Organic Universe

Organic is all the rage. Organic food, cosmetics, clothes and even organic medicines. But mostly it is food. There are speciality stores that sell only such items, while supermarket chains are stocking more of these products which are sold at a premium and come with certification that it is grown without chemical inputs and synthetic additives. But as Middle India discovers the virtues of naturally grown food, thanks to increasing awareness about the dangers of high pesticide use in conventional farming, it raises fundamental questions about Indian agriculture and the path it needs to take, especially in view of climate change concerns. Latha Jishnu and Jyotika Sood go to the roots of the organic phenomenon to understand the changes taking place in farmers’ fields and the policies that are driving organic agriculture, or holding it back

By Jyotika Sood, Latha Jishnu
Published: Tuesday 31 July 2012

Organic Universe

organic universeIt is a universe of its own—an expanding universe that has its own producers and consumers, its entrepreneurs, its markets, its passionate aficionados of scientists and evangelists. It is a universe that is governed by a different set of regulations and plays strictly by the rules, for the most part. In the politics of agriculture, its ideology is controversial since it goes against mainstream wisdom, almost heretical since it sets out to disprove the dominant chemical-driven theology of the past 60 years. We are talking about organic farming.

Why is organic farming controversial? At a fundamental level, it sets out to prove that you do not need chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilisers to produce adequate quantities of food. Organic farming works in harmony with nature by using simple techniques and material: recycled and composted crop waste and animal manure; crop rotation; legumes to fix soil nitrogen; encouraging useful predators that eat pests and natural pesticides; and a careful husbanding of water resources. The bottom line: increasing genetic diversity and conservation. It also means that no genetically modified crop is part of this ecosystem. The result: healthier farmers and risk-free food.

organic crops

It is a philosophy that has caught the fancy of some unlikely players. Some have given up well-heeled jobs in the Silicon Valley, others a lucrative legal career. There are doctors who have turned into farmers, and management professionals into organic retailers. In all cases, there was a desire “to return to natural methods of cultivation sans chemicals” and to grow “real food that tastes like it used to”.

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Among these remarkable men is Rajashekar Reddy Seelam, who literally crossed over to the other side: he switched from selling chemical inputs to farmers for a major company to becoming an organic cultivator himself.

Along the way, Seelam became a pioneer in retailing organic food and his store, 24 Letter Mantra, is now the top brand in the domestic market with an increasingly successful franchisee model, besides being a leading exporter. Sresta, the company he set up in 2004 to promote organic cultivation, works with over 8,000 farmers who cultivate around 60 crops on around 12,140 hectares (ha) spread across 12 states.

It uses the contract farming model. Seelam says Sresta’s scouting teams of trained agriculture graduates are careful to select farming tracts where soil and water contamination is negligible. Across India, groundwater contamination through leeching of pesticides has become a scourge after five decades of the Green Revolution theology that decrees huge lashings of synthetic fertilisers and chemical pesticides to improve yield from hybrid seeds.

“The thought that we should move away from the conventional wisdom first came to me in 1992 when I was aggressively promoting the chemical additives,” says Seelam. But it was not till 2004 that he took the plunge. Everyone told him it would be foolish to waste money on such an impractical idea.


Sresta, however, has stayed the course and notched up a turnover of Rs 55 crore. This may not be much and it underlines the problems of organic farming in the country—extremely small holdings, poor knowledge of scientific organic practices, certification that is both cumbersome and expensive for small holders, lack of markets and glaring lack of support from the government which, ironically, is footing a subsidy bill of around Rs 90,000 crore on fertilisers alone. Says G V Ramanjaneyulu, director of the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Hyderabad: “The government simply refuses to see the wisdom of promoting a proven system of farming that will cost so much less, both for the farmer and the government, and a system that benefits the land and consumers.”

Ramanjaneyulu, former scientist with the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), was responsible for launching the non-pesticide movement in Andhra Pradesh that has freed around 1.5 million ha from the grip of chemical pesticides. The state is now moving towards helping such farmers to get organic certification.

Different business models are being tried out to make such farming profitable for the smallholder. With entrepreneurial enthusiasm linked to a love of “clean farming”, interesting experiments have emerged. One is Dharani Suphalam, a primary producers’ cooperative society based in Sirsa, Haryana, which has brought together 1,500 farmers and is slowly linking them to the market (see ‘Innovative farm-to-home trail’). Another is the model used by Bengaluru-based Sahaja Samrudha Organic Producer Company that was set up in 2010 with authorised capital of Rs 10 lakh. It brings together 500 farmers through 40 groups. Its wholesale-cum-retail outlet in a central part of the city is a no-frills godown where bags of millets, rice and legume jostle for space with fresh mangoes and vegetables. But customers have no problem with its ambience since prices are reasonable.

Rajashekar Reddy Seelam switched from selling chemical inputs to farmers to becoming an organic cultivator

“Our concept is different,” explains Somesha B, CEO of Sahaja. “We are working with farmers, helping them to convert to organic and provide marketing assurance. So we keep our margins low: 10-15 per cent mark-up for wholesale and 20-25 per cent for retail. In any case, the profits go back to the farmer since they have shares in the company.” Turnover last year was Rs 52 lakh, but Sahaja is certain revenue will double this year.

One of the biggest grassroots success stories is of Morarka Foundation which, with its 100-plus project locations covering 19 states, has brought around 100,000 farmers under the umbrella of Morarka Organic. This has helped it understand the different agro-climatic problems and gain expertise in handling over 130 crops/products which, it says, form its core portfolio and are offered both as farm grade as well as processed and in retail packs that are sold under the Down to Earth brand (no connection with this magazine).

There are others like the feisty H R Jayaram who gave up a prosperous law practice to become an organic farmer-cum-retailer. He has set up what is probably India’s first organic hotel, The Green Path, in a Bengaluru suburb. Jayaram’s aim is to fire others with his passion and “to create replicable models that will inspire more people to take up organic”. Sahaja and enthusiasts like Jayaram have held regular organic food melas, which has helped make Bengaluru India’s undisputed organics capital. Restaurants, coffee shops and stores like Simply Organics run by another farming buff Govind Kabadi make for zesty organic profile for this city. Aiding this is the state government which gives Karnataka farmers a big helping hand in finding outlets for their produce.

But the corner organic store with crowded shelves is not the dominant image of organic retailing. The familiar milieu is the chic store in tony localities that sell beautifully packaged products that come with all kinds of certification—from NPOP (National Programme on Organic Production), which is the Indian standard, to those of the EU and the US. Here premiums are high since products come through many layers of marketing. The other place where one is bound to find such products are supermarket chains like Chennai-based Spencer’s which has a national footprint. Says a spokesperson for the chain: “We are a food-first multi-format retailer and sell a wide range of brands like 24 Letter Mantra, Down To Earth, Pro Nature and Pro Organic.” Growth has been phenomenal. Starting with two brands in 2006, Spencer’s organic category has grown by 300 per cent in last three years. Besides, its offerings which were restricted to commodities like cereals, pulses and spices, are spilling into a wide assortment from breakfast cereals to snacks and soups. For those who have the money, such outlets are a cornucopia of natural goodness.

Delhi-based Fabindia, which caters to the well-heeled and trendy customer, is a leading purveyor of organic foods, its elite stores across the country stocking carefully selected products. Ashima Agarwal, who heads the organic foods division, is unwilling to disclose the amount of business this segment brings in, but says: “Though small, organic foods are witnessing growth in terms of customer base and consumption. We started with 70 products and today offer more than 300 products and are still growing.” For William Bissell, Fabindia founder, the foray into organics from clothes, furnishings and traditional crafts was inspired by a book Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappe, a 1971 bestseller which advocated ecologically sound production of food. “Then when I was in the US, I worked on the organic farm of Gordon Ridgeway who was a purist and influenced me greatly,” says Bissell. Although he would like to keep fresh produce in his stores, there are too many logistical issues.

Logistics are critical to the success of organic farming and the reason such produce is far too expensive for the ordinary consumer. For instance, products sold by non-profit Navdanya are more expensive than similar items that are not organic. Founder Vandana Shiva has an explanation: “For me, organic farming is about livelihood and about sustainability and justice. When a farmer practices organic agriculture, he knows how to sustain his farm with natural resources; he is able to feed himself and his family; takes care of earth by giving natural resources back in forms of bio-fertilisers and bio-pesticides without polluting the environment.” Naturally, all this comes at a price since the government offers no help at all.

The booming growth in organic foods may well spell hope for the small farmer. With health-conscious and cash-rich customers ready to pay the premium for organic food, the market is expanding in dramatic ways. High-end, imported organic has also come to India. The first such is businessman Dilip Doshi’s Organic Hauswhich which has opened in Ahmedabad and Mumbai. For Doshi it is business pure and simple; he does not claim to promote organic because it is better for the environment or for the farmer. Every product in his uber-luxury stores is imported from Germany and Austria.

“Mine is a concept store. It tells the story of the evolution of globally benchmarked products. You can close your eyes and say this is organic. I could not find any genuine organic foods in India,” declares Doshi. That could come as a crushing blow to all the organisations, farmers and activists who have struggled to put Indian organic on the global map. But fortunately in Europe and the US, which together account for 96 per cent of the market, India’s credentials are respected even if it accounted for just a fraction of the US $59 billion global market for certified organic food and drink. India’s exports in 2010-11 totalled just Rs 550 crore, according to Manoj Kumar Menon, executive director of the International Competence Centre for Organic Agriculture or ICCOA, which is a knowledge centre for all facets of organic agriculture and also helps provide market linkages to all those engaged in organic agriculture.

Fabindia’s stores across the country stock carefully selected organic products

ICCOA is a crucial link to the market with its international trade fair Bio Fach India which draws over 100 global companies and thousands of visitors to its annual event. Menon is confident that India will become a significant player in the next four years when production is expected to touch Rs 4,000 crore, a huge leap from the current Rs 675 crore. By then, the global trade is expected to cross US $104 billion in 2015 at an estimated annual rate of 12.8 per cent. On the global organic map, India is a speck; it does not figure in the list of the top 10 countries. According to data released in June 2012 by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) and the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture of Switzerland, there was a total of 37 million ha of agricultural land that was organic in 2010. In addition, the organic universe had another 43 million ha of non-agricultural areas, up from 41 million ha in 2009.

What was India’s share? It had 0.6 million ha under cultivation, another 0.18 million ha under conversion along with wild area of 3.56 million ha. IFOAM statistics also put the total number of organic farmers worldwide at about 1.6 million, with the largest number, a whopping one million of them, in India. This is where our organic story gets truly interesting. In fact, the slight dip in organic agriculture area in 2010 was on account of India which reported the loss of 0.4 million ha of organic cultivation. But that trend is reversing. Says A K Yadav, director of National Centre of Organic Farming (NCOF): “The declining trend has been reversed and the area under certification process during 2011-12 is likely to be more than one million hectares.” He also makes the point that all the statistics with NCOF are for the area which is registered under certification process. “There is no reliable data on farmers doing organic but have not opted for certification.”

In all probability it means that organic cultivation is more widespread than estimated, although the Ministry of Agriculture is doing its best to undermine this through its various programmes. For instance, it has allowed its flagship scheme Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana to be used by states to convert tribal areas or the organic wild centre to conventional farming through the provision of free hybrid seeds in kits that also contain chemical pesticides and fertilisers. There is also the looming threat of climate change and its impact on agriculture.

While Krishi Bhavan has finally asked Ardhendu Sen, a former bureaucrat now with TERI, to draft a policy document for the promotion of organic agriculture, farmers are deciding on their own what’s in their best interest.

Innovative farm-to-home trail
imageWHEN 29-year-old Sunil Gupta (left) gave up his job as operations manager with a European GIS systems manufacturer in 2001 to try his hand at organic farming, it seemed a romantic idea. He would grow safe, wholesome crops without chemical pesticides and fertilisers on his 14-ha farm in Sirsa, Haryana. It turned out to be a nightmare. “The first year I failed miserably. I sought help from the Haryana Agriculture Department. But they had no clue what I was trying to do.”

Gupta travelled across Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan to know how agriculture was practised before the Green Revolution, which advocated generous lashings of synthetic fertilisers and chemical pesticides. Gupta began farming using manure and compost and biodynamics—sowing and planting as per astronomical calendar. The yield dropped, but the soil started regenerating and the food was safer to eat.

Gupta then got neighbouring farmers to turn organic cultivators. For the manure, he hit upon an innovative idea. Gaushalas, run by local communities as a relgious duty, had no money to feed the cows and found disposal of dung a problem. He persuaded the farmers to accept feed for the cows in return for the dung. Now, there is enough manure for the 1,214 ha belonging to the 1,500 small farmers who are members of Dharani Suphalam, a primary producers’ society.

Dharani Suphalam produces about two tonnes of fruits and vegetables daily. How does this reach consumers? Gupta, as president of the society, ties up with top organic stores in Gurgaon, Jalandhar and Ludhiana. Dharani Suphalam has a marketable surplus of 1,000 tonnes of wheat, 500 tonnes of rice and 100 tonnes of mustard oil. Talks are under way with exporters but are yet to translate into contracts.

imageBut prospects are improving with players like Ashmeet Kapoor (right) who left an electrical engineering job in the US. Kapoor, 26, is the last vital link in getting fresh veggies into homes. He has set up I Say Organic, a home delivery service that works in south Delhi and Gurgaon. Its one cold store and four vans handle about two tonnes of produce daily from Dharani and producers in Himachal Pradesh. The vans ferry veggies on orders placed on the company’s website or by phone. Prices are high but then, Kapoor says, he is giving farmers 25 per cent premium over mandi prices.

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