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Organic certification is a must to ensure quality but the costs are prohibitive for small producers.

There has been a growing awareness of the need for producing food without using chemicals. Alternatives to farming that uses chemical fertilizers and pesticides are receiving attention. This is largely restricted to farmers’ self-use.

In big cities such as Chennai, produce claimed to be non-toxic has a good market which is growing too. This pricey produce has quality certification.

But some are sold without certification but with just a promise of being organic. They are marketed as non-toxic, natural and so on. This has made consumers confused.

S Arumugasamy is a pioneer in marketing organic produce. He spoke to on this topic. Below are excerpts from the Q&A.

if proper guidance and training is given, farmers will understand better about organic methods and the right market opportunities

What is the status of organic produce production and marketing in Tamil Nadu?
There is a lot of awareness in Tamil Nadu regarding use of organic products. This has been ongoing for the last 10 years. Even small farmers are keen to grow non-toxic produce. Right now, many of these farmers are adopting organic methods for self-use. Commercial organic farming has not really grown.

Why is this so?
There is lack of awareness on organic methods and the right market opportunities. If proper guidance and training is given, farmers will understand these. Then there will be a change in production methods.

S Arumugasamy, a pioneer in marketing organic produce, shares his insights with us

How can awareness be raised?
First the farmer has to be mentally prepared. He or she has to develop confidence in the organic farming methods. In the Kongu region, there has been some progress in this. Some farmers want to change over to organic farming but they don’t know how. They are unsure of market opportunities.

How is the organic market in Tamil Nadu?
The market is not properly organized or systematic. Small farmers produce in very small quantities. If the produce is sold locally, then just the credentials of the farmer is not enough for the produce to get sold. No certification is required.

But if they want to sell commercially in cities, certification is required. In addition, there are costs related to transportation and lifting and offloading the produce. All these increase prices. Only if the quality is assured, can the produce be sold at these higher prices.

Is this happening in Tamil Nadu?
Very little. Quality is hard to come by. Small farmers have this notion that they are putting great effort towards making their produce organic. So customers should give the price they ask for. But the quality is not up to the level of the quality-conscious urban consumer who doesn’t really hear the anguished demand of the farmer. In local markets, however, this farmer’s voice is heard and people are sympathetic.

Why is quality not high in the state?
In Tamil Nadu, farmland is scattered. It is hard to do commercial, organic farming in half an acre or one acre. Quality that can satisfy the city consumer cannot be ensured in such farms. In north India or in Europe, organic farming happens in farmlands of thousands of hectares. Quality is assured and price is not a constraint. In Tamil Nadu, that is not the situation.

In Tamil Nadu, farmland is scattered and it is hard to do commercial, organic farming in half an acre or one acre.  

But so many organic products are available all over the state
In our state, two types of organic farming happens. One is a systematic, structured approach. In this organic farming happens over hundreds of hectares. Produce from these farmlands has better chances of being sold in city areas.

The other is that of the small farmer. This is largely for local markets. This produce typically doesn’t have organic certification.

When a small farmer attempts to do organic farming individually, the chemical fertilizers, pesticides used in nearby farms affect his produce, too. Only when the inputs are analyzed, the reality comes out.

Which are the organic certifying agencies?
Quality monitoring for urban and export organic markets is done by Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA). If their guidelines for sample testing of the produce is followed, the cost will go up, which is prohibitive for a small farmer to get a sample of his produce to be tested.

Is it impossible for the small farmer then to become an organic producer?
We can’t say that. The basis of organic farming is converting the soil degraded by chemical farming. The intent is to gradually transform the soil, stop using chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and increase productivity. Small farmers can also do this. If the organic farming inputs are marketed locally, then this can be facilitated. But when coming to cities for marketing, it would be necessary to sample test the produce coming in.

There is a perception that a key aspect of organic produce is high price.
It is true that a higher price needs to be paid for better quality. In general, the price is 20% higher. This is the order of things internationally. This cannot be changed.

But in Tamil Nadu there is a practice of demanding 100% higher price for uncertified products. This will harm the organic market. Then the people will start thinking organic produce is to be used only on special occasions such as festivals. This has to be stopped.

What’s the solution for the small farmer then?
Norms for national and international certification for organic produce are laid down by APEDA. Big farmers owning more than 10 acres can qualify for these certifications. The costs are high. Small farmers cannot afford this. APEDA must come up with a solution for the small farmer. Only then things will change.

(In the second and concluding part, Arumugasamy talks about some of the marketing terms in vogue such as indigenous, tradition, “our forefathers were not fools” and so on)

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