The Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture (ASHA) — a pan-Indian network of organisations that draws attention to issues relating to food and farmers — recently sent a letter to the chairman and chief executive officer of the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), with copies to the Union Health and Agriculture Ministers.
ASHA believes that the recently-published Notification of Food Safety and Standards (Organic Food) Regulation, 2017 would be detrimental to the development of organic farming in the country.
In a letter to the FSSAI on March 19, Kavitha Kuruganti, convener of ASHA and food safety activist, said that the set of regulations not only “comes in the way of spread of organic farming”, but that it also “does not protect consumer interest”.
The letter requested for the FSSAI to “make some much-needed amendments” and sought to explain the reasons why.
Impediment to organic farming
The first point made by ASHA was that the Notification, which makes certification mandatory for all organic farmers, with very limited exemptions, would be an “impediment to the organic spread of organic farming”.
ASHA said this would have serious cost implications for both farmers and consumers.
“The regulations could deter farmers to shift to and pursue safer food production systems because it will involve higher burden on farmers, beyond their financial and other capabilities. In a sense, this is self-defeating to the very mandate of FSSAI,” said Kuruganti.
The letter stated that, today, only a small number of farmers, who are covered under flagship organic farming programmes, are getting government support.
Furthermore, third-party or National Programme for Organic Production (NPOP) certification is available only to a limited number of farmers who are associated with commercial entities, who are able to organise a small set of farmers to procure their organic produce and market them.
ASHA stressed that the constraint is not just about costs, but the capability to comply with record-keeping requirements.
“What we need is an accountable mechanism where any farmer desirous to shift to organic farming, with or without being part of a collective and with or without being part of a government scheme, is supported for certification free-of-cost, in time-bound, simple, integrity-laden/corruption-free systems without being burdened by unwieldy paperwork,” said Kuruganti.
“This is missing, and in the absence of that, FSSAI rushing in with its unreasonable regulation is an impediment.”
She also reiterated, as they had pointed out in the past, that existing quality assurance systems are not fool-proof and “we will have to collectively evolve systems that lay greater thrust on traceability more than anything else, in our effort to weed out ‘fake or spurious organic’”.
She further stated that there was no justification for giving exemptions only to only small producers, and it should be extended to all organic farmers in India and their collectives.
“This is a straightforward case since consumer interests are not being compromised in any way here, given a direct relationship and traceability in the transactions, which themselves are quality assurance mechanisms,” she said.
She said the clause was based on a number of assumptions and presumptions, even in the definitions of the types of producers, and would be unfair and highly impractical.
Exemptions without intermediaries
ASHA also suggested that the FSSAI should exempt organic farmers who are sourced by direct retailers or stores, without intermediaries.
“The ability to market organic produce in segregated supply chains, profitably, is what will help spread organic farming to more farmers. If this is curtailed, the very spread of organic farming is endangered,” said Kuruganti.
She added that organic food sold in India is not more that 0.01% and “there is no reason why the regulator should be over-zealous about regulating organic foods...”
She ended by saying, “It appears that the situation of small illiterate farmers who desperately need organic farming as a way out of their agrarian distress is not considered when regulations are made.”
ASHA stated its belief that there should be a process of widespread consultations across the country as organic farming is one of the potential strategies for addressing larger issues such as agrarian distress and environmental degradation in the South Asian country.
ASHA comprises farmers’ organisations, consumer groups, women’s organisations, environmental organisations, individual citizens and experts committed to the cause of sustainable and viable farm livelihoods in rural India.