introduced to organic food for the first time.
Kavita Mukhi, an eco-nutritionist, has been organizing the only farmer’s market in Mumbai for over 3 years now. She believes that organically-farmed food is safer, healthier and richer in taste compared to conventionally grown vegetables. She says, “About 600-700 people come to the farmers market every Sunday and the good news is that 50% are new consumers being introduced to organic food for the first time.”
Even modern retailers are seeing growth of roughly 80% in the organic category that includes both natural produce and packaged goods. The domestic market for all organic produce is estimated at about Rs. 1000 crores and growing at nearly 20% annually. That’s no small feat given that anything with the ‘organic’ tag costs nearly 25% more than its non-organic counterpart. Damodar Mall, CEO of Reliance Grocery Retail says, “There are two or three different vectors on which change happens, biggest one is health. I consider organic to be a subset of health. People are not choosing organic because of its ‘green credentials’ but because ‘it’s good for me’.”
Learn to read labels well. There are many brands that have the word organic but in finer print there is nothing organic about them
But, organic products should be consumed with caution. According to the New Delhi-based Crop Care Federation of India, an RTI filing with the Indian Agricultural Research Institute revealed that between 2012 and 2014, 33% of 150 products tested from The Altitude Store in Delhi had pesticide residues. “Conventionally grown vegetables and fruits are simply labelled as organic and sold to the consumer at an exorbitant price. We have rules in this country but we are yet to see them being implemented. Not even a single violator has been punished so far,” says S Ganesan, Advisor to Crop Care Federation of India. It is important to know that this NGO lobbies on behalf of fertilizer and pesticide companies and believes that organic food cannot sustain India’s food needs.
Even Mukhi, the organizer of the farmers’ market, red flagged the system, saying that there are products that label themselves as organic even though they are not so. “Learn to read labels well. There are many brands that have the word organic but in finer print there is nothing organic about them,” says Kavita Mukhi
Modern retailers say that they rely on the information that suppliers provide and expect consumers to do their due diligence. Mall says a brand establishes its own credentials. He also adds, “In a supermarket, the environment is self service. So, the communication is between the brand and the customer directly. I, as a retailer, stay out of the way and provide that self service. There are brands that ensure 100% organic and there are brands that are some distance on the way and they honestly say that to the customer and the customer makes that choice,”
It’s clear given the growing popularity of organic food, a lot more needs to be done to inform and protect consumers. Given the way things are though, the onus of doing this will have to lie with government regulators. Both the APEDA and the FSSAI have detailed rules that they prescribe and are used by private agencies to certify organic products. Boom asked the FSSAI to react to the issues raised by this report, but we got no response. For now, consumers will have to be their own guardians.