India’s organic food exports have found a new strength—online traceability. Web-based TraceNet can trace an organic product right from its origin. It assembles, stores and reports information on each organic food produced for export. So, if an importer complains that a product has chemicals, TraceNet can verify it at just the click of a mouse. The idea is to have a stringent control system for Indian organic products. P V S M Gouri, adviser, National Accreditation Body for Organic Products under the Agricultural and Processed food products Export Development Authority, talks to Jyotika Sood about TraceNet and the organic certification process
What is TraceNet?
TraceNet is a web-based traceability system, which integrates various stakeholders in the organic supply chain, such as farmers, processors, traders, certifying agencies, accreditation body and the Agricultural and Processed food products Export Development Authority (APEDA). It maintains all the information about each organic product, right from the time a crop is sown till it reaches the importer. All authorised stakeholders register under a certifying agency for organic certification as per the National Programme for Organic Production (NPOP).
How does it work?
The first step is registration. Everybody in the organic supply chain, called operator, must get registered. Farmers register in groups, but many big and educated farmers register as individuals as well. At present, over 500,000 organic farmers are registered under group certification.
Registration is done by a certifying agency. The operator gets a password of his domain to enter the plan of his activities for the entire cropping season, called the organic system plan. The operator’s farm is mapped by global positioning system and verified by the certifying agency during field inspection for the issue of organic certificate.
How does it help?
All the process that the organic product undergoes is certified by a certifying agency, which is accredited by APEDA. After the operator enters all the information, the certification agency conducts field inspections. It feeds in its results in TraceNet—compliance or non-compliance with NPOP, and the reasons for its decisions. It is obligatory for the registered operator and the certifying agency to enter the details. Without these, farmers’ organic certificates cannot be generated. The software ensures stringent monitoring of all the organic products.
How important is the role of a certifying agency?
It plays a very important role. To export products, farmers need third-party guarantee. Certifying agencies play the guarantor’s role and verify NPOP compliance. These agencies are responsible for monitoring, so they employ qualified agriculture and food technology specialist who are at least post-graduates. They are trained by certifying agencies.
What are the requisites of a certifying agency?
APEDA gets applications from universities, retired professors and agriculture experts asking for licence to certify organic products. We follow a stringent process and assessment for compliance to ISO-65 before issuing a licence.
A certifying agency must have financial stability, adequate and qualified staff, well-defined policies, inspectors to conduct field inspections, and a reviewer to analyse field work of the inspectors. The reviewer submits his report to a certifying committee, which has at least three members. All of this requires infrastructure, capital cost, manpower and expertise. Therefore, certifying agencies are accredited after a thorough evaluation.
Is the certifying agency same for all processes of an organic product? Not compulsorily. Selection of the certifying agency is the prerogative of the farmer, trader and manufacturer, so in the manufacturing of a product such as mango jam, the certifying agency for mango crop may be different from that of jam. At times, even the importer makes a choice. India has as many as 24 certifying agencies accredited by APEDA.
How are organic products made from minor forest produces (MFPs) certified?
The places from where MFPs can be collected are marked on state maps by the forest department. Those who collect MFPs are called certified wild collectors. The rest of the certification procedure is the same as that for agricultural products.
Does an organic certificate assure that the product is chemical-free?
An organic certificate assures that no chemical was used in the entire process of the making of the product. It ensures that the product, which can be a crop or processed food, was cultivated and manufactured under surveillance, and no pesticide was used. Any tampering with nature is not allowed.
Organic products are covered under food laws and monitored by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI).
Has there been any lapse on part of a certifying agency in the past?
Yes, there have been a few cases. We got complaints for cumin, fennel, ginger and basmati rice. We imposed heavy penalties on the agencies, varying from Rs 5 lakh to Rs 10 lakh. But now we have started suspending them, and even de-accrediting them. These tarnish the names of the agency, farmer and the operator, so they are always on guard. However, if they are not satisfied with the suspension or de-accreditation order, they can appeal to APEDA.
When importers have to make a complaint, they inform their own government. In such cases, data on TraceNet plays an important role. At times, retailers complain 15 months after a product has been exported. There have also been times when importers have complained of pesticide contamination just to negotiate prices or due to business rivalry. These are some reasons for making our system foolproof.
It seems a well planned system. But what if a farmer wants to change his crop mid-season due to bad weather?
A farmer cannot change his crop mid-season. But in case of natural calamities, he should inform his certifying agency which will inspect the farm. Only after its approval can the farmer change his crop.
Changing a crop was easy before 2010 when TraceNet came into being and records were maintained manually.
Does TraceNet have a traceability mechanism for the domestic market?
The domestic organic market was earlier under the agriculture ministry. This year, it has come under FSSAI, which is under the health ministry. At present, farmers use AGMARK certification, but it is voluntary. However, NPOP is likely to become mandatory for domestic market.
It is essential to have third-party assurance in the export market, unlike the domestic market where participatory guarantee system, or self-certification, is accepted. Under NPOP, participatory guarantee system is used only to teach farmers to get organised and follow the organic process. Self-certification is not allowed.