The Organic Benefits

By Swarnendu Biswas

Nowadays the term organic agriculture and organic food are becoming very much vogue among a great many health conscious Indians; an evolving trend whose rippling effects are also being felt in the Indian retail market and the Indian food service industry. It is also true that the market for organic food in India is still very niche and limited one, but at the same time this market has huge growth possibilities. 

In organic agriculture, fertilisers of organic origin are being used, such as manure, green manure, compost, etc. The practices of biological pest control, mixed cropping and the use of insect predators are being encouraged in organic farming. Organic farming is a form of agriculture that does not use or highly limits the use of manufactured fertilisers and pesticides, plant growth regulators such as hormones, food additives and genetically modified organisms. 

Here it deserves a mention that organic farming is not a novelty or a fashion in India, but has been a part of its agricultural legacy since millennia. However, since the advent of the Green Revolution, the use of artificial fertilisers and pesticides has become rampant in Indian agriculture. The new movement towards organic farming can be construed as a counter to these negative environmental effects.

Green Agriculture

According to Purvi Vyas, “Organic farming practices increase the fertility of the soil and improve the overall balance of the farm ecosystem.” Purvi is a nationally renowned organic farmer based in Matar, near Ahmedabad, who took to organic farming by following her impulse, despite being armed with Masters in Environmental Management from Australia’s Western Sydney University and despite having a lucrative career before she took the leap to farming.

However, organic farming is not only about producing food without the influence or with very negligible influence of manufactured fertilisers and pesticides. “Organic farming is about looking at farming holistically. Unlike normal chemical farming, organic farming aims to improve the long-term health of the environment, keeping the soil alive and thriving for generations to come. This healthy farming practice facilitates combating soil erosion, in preventing the harmful effects of global warming, in supporting water conservation and water health. It encourages increasing biodiversity on the farm and conserving it,” elaborated Purvi.

Vandana Shiva, a globally renowned scientist and environmentalist who played a pivotal role in popularising organic agriculture in post-modern India, stated that agriculture through manufactured fertilisers and pesticides or ‘chemical agriculture’ requires about 10 times more water than sustainable agriculture to produce the same amount of food, causing quicker depletion of our water resources. She wisely termed chemical or industrial agriculture as “thirsty agriculture.”

Vandana also opined that agriculture, which is excessively dependent on manufactured pesticides, “contributes towards destruction of the beneficial living organisms in the soil, which include beneficial bacteria and earthworms.”

 “Chemical farming/industrial farming method consumes huge amounts of fossil fuel-based petroleum products. From sustainability point of view, over dependence on fossil fuel to farm is not a good long-term viable solution for the environment,” pointed out Purvi.

Healthy Produce

The products of organic farming are the organic food. Organic food is popularly accepted as a healthier form of food than food produced through the influence of manmade chemical fertilisers and pesticides. “In terms of nutritional status, organic food is nutritionally dense food as nature intended it to be. It is grown in the nutrient rich soils, with least amount of external inputs and thus it maintains its authenticity.  A lot of studies over the years show that food produced organically has higher nutritional value than inorganic food,” Purvi the maverick farmer, elaborated. 

Purvi has a very logical answer to why organically produced fruits and vegetables would be more nutritious to eat than fruits and vegetables produced through conventional chemical agriculture.

 “Nutrition value of a freshly harvested fruit or vegetable is significantly higher than that of a fruit or vegetable that has been on the shelf for days and weeks.  Nutritional value of fruits and vegetables usually begins to drop after they are harvested. Organic farming does not only avoid the use of chemicals during plant growth but it forbids the use of any kind of artificial preservatives or chemicals to extend its produce’s shelf life. As a result, organic fruit or vegetable spoils a lot earlier and needs to be eaten in a considerably shorter period of time than conventionally grown fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables produced through chemical or industrial agriculture are often harvested before ripening to ‘survive’ the transport time and are often treated with chemicals to extend their shelf life. They thus remain fresh looking much longer than organic fruits and vegetables and generally provide less essential nutrients than they are claimed to contain,” Purvi elaborated.

According to Purvi, organic food is healthier than food produced with the influence of manufactured pesticides and fertilisers, “because they are free of harmful pesticides and chemicals, not only when the produce is grown but also in the post production process as no chemicals should be applied to them to increase their shelf life.”

“Advantage of an organic diet is substantial reduction in exposure to neurotoxins, endocrine disrupting or carcinogenic elements in our food,” proffered Purvi, the visionary lady.

The Cost and Certification Issues

However, though healthier than food produced with huge influence of chemicals, organic agricultural produce, on an average, are apparently costlier than products produced through conventional industrial farming. “The comparatively high price tag of organic food products reflects the true cost of growing food without the regular ‘chemical agriculture’ practices. The amount of time and labour required for organic farming is much more than chemical farming,” conveyed Purvi.

Though consuming agricultural products contaminated with pesticides can increase the risk of diseases and potential health costs of people, but unfortunately, those long-term hidden costs are seldom taken into account by the Indian consumers.

That is one of the reasons impeding organic food market's popularity in the Indian retail market and also in the Indian food services industry as Indian economy is, by and large, a price-sensitive economy. Another factor which is impeding the growth of the organic food market in India lies in time consuming and expensive process of getting certification as an organic food producer.

 “To acquire certification that you are an organic food producer is not only time consuming but also very expensive in our country.  Many a farmer in India are  organic by default as they cannot afford the chemical fertilisers and pesticides, but since they do not have a certificate to show that they have produced their agricultural produce organically they cannot get the benefit of the price organic produce fetches. To benefit from the organic market certification is a must for the farmer,” elaborated Purvi.

She concedes that organic farming and organic food can be described as an elitist movement in India at present. “Very few people in our country can consistently afford to buy organic food. The organic farming is not subsidised by our Government on a large scale like it is being done in chemical agriculture.  Prices are to a large extent influenced by subsidies,” she observed.  She also criticised the lack of support center to help a farmer in India when he wants to convert to organic agriculture. 

Gaining Market

However, all said and done, the organic food movement in India, despite its drawbacks, is gaining momentum. Rising disposable incomes and growing health consciousness in the urban Indian society can give a fillip to India’s organic food market in the coming years.

“The government has already led the way by declaring Sikkim as a 100 percent organic state, so mechanisms and understanding to certain extent are in place,” averred Purvi. Here it deserves a mention that in the recent past, Sikkim did achieve the distinction of becoming India’s first fully organic state by implementing organic farming practices on around 75,000 hectares of agricultural land within the state. This is a welcome initiative towards the organic food movement in the country.

There are other reasons too besides the above-mentioned ones for the future growth  of the organic food market in India. According to a recently published report by TechSci Research titled ‘India Organic Food Market By Product Type, Competition Forecast and Opportunities, 2011–2021’, which was published in September 2016, the market for organic food in India was anticipated to grow at a CAGR of over 25 percent during 2016–2021, on account of changing food consumption patterns and increasing instances of contamination of farm produce with chemical fertilisers and pesticides; due to surging investments in organic food market and rising use of bio fertilisers. 

The report observes that organic pulses and food grains segment dominates India’s organic food market, as pulses and food grains form an important part of staple diets in India. Further, according to the report, west India is anticipated to continue dominating the organic food market in the country through 2021, on account of high disposable income levels and rising health consciousness among consumers in the region.

Cost-effective Means

Organic food can be made more popular in the Indian food service industry. One of the most effective ways to make organic food cost-effective across restaurants is by going for seasonal and local produce. “Most organic restaurant owners learn fairly quickly that the best way to keep cost low and food fresh is to go seasonal and local. It allows for a creative menu. The menu must change to accommodate the seasons. Cooking according to seasons can be a challenge but it is also an excellent opportunity to try new dishes and it keeps the menu fresh and the customers excited,” articulated Purvi. More restaurants serving organic food is the need of the hour to make eating out healthy and sustainable. 

 “I believe that the Indian food service industry is already doing a lot and can do a lot more to help support the organic movement. A lot of Chefs collaborate with farmers and design menus that are based on food that is available seasonally, locally and regionally. The Chefs are encouraging farmers to grow traditional grains, vegetables which are not commonly used and are cooking them with a contemporary twist. They are increasing the use of wild edibles in their menus. Experimenting with all these allows the Chefs to cook a wide variety of cuisines.  

By adhering to these practices, organic restaurants’ can directly help to sustain organic farmers and in turn help to produce a stronger local economy and also facilitate to preserve biodiversity,” observed Purvi.

However, it can be inferred that organic food can gain easier market acceptance in the stand-alone fine dining restaurants, or in high-end restaurants housed within five-star or four-star hotels than in India’s casual dining and QSR segments.

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