FSSAI’s Organic Standards Regulations a potential impediment to the spread of organic farming in India
The following is the text of the letter sent on March 19th 2018 to the Chairperson and Chief Executive Officer of FSSAI (Food Safety and Standards Authority of India), with copies to the Union Health and Agriculture Ministers by ASHA, on the recently notified standards with regard to organic foods.
———- Forwarded message ———-
From: Kavitha Kuruganti <email@example.com>
Date: 19 March 2018 at 12:50
Subject: FSSAI’s Organic Standards Regulations a potential impediment to the spread of organic farming in India
To: Chairperson <firstname.lastname@example.org>, “email@example.com” <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Cc: “email@example.com” <firstname.lastname@example.org>, “email@example.com” <firstname.lastname@example.org>, “email@example.com” <firstname.lastname@example.org>, “email@example.com” <firstname.lastname@example.org>, email@example.com
1. The Chairperson,
Food Safety & Standards Authority
FDA Bhawan, near Bal Bhawan,
Kotla Road, New Delhi 110 002
2. The Chief Executive Officer,
Food Safety & Standards Authority
FDA Bhawan, near Bal Bhawan,
Kotla Road, New Delhi 110 002
Sub: FSSAI Notification No. CPB/03/Standards/FSSAI/2016, dated 29th December 2017 with regard to Food Safety and Standards (Organic Foods) Regulations – reg.
Greetings! This is with regard to the notified regulations for organic foods in India, as per Gazette Notification No. CPB/03/Standards/FSSAI/2016, dated 29th December 2017. We introduce ourselves as a large, pan-Indian advocacy alliance that not only seeks to promote ecological agriculture amongst farmers, for sustainable farm livelihoods as well as environmental sustainability, but also campaigns on food safety issues to ensure that all citizens can access safe food devoid of chemicals and other contaminants, which also is the mandate of FSSAI. India for Safe Food is a campaign platform of ASHA-Kisan Swaraj where consumer education and awareness is taken up on matters pertaining to food safety.
Associates of this network have been pioneers in promoting organic farming on the ground, have created innovative practices and technologies based on agro-ecology for better adoption and spread of organic farming, have taken organic farming to the most challenging but needy locations like Punjab, and have also initiated quality assurance systems to ensure that consumer interests are also protected, long before any formal systems related to PGS came into existence. The above is to let you know that we have always stood for the best interests of both organic producers and organic consumers.
We have had numerous discussions and debates with stakeholders in the organic farming as well as safe food movements with regard to the new regulations on organic foods, right from the initial time when nascent proposals started emerging from FSSAI, to the time when preliminary consultations were held with some stakeholders before the draft notification was issued, to the time when a joint response was sent to the draft notification by more than 50 organic, environmental and consumer organisations, coordinated by us.
We write to you now to express our concern with the way the regulation has been finalised and notified, given that we think it comes in the way of spread of organic farming even as it does not protect consumer interest. This letter is to request you to make some much-needed amendments at least now. In this letter, we explain what we are seeking and why.
1. FSSAI Notification a potential impediment to the organic spread of organic farming: As the Food Safety regulator, you are aware of the all-pervasive contamination by agro-chemicals, including of groundwater. We believe that organic farming has to be supported in all ways possible for it to spread to larger areas in a short span, given the need of the hour. The Government of India, as a committed policy of the current government, is itself putting a thrust on organic farming, as you know. This will not only benefit the farmers shifting to organic farmers, but also more and more consumers of this country who will be able to access safe food routinely, without having to be part of niche markets. For this to happen, all those impediments which come in the way of the spread of organic farming have to be re-looked at.
This notification is one such potential impediment. When certification is made legally mandatory on all organic farmers, with very limited exemptions, that has cost implications for both farmers and consumers. The regulation 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. We are predicting this situation because today, governments are not stepping forward to comprehensively address the certification needs of all organic farmers. It is mostly farmers who are getting covered under some government schemes (like Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana or state level organic farming schemes) who get some kind of certification support from government agencies. However, it is not clear what would happen to them after a scheme lapses, or moves on to other farmers. Organic farming expansion cannot be based only on schemes, but a ‘scaling-out’ process where farmers are adopting the practices, inspired and convinced by each other. It is not clear how they are expected to find dispersed group members for getting into PGS, for instance, without any external support.
Today, only some farmers who are covered under some flagship organic farming programmes are getting government support mainly through the PGS (Participatory Guarantee System) quality assurance vehicle. On the other hand, third party/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 the same. The constraint is not just around costs, but capabilities to comply with enormous record-keeping requirements. APEDA’s TRACENET system for instance, is premised on an assumption that farmers are being supported or assisted by others to deal with onerous systems like TRACENET, where access to internet, loads of paperwork and English based transactions, whereas in reality, there are many organic farmers who are not able to get external assistance, either from the government or civil society groups in any meaningful way, including when it comes to marketing their organic produce.
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-fre
We have also pointed out in the past that existing quality assurance systems are not fool-proof and numerous media and other reports seem to indicate this. Consumer interest is not necessarily protected fully just because some certificate has been obtained. 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”.
2. Exemption only to “Small Original Producer” or producer organisation unexplained and inexplicable: The said notification has a curious clause (4 (2)) around exemption from certification requirements for marketing of organic food through direct sales by “small original producer or producer organisation”. The determination of this category of producers has been left to you, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India. The rationale for exempting only “small” producers is unclear and it is also unclear where this emerged from, since all the initial drafts under discussion never had such a category of producers. Be that as it may, we would like to raise several issues about this clause:
a) It is assumed that this exemption is rationalised by the fact that such direct sales allows for consumers to know their producer and production conditions first-hand, without any additional quality assurance system having to come into the picture. This rationale then applies to consumers purchasing from non-small farmers too! Why are those other organic farmers not exempted, since quality assurance and traceability have been addressed in non-small farmer case too, when it comes to such direct interaction with consumers?
b) It is assumed that a small farmer is one who has upto 5 acres of organic farming. How is this farmer different from a 6-acre organic farmer, for instance? One of India’s most well-known and inspiring organic farmers, who is uncertified incidentally, has 7 acres of land. He will not be exempted from this notification’s new regulations, as an example to illustrate. He also does organic farming on 10 acres of leased in land, and the exemption not applying to him creates an anomalous situation.
c) It is established in extension and technology adoption theories that large farmers have often been the triggers for adoption of agri-technologies by others. Curtailing the adoption of organic farming by some such farmers through unreasonable regulations, may have the unintended impact of curtailing the adoption of organic farming by other farmers who would have emulated them.
d) If a farmer has several parcels of land being operated, the exemption rule can be misused by only one parcel of land being converted to organic, and then using the exemption clause. How does that help having a limited exemption?
e) It is not clear what is the definition of “small producer organisation” – would a producer organisation with many small producers (less than 5 acres of land) be called a small producer organisation, or will they be kept out of the purview of this exemption clause and punished by virtue of some other farmers being part of the organisation? This anomaly is arising once again because of this inexplicable distinction between small and non-small farmer, even though members of a producer organisation might all be fully organic.
f) It appears that no thought has been given to tenant and land less farmers in this exemption clause.
g) It is not clear what will be the case with many women’s SHGS that take up collective organic cultivation on leased in land or pooled land, as in the case of Kudumbashree in Kerala.
There is really no justification for giving the exemption to only “small” producers – this exemption should be extended to all organic farmers of the country, 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.
Meanwhile, the term “original” is also confusing in the notification – a producer is an original producer only, and produce taken from someone else cannot make that someone else a ‘producer’. The usage of ‘original’ is redundant in the notification.
(c) Exemption should be given also to farmers supplying to (one-step-away) retailers who do direct sales to end consumers, without any compromise to consumer interest: While exemption has been given to “small” producers and producer organisation (interpretation on these is ambiguous as well as limiting as explained earlier), it is important to realise that even the exempted small producers are not likely to market their entire produce directly. Retailers as the very next and final step to reach consumers are therefore important for all organic producers. Without this, the exemption clause is almost meaningless in reality for small producers. 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. It is in this context that we propose that FSSAI should exempt all those organic producers whose stocks are getting marketed through retail outlets that have directly sourced the produce from such organic farmers, without any intermediaries and are directly selling to end consumers (B2C). Simple but enforceable mechanisms around traceability can be adopted here, for organic farmers to continue to receive the support of one-step-away-retailers, for marketing their produce. Such producers should also be exempted from certification since this is more or less similar to direct sales, with traceability records on public display for protecting consumer interests. Please note that numerous pioneering organic farmers of Inda were not small and they all even today require retailing assistance.
We would like FSSAI to seriously consider the above two suggestions and expand the exemption conditions for organic producers and producer organisations immediately. The fact is that organic food sold in India is not more that 0.01% at this stage. Compared to other chemically grown food which is the more than 99% of the domestically consumed food, this is minuscule and there is no reason why the regulator should be over-zealous about regulating organic foods, especially since wrong labelling does not in this case lead to any extra risk to consumers. 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.
We also believe that there should be a process of widespread consultations across the country on this very important aspect of FSSAI’s own mandate, even as organic farming is one of the potential strategies for addressing larger issues like agrarian distress and environmental degradation in the country. Thank you.
1. Shri J P Nadda, Minister for Health & Family Welfare;
2. Shri Radhamohan Singh, Minister of Agriculture & Farmers’ Welfare