What's eating India's organic food industry

More needs to be done to generate optimism towards making the future of farming and food in our country brighter and sustainable.

 |  7-minute read |   01-09-2017
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I was at an event last week where researchers from ICRIER released a report titled “Organic Farming in India” - something they had worked on for almost a year.

Earlier in the year, I’d also met with them to share my thoughts and opinions. The overall atmosphere was quite positive, despite discussions around solutions to the current problems. Some noteworthy government officials and bureaucrats were also present who shared the same optimism, in my opinion. I left the event thinking they had done an exhaustive job, that the industry evaluation, current problems, and bottlenecks were thorough, and the suggestions for the way forward were well thought out.

I open my Google alert feed the next day that prompts me on the latest news around organic, and the top headline says, “Organic food grown in India for domestic consumption may not be safe, says study”. This was Livemint. The Times of India carried a similar headline. And the following day many others followed suit. This isn’t new. Whenever there is an industry story any publication decides to do, it’s always to poke holes and portray organic in the negative light, other than in the business sections, where they talk about market growth and success stories.

Many of us in the industry have dedicated many years to making organic a more realistic and viable option. We’re aware of the loose ends that need to be tied, but there is so much more that is positive and promising, contrary to the picture painted by the media.

The larger system that governs how food is grown and distributed in the country is something that doesn’t support us because what organic represents is the stark opposite of how conventional produce is grown, handled, priced, and distributed. So, to uphold what should be and is expected of organic, we have to work outside of the current food system and manage the supply chain from production to retail in its entirety. This in itself brings an unique set of challenges to running and working for an organic company.

And the other reality that feeds into how we plan our strategy, communication and positioning, after factoring in the general perception that many of us are corrupt and out there to cheat consumers. Naturally, this involves a budget. As a comparison, no company in the conventional “non organic” segment needs to spend money to guarantee that the produce they use is grown within the safety limit of pesticides. We don’t just need to prove that we stick to the standards (which is a valid expectation and fully required), we also need to prove we are not cheats, we are not buying certifications, we are not mixing non organic into organic, and basically that we have a soul.

This isn’t something people cite as a reason for organic being more expensive. It’s actually not occurred to me before, too. But of course, it is! If we didn’t have to spend money on these efforts, that money could either be saved or spent on some operational efficiencies. Both making prices come down.

At this point, I can say that half our marketing budget goes towards activities directly or indirectly aimed at building trust. I’m not complaining, we do this pretty happily.

It’s just this article which triggered this thought - had there been more positivity around the efforts of so many companies and individuals over the decades, and the general public sentiment around us been more positive, our priorities would have been different, and so much more of our effort could be on making organic accessible for more and more people.

What I mean is explained by an often asked question from potential customers - “is this genuine?” It always makes me laugh. At our store, many times when first-timers identify me as the owner, they come up to me and ask this question. I explain to them everything we do to ensure authenticity. In my mind though, I wonder “if someone wasn’t genuine, do you think they would tell you that?”

Once in a while, I’ve said this to some customers light-heartedly. Beneath the surface though this question is more discerning than innocent. The Indian consumer is quite smart. When they ask this question, what they mean is “let’s see if you can win my trust”. The positive is that they want organic products, but only if they are convinced of its authenticity. That’s fair. The problem is that the default assumption for many is that there are higher chances of it being fake.

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Yes, there is a very genuine requirement for firmer policy and regulation to ensure no one can mislead or cheat consumers. That’s in fact why FSSAI was looking forward to this report - to know what all they need to do in order to ensure organic becomes foolproof. It’s only logical that the report points out where the loopholes are, and how they should be addressed. But the headlines are not written based on the real context, they, in fact, seem almost pre-determined.

A study that says that organic food might not necessarily have more nutrients (which makes sense) gets reported as organic is not healthier. The positive progress Sikkim has made towards turning 100 per cent organic gets reported as Sikkim’s declining grain production (obviously, if there is crop diversification, some crops will overall be produced lesser).

The funniest was when I reported a story to the media, when a hyper-local delivery company partnered with us to deliver our produce through their app but we found out about malpractices where they were not forwarding us our orders and delivering stuff bought from the market, even that story came headlined as “organic vendor sells vegetables bought from market” – and if anyone bothered to read the full article only then they would realise that who was being referred to as the “organic vendor” was the hyperlocal company, and not us.

So much so, we had to explain to some very concerned customers that we were the ones wronged and not the wrongdoers. The ones who raised concerns we could talk to, but I’m sure there were many others who would not have written to us but just lost faith completely and stopped ordering altogether. This event then made us decide to not partner with any other delivery companies for now, and stick to managing deliveries on our own, even though they could have helped us grow faster. But there is nothing that can compensate against negligence that erodes faith in our authenticity.

I can understand a concern around whether or not what organic companies sell is truly organic. There is a lot of work the regulators need to do in defining clear regulations and then spreading awareness about those. But let’s not negate all the good that is happening. This isn’t a plea to stop writing negative stories about organic food. Please do, but don’t make something neutral seem negative.

And would it be too much to ask for some positive stories? The steps companies take to ensure authentic organic produce, the regulations that are in the works to make it all better regulated, the increasing profitability for farmer groups attributed to organic, organic states like Sikkim growing exponentially more nutrition per acre, stories of people who have reversed lifestyle illnesses by switching to plant based organic diets - and I have a lot of other ideas.

See, overall I’m not so bothered. Because I am certain that no matter what anyone says, the only sensible and practical way forward for food is organic. Limited resources, climate change is real, top soil erosion, water table, etc. There’ll soon be no other economically viable way to grow food (even if food is being grown by robots and indoors in vertical hydroponic gardens - it’ll still be organic!).

Right now we’re all just trying to make the inevitable happen. It’s ironic. But it’ll be so much more fun to build the food industry of the future with more support, encouragement, and positivity around us. With some positive sentiments and stories around organic, which as an insider I know the industry deserves, it will be so much easier for us to gain new customers and markets. This will enable us to spend more on efficiencies, and in return, your grocery bills will become smaller. And just like that, the ride towards the inevitable will become enjoyable for everyone.

Also read: Gautam Bhan on right to privacy and its links to Section 377

Writer

Ashmeet Kapoor Ashmeet Kapoor @ashmeetkapoor

The author is the founder of I Say Organic, a venture committed to making sustainable, nutritious and ethical food mainstream, by connecting organic farmers across the country to consumers through a farm-to-fork retail operation.

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