ASHA engages with FSSAI on Organic Foods regulation by the food safety authority
ASHA’s letter to FSSAI Chairperson Shri Ashish Bahuguna on the 7th of February in a personal meeting, on the inexplicable haste of the Authority in wanting to regulate organic food.
Our letter to FSSAI in March 2013 is downloadable here.
Dec 24th 2016
The Chief Executive Officer,
Food Safety & Standards Authority of India (FSSAI),
Food & Drug Administration Bhawan,
New Delhi 110 002.
Sub: Draft Food Safety and Standards (Organic Foods) Regulations, 2016 – reg.
Greetings! This is with regard to the draft regulations prepared by the FSSAI with regard to organic labeling and standards in India in the form of Draft Food Safety and Standards (Organic Foods) Regulations 2016, about which you have a consultation being organized in Delhi on December 26th 2016. This response comes from a large number of organisations and individuals associated with the vibrant organic farming movement of India, which is also concerned about food safety for consumers. This movement has been instrumental and active in promoting and expanding the practice of organic cultivation as well as consumption of organic produce. The need to spread organic agriculture as an imperative is appreciated by this movement, even as it recognizes that fake organic produce is an issue that also needs to be dealt with.
- Our first concern is with regard to the fact that FSSAI is not notifying any rules and regulations with regard to labeling of GM foods, novel foods, irradiated foods, etc. (all covered under Section 22), which are the ones which actually pose safety risks to consumers, whereas it is keen on notifying regulations for organic foods! This reflects a skewed policy bias. At this point of time, rather than regulating and insisting upon organic foods to conform to standards along with the proposed mandatory certification, it is important that regulation begins by focusing on unsafe produce sourced from farms using synthetic chemicals and GMOs / products thereof. Such products should necessarily be labeled (given that even post-production-related additives and preservatives are declared in the labels) so that consumers can opt for safer options. You would kindly recall from your files that we had in the past knocked on the doors of FSSAI with our concerns with regard to GM foods being illegally sold in the Indian market, without any labels at that, and we received no response or action from the Authority.
- The definition of Organic Agriculture is incomplete as given under Chapter I, 2 (Definitions), (h). This has to be modified to : “Organic Agriculture means a system of farm design and management to create an eco system which can achieve sustainable productivity without the use of synthetic external inputs such as chemicals, fertilisers, pesticides, synthetic hormones and GMOs (genetically modified organisms) or products thereof”.
- In the draft regulations that we have seen and studied, Chapter II and specifically Section 4 and 5, indicate that mandatory certification of organic produce is being proposed. The draft regulations also seem to mistakenly believe that traceability is directly connected to certification (sub-regulation 4) may be because of the existing mechanisms in India as enforced by the Commerce Ministry.
- Further, organic farmers and others are being sought to be penalized for failure of certification agencies in fulfilling their responsibility, through sub-regulation 8 related to de-accreditation of certification bodies, which prima facie appears unfair to genuine organic producers.
We are deeply concerned about these proposals, and place our objections against the same as below. We believe that regulation of the proposed kind should not become a key constraint to the spread of organic farming. We however need a regulatory mechanism that should be able to uphold the interests of consumers by ensuring that fake organic produce is not passed off in the market as organic.
- Organic farming is an approach of food production that by its very definition and practice creates safer food for consumers, given that production practices adopted are devoid of toxic chemicals. This then goes a long way in promoting and fulfilling the very mandate of FSSAI which is around food safety. However, this is a nascent sector and is receiving some amount of systematic support from the government only in the recent past, which still is very meager compared to support received by unsafe practices in chemical agriculture paradigm (unsafe for human health and the environment). This sector needs greater support given that less than 1% of India’s cultivation is under organic farming. There is in fact a need to bring in more farmers and area into the fold of organic farming in the coming years, given the serious shortcomings of the chemical intensive agriculture paradigm and to ensure safer food for consumers.
- The current systems of certification – both third party certification and Participatory Guarantee System (PGS) – pose serious constraints of their own kind on organic producers, especially in terms of the ability of new farmers shifting to organic farming being able to come under any certification fold. Third party certification would be unaffordable and tedious for such new farmers while the PGS efforts by the government are limited mainly to the new PKVY (ParamparagatKrishiVikasYojana) with a requirement of five farmers to come together as a basic unit for the guarantee system, which is not an easy possibility. Meanwhile, it is also known that organic farming spreads through various other means, including with individual farmers who convert on their own (without any scheme-based support from the government). The PGS system is not, and will not be able to cater to the needs of all such farmers who are outside the scheme-based and project-based coverage.
- Certification of any kind including PGS also adds to the cost for the end-consumer, at a time when there is a need to make safe food affordable for all consumers including the poor. Making organic pricey due to mandatory certification/guarantee related regulationsonce again sets off a vicious circle for the further spread of organic farming.
- It is also important to recognize that both third party certification and PGS have inherent elements of conflict of interest and are not foolproof in ensuring that malpractices are kept out. In fact, instances of non-genuine organic produce that does not conform to standards have been documented with certified organic produce (as has been seen in the case of Bt cotton being passed off as organic cotton a few years ago, and as high levels of chemical residues in Ministry of Agriculture’s testing of organic samples showed).
- Meanwhile, there is a need to draw a parallel with the regulatory system that exists with commercial seed trade in India, where “truthful labeling” prevails with seed certification being only voluntary.Here, certification is taken up by seed companies only as an additional benefit if at all in the market, while most seed is sold “truthfully labeled”, conforming to (purity and germination) norms laid down. It is true that there are misbranded, sub-standard and spurious seeds that are also sold every now and then but that is not the norm. The inspection and sample analysis system is the mechanism that catches the contraventions to the regulation and penalizes the concerned parties. If something like truthful labeling works effectively in the regulation of seed, which is a critical input in farming which also affects food and livelihood security directly, it is unclear why mandatory certification is insisted upon in the context of organic produce.
- It can even be argued that in case of spurious organic, at the most there is a cost factor involved for the consumer (given the premium price being commanded by organic produce as of now), whereas safety is not additionally jeopardized in any way, compared to regular chemical agriculture-based produce.
- We would like to argue that any regulation of a product that is not inherently unsafe (unlike pesticides and GMOs-based products for instance), should be with a bar that prevents abusive market practices but should not penalize all players with rigid standards that cannot be met and will be a deterrent to a good practice from being adopted. The bar that will still ensure that consumer interests are protected is a system of transparency of sourcing and traceability (not linked to certification). While this is fairly straightforward in the case of an individual farmer’sproduce being marketed, in the case of farmers’ collectives, retailers and processed organic products, further records can be maintained at the optimal level of the collective or the food processor that uphold traceability. Any organic produce should be able to maintain verifiable records to specify where the sourcing is from. This itself can act as a mechanism which prevents unscrupulous practices around organic marketing, rather than insisting on mandatory certification.
- We therefore conclude by once again strongly rejecting/opposing any proposal for mandatory certification (Section 4, 5 and second sentence of Section 6 be deleted), and propose that:
- The definition of Organic Agriculture be changed as already mentioned in this letter.
- Under Section 4 of the proposed regulation, PGS Organic Council also be recognized straightaway and added as 4.iii. (PGS-OC is an existing system from where the official PGS evolved in the recent past).
- Regulations should penalize those producers and processors who end up contaminating organic produce by their use of synthetic chemicals, GMOs and other such prohibited materials in the vicinity of organic agriculture. The onus should not be on the organic farmer.
- Regulation should not end up penalizing organic farmers for no fault of theirs including because of lack of integrity and responsibility of certification agencies (Section 8 of the proposed regulation). Only those farmers who have violated standards laid down, and the certification agency which has failed in its duties should be penalized through de-accreditation etc., and not all the organic farmers who have actually complied with the norms.
- Regulation should focus mainly on already certified / guaranteed produce to ensure compliance and not seek to bring all organic produce under the ambit of NPOP/PGS-India or any other notified system.
- Chemical and GM-based/laced produce be labeled clearly as such given that toxic residues and hazards are going to be higher in such produce;
- All directly traceable chains be kept out of regulatory purview. Organic farmers selling to consumers in their own direct marketing avenues where farmers and consumers get to know each other directly and are transacting based on mutual trust be certainly exempted from any certification requirements, given that certification comes in as a guarantee where consumers do not know the source of their food; similar should be the case with retailing where traceability is maintained;
- Records of Traceability to be maintained in the least cumbersome manner till the point of sale from individual farmers or a farmers’ collective, and included in organic standards regulation and responsibility for traceability be maintained with other actors in the supply chain from this point onwards till retail;
- The inspection and analysis system may be tightened and strengthened without insisting on mandatory certification;
- Free access to adequate number of well-equipped laboratories be provided to organic farmers, their collectives, retailers and others for getting organic produce tested to ensure that standards are conformed to.
Umendra Dutt Rajinder Chaudhary
Co- Convener Member