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Organic Farming Tough Questions

Updated: October 20, 2012 4:26 pm

This writer was invited to a panel discussion on Policy Issues and Marketing Support for Organic Products by the Indo-German Chamber of Commerce earlier this week to mark the Organic India Fair at Bengaluru in November. The questions posed, and the interaction with the participants and the co-panelists set this writer’s thinking about how much more needs to be done to mainstream organic farming, and how government policy has been operating only on the fringes!

Does the Government of India have a policy on organic foods? Who is responsible? Are there any quantifiable targets? Is there a road map? Do the GoI and state governments have an institutional mechanism to understand concerns and expectations? Are the views of those practising organic agriculture taken on board in all the policy deliberations? How can the government and the private sector work together with the farmers to bring organic produce to the consumer without the hassles of intermediation?

To be honest, this writer was at a loss of words, for while we have several programmes to promote organic production under NHM, HMNEH and NFSM, and the National Centre for Organic Farming is developing standards and protocols and APEDA has established standards to encourage the export of organic produce, the fact of the matter is that we have no coherent policy on things organic. True, the Ministry of Agriculture has asked TERI to conduct a study, and also lead discussions on a policy paper on organic foods—but this is still a work in progress, and it is not necessary that the recommendations will be accepted, let alone implemented. In fact, compared to the Government of India, the state governments are much clearer in their approach. The example of Sikkim and Uttarakhand, especially the former, shows how a state government can leverage the schemes and programmes of the Government of India to promote organic cultivation. However, it is clear that while states can give incentives and support, the development of a pan-India market for organic produce does call for a road map. As in the case of other programmes in agriculture and allied sectors, while the responsibility of implementation will necessarily be of the state government, all states tend to learn and improve upon each other’s experiences, a road map with milestones helps steer the course.

Who is responsible? The answer to this is: no one in particular. Thus while in the Ministry, where joint secretaries are assigned specific responsibilities organic is not a responsibility centre by itself. Thus while JS NHM looks after horticulture, JS NFSM looks after crops, and there are joint secretaries responsible for plant protection, trade, marketing, credit, co-operation, seeds, IT and extension, organic comes within the domain of the Integrated Nutrient Management Division, and the National Centre of Organic Farming is also attached to this Division. However, as mentioned earlier, notification of standards is done by APEDA, and the horticulture and crops division also support organic production within their domains.

Are there any quantifiable targets for organic production? The answer is again a ‘nay’. In fact, at the moment, we do not have a clear assessment of the total volume of organic produce in the country, and most estimation is anecdotal and sketchy. Perhaps our first target has to be quantifying the total volume of organic produce that the country is currently producing!

Do we have an institutional mechanism to understand the concerns of the organic farmers? No. Unlike the structured conferences on Rabi and Kharif and the regular interface which the horticulture division has with state horticulture departments while reviewing and approving the annual action plans, there is no institutionalised mechanism in place. It is true that there are occasional interactions during seminars on organic cultivation but these are basically occasions when everyone speaks and no one listens. We need to understand the views and concerns of organic farmers, as also their expectations, especially with regard to marketing of perishables.

Last but not least, how can the farmers work with the private sector and the government to develop an integrated supply chain? Well, some supply chains do exist: Fab India is selling high-end organic produce across its stores in the country, and it is becoming very popular. Navdanya has a permanent outlet at Dilli Haat near the INA market. Likewise many state government emporia also provide an outlet for the organic produce of their states, and the NHB holds festivals for the produce of NE states in their Bhawans in New Delhi. However, the big challenge is to introduce organic produce in Safal (Green Mother Dairy) in Delhi and other metros. This is where the VIUC (Vegetable Initiative for Urban Clusters) and the PPP IAD (Public Private Partnership for Intensive Agriculture Development) can contribute. Under the VIUC, support is available to farmers groups to grow vegetables in clusters: and these clusters could also be organic clusters. Support is available to farmers groups, or aggregators to develop the basic infrastructure for sorting, grading and primary storage and for transport to the nearest market place. If sufficient volumes can be generated, it would be possible to develop a brand, and also develop a value chain. However, before this can be marketed as organic, certification is essential, and this is an area in which government support both in terms of financial and institutional handholding has to be forthcoming. Farmer groups may have the funds but will need motivation and positive strokes to get into the discipline of getting their processes open to third party inspections.

By Sanjeev Chopra

(An IAS Officer, the author is Joint Secretary & Mission Director, National Horticulture Mission, Government of India. The views expressed are personal.)

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