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Elite Clubs of India
To go, Or not to go Organic?
Tea and coffee producers in India scan the emerging horizon

By Aparna Datta

They’re poised on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand the organic market seems full of potential, on the other hand is the fear of a probable drop in yields, and the sheer uncertainty in making a paradigm shift in farming methods.

But faced with a worldwide impulse towards sustainable agriculture, the rising costs of chemical fertilizers and pesticides where the law of diminishing returns has started to apply, with soils having deteriorated to the extent that yields are falling in any case, tea and coffee producers in India are now seriously considering their options. The critical decision: persist with conventional agricultural methods or convert to organic processes? Coupled with increased consumer awareness of the hazards of chemical residues in food and water, and the impact on health and ecology, the current momentum in organic farming seems to be propelled by the mutual interests of producers and consumers, and comes not a moment too soon.

The term “organic” though has become so generic, almost too comprehensive, that it no longer adequately defines the contours of the organic world or the varying attitudes and motivations of different producer groups. Consumers at the supermarket, faced with a multitude of “certified organic” labels are often thoroughly confused, unable to appreciate the real value-addition in organic products, and why there is a premium.

In fact, the organic movement in agriculture has various dimensions and there are distinct segments within the world of organic farmers. Far from being homogeneous, organic farmers could actually belong to different demographic and psychographic clusters:

Native farmers: Small growers, often in tribal areas, who are by default organic because they follow traditional farming practices, prepare compost from farm livestock, and grow a range of indigenous food crops for their own sustenance, with some surplus for domestic markets. Their farms do not require chemical fertilizer as quantum increases in yield are not the objective. In India, small organic coffee producers operate in the Wayanad and Idukki districts of Kerala state, the Koppa region of Karnataka, the Eastern Ghats of Andhra Pradesh, and in the ‘Seven Sisters’ – the states in the North-East. Often supported by non-governmental organizations (NGOs), they generally form ‘Self-Help Groups’ or cooperatives to become micro-enterprise units.

Environmentally sensitive souls: Individual owners/proprietors of medium and large tea and coffee plantations who have rejected conventional farming methods as being practically, ecologically and socially negative. An archetypal planter is K R Sethna, associated with Yellikodige Estate in Chikmagalur district in Karnataka, India, a self-proclaimed environmentalist and ornithologist who switched to organic farming in the early 1990s as a reaction to the damage caused by conventional farming. Chemical inputs are substituted with organic compost and herbal antidotes to pests.

Corporates with conscience: With an eye on the export market potential for organic products, these tea and coffee plantation companies have converted to organic farming, at least on one or two of the many estates in their fold, as a socially responsible producers. The estates operate on corporate lines, with effective management and labour welfare being intrinsic to their systems. The Bombay Burmah Trading Company (BBTC), with a presence in tea and coffee, Tata Tea, Parry Agro and Assam Company Limited are some of the players in this segment in India.

Believers in Biodynamics: In tune with cosmic rhythms, these farmers practice Biodynamic Agriculture – an advanced form of organic farming worked into a fine art, and science. Originally based on a series of lectures by Dr. Rudolf Steiner in 1924, biodynamics views each farm as a complete organism in harmony with living earth and the universe. Ambootia tea estate in Darjeeling and Poabs Estate in Nelliampathy, Kerala, growing tea and coffee, follow the biodynamic mantra. Currently in India there are about seven tea estates and five coffee estates that adhere to the prescribed on-farm processes and are ‘certified biodynamic’, although some of the biodynamic preparations are used in varying degrees on organic farms across India.

Ideally, it should be possible for producers and consumers with common values and affinities to connect and develop buyer-seller relationships. In reality, it’s not so simple. When agricultural produce has to travel beyond the local production zone to distant markets, the question arises for the consumer: how can I be sure it’s really organic? Ergo, the need for certification and inspection, a process that has now attained gargantuan proportions worldwide. At last count there were upwards of 150 certification agencies around the globe, all competing for business!

At the international conference ‘Indian Organic Products – Global Markets’ organized by the Bio-Dynamic Association of India in cooperation with the Ministry of Commerce & Industry, Govt. of India, and the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), held in New Delhi during November 28 – 30, 2002, the business of certification and regulation, and the emerging “organic bureaucracy”, was hotly debated. Dr Rainer Bächi of the Institute for Marketecology (IMO), Switzerland summed up the issue in his paper: “An increasing number of countries have started to regulate the organic sector to protect consumers from fraudulent products and to protect the farming industry. However, implementation of this good intention is in danger of becoming an ill-fated burden on farmers. Further development of an eco-friendly agrosystem may be trapped in a dead-lock if a solution to over-regulation cannot be found.”

The crux of the issue is that of standards and certifications, with each country setting up its own regulatory mechanism. So there are the US Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) guidelines, the European Union regulations, the norms of the Japan Agricultural Standards (JAS), and India’s National Programme for Organic Products (NPOP), not to mention many other country-specific systems!

It is now perceived that many governments have discovered that regulating the flow of organic products is a way to set new trade barriers. In his presentation, Anil Swarup, Chairman APEDA, India pointed out the lack of harmonization in organic standards the world over and the massive subsidies provided by the developed countries to agriculture that affected the growth of exports of organic products from developing countries.

All participants were agreed that certification is indeed necessary for exports, which explains why in India the Department of Commerce initiated the NPOP, and entrusted the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA) with the coordination of the effort. A National Accreditation Policy and Programme has been developed, with the Coffee Board, Tea Board and Spices Board among those recognized by the Govt. of India as accreditation agencies. These agencies have identified/approved various certification agencies, most of them representative units of international certification agencies, and notify the public from time to time about those agencies authorized to undertake certification and inspection.

Says M K Sanyal, General Manager at BBTC’s Elkhill Estate in Coorg, Karnataka, “The documentation required for annual inspections is enormous and now that many countries have adopted their own National Organic Programmes, which we compulsorily have to be accredited to, the paperwork is even more.”

It’s a maze Indian producer-exporters are willing to live with, along with the associated licensing fees, but not so farmers focused on the domestic market. At a ‘National Consultation on Organic Quality Assurance for Domestic Market’ organized by the Institute for Cultural Research and Action, in association with Other India Press and BDAI, held in Bangalore during March 8 & 9, 2003, a distinction emerged between ‘global’ and ‘local’ markets. Key speakers Dr Claude Alvares, a well-known activist based in Goa, and Dr H Sudarshan of VGKK, an NGO working with tribals in the B.R. Hills of Karnataka, mooted the concept of an alternative regulatory system suitable for small and marginal farmers.

This move has been inspired by a grassroots initiative taking shape half-way across the world in the US, where the trademark Certified Naturally Grown™ (CNG) has been registered. Says Ron Khosla, Executive Director of CNG Inc., “The organic label was not grown with government control and high licensing fees, it was grown with sweat, idealism and farmers helping farmers to improve and stick to those ideals!”

All the participants at the Consultation were dedicated organic farmers, and noted with some irony that natural/organic has to be classified separately, has to be certified at high cost, while the conventional production system utilizing chemical/synthetic fertilizers and pesticides is accepted as the norm!

“The organic movement needs to move away from its prescriptive approach,” says Dr A Damodaran, Professor of Economics, Trade and Environment at the Indian Institute of Plantation Management, Bangalore. “The philosophy of the movement should be 'honour and respect for the farming practices of the ecosystem farmers of Asia, Africa and the Pacific'. I would like to see the organic movement take a bottom up process that respects the ideals of ecology, equity and ethnicity. In the event, the holy grail of 'equivalence' and 'harmonization' articulated in the WTO would lose its sheen."

To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose, under heaven.

The worm turns, and it appears that the organic market for tea and coffee in the developed countries, currently estimated at about 5% of the trade in these commodities, is set to expand. “Sales of organic products have been steadily growing all over the world with the United States leading the growth curve at 25% amounting to sales of $9.5 billion in 2001 and estimated to be $20 billion annually by 2005. Within the beverage categories, organic teas and coffees have been experiencing double digit growth. The certified-organic tea market reached sales of $7.6 million in 2000, a growth of 29 percent over the previous year. What's more, it is projected that the market is poised to reach $125 million by 2005,” says Shashank Goel who is based in Chicago, USA and manages the international marketing of certified organic/biodynamic teas and herbs from India.

“The growth is amongst consumers who believe in creating a longer, healthier, more natural way of living. Their concern for personal health, health of their families, sustainability of the planet and their personal development significantly affect their attitudes, behaviors and usage of goods and services,” says Goel who also officiates as Chairman of the Specialty Tea Institute and is a Director of the Tea Association of USA.

From a producer’s point of view, organic farming can be both challenging and satisfying. Says M K Sanyal, “Our people took to organic cultivation naturally and enthusiastically that made the job so much easier. After 14 years of trying to perfect our organic methods we have now decided to extend our areas under organic. Trying to keep costs down has been a big challenge as it is more labour intensive than cultivating by non organic means; but then it provides employment to people from nearby villages and in a way helps give the project a social focus too.”
Obtaining a premium is certainly one of the aspirations, although most experts caution producers in converting to organic processes with profit as the sole motive. To enable tea and coffee growers to conform to international standards, the Govt. of India has recently announced financial assistance in connection with expenses incurred in obtaining certification. The risks, rewards and responsibilities for organic farmers continue to tantalize and multiply.
What if in the future organic farming becomes the norm, or reaches at least half of total agricultural production? Whither certification processes? Will it then become mandatory for so-called conventional producers to declare the types and quantum of chemical inputs used in farming? Ah, but that’s another story…

© Aparna Datta, 2003

 
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