Last week I was in a supermarket to buy some food items. A poster on Organic Food attracted me. There was a whole new section on Organic. There were organic vegetables, organic fruits, organic preservers, organic tea etc. Then there were flyers stacked around that talked about benefits of going organic. The prices of the food items were a bit higher though. But then I thought that this premium I shouldn’t mind as it may offset the costs of me not falling sick or perhaps may reduce my chances of hitting a cancer over a long run! So I decided to go organic and picked up a pack of Organic Apples produced in New Zealand. The apples tasted real good! I thought it was worth the bite.
The question that puzzled me however was “what is organic? and how do I know whether what I am shopping is truly organic – i.e. who verifies?” and “why should New Zealand’s organic apple reach Mumbai’s supermarket?”
Organic foods are foods that are produced using methods of organic agriculture. Organic agriculture is defined as a production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems and people. It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects. Organic agriculture combines tradition, innovation and science to benefit the shared environment and promote fair relationships and a good quality of life for all involved. (International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM) see http://www.ifoam.org/growing_organic/definitions/doa/index.html)
If we go by this definition then the concept of organic food is really not new. In fact, this is how the food used to be produced generations ago following traditional farming. So going organic now simply means that we are going back to our culture that respected the environment and followed agricultural practices that were sustainable.
So organic is something that is sustainable, local, small-scale, family-owned, natural and agro-ecological. It may however be slow i.e. take more time and its productivity per acre of land could be less when we use modern techniques. Organic food production is however intended to drive the growth of farmer’s markets, generate more employment and improve community livelihoods. We therefore must take a rounded perspective..
Unfortunately, if these are the characteristics of organic business, then organic food alone cannot feed the world. Given the surging population and intense urbanization, we may still need to follow the “so called efficient” methods of food production that rely on use of fertilizers, pesticides and mechanization. We may even have to risk food produced through Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). For instance, a hectare of conventionally farmed land produces 2.5 times more potatoes than an organic one. So, if are looking for scalable solutions to go organic then globalization of organic food industry is perhaps the answer or at least part of the solution.
Markets for organic food are growing. According to Organic Monitor estimates, global organic sales reached $54.9 billion in 2009, up from, $50.9 billion in 2008. The countries with the largest organic markets are the United States, Germany, and France. (Source: The World of Organic Agriculture: Statistics & Emerging Trends 2011). Acreage managed organically is however only a small percentage close to just around 1% of the total area cultivated (Source: The World of Organic Agriculture: Statistics & Emerging Trends 2011. See http://www.ota.com/organic/mt/business.html). So there is a long way to go still.
Globalization of organic food has however many challenges. National organic food standards mainly exist in developed countries but then there are now hundreds of such standards in use. So criteria for organic apple from New Zealand will be different from the organic apple from California.. Significant efforts for harmonization of organic food standards are needed and it may just not be worth given the complexity, specificity and preferences of the regions. As a buyer of organic food, I would be lost in the maze of labels and terminologies.
The US Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program for instance distinguishes three categories of organic: ‘100% Organic’, ‘Organic’ (contains at least 95% organic ingredients) or ‘made with organic ingredients’ (at least 70%). Only products in the first two categories are eligible to carry the USDA Organic Seal. To qualify for the European Union Organic Logo on the other hand at least 95% of a product’s ingredients of agricultural origin must be organically produced.
On the side of harmonization, the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) is an umbrella organization with more than 750 members in 108 countries. IFOAM offers an Organic Guarantee System which enables organic certifiers to become “IFOAM Accredited” and for their certified operators to label products with the prestigious IFOAM Seal next to the logo of their IFOAM accredited certifier. (Source: http://www.ekobai.com/analysis/details/5)
A more recent movement harmonization is Asian Regional Organic Standard (AROS). Operated through Global Organic Market Access (GOMA) Project, AROS should help farmers in developing world to take a stake in the global organic food industry. The Asian Regional Organic Standard (AROS) was approved on 12 February, 2012 by GOMA’s Asia Working Group
Apart from the non-uniformity of standards, the second challenge is the management of global organic food supply chains. Organic food standards often encompass environmental attributes and address social and ethical considerations, especially when we look into the handling of farm labor. Given the small land holdings of farmers in developing countries, poor access to infrastructure and finance and weak monitoring and enforcement, verification of organic criteria becomes extremely difficult. Added to that is the problem of traceability as it is often hard to pin down the supplier network when there are informal segments operating between farm and produce. You need robust accreditation systems as well as team of verifiers to ensure that the global chains of organic food actually deliver the organic products.
Costs of labor have been one of the principal factors to look for competitive global sourcing. Hence organic food, that is more labor intensive in the EU and the US, travels distances from developing world. This leads to more Green House Gas (GHG) emissions, greater environmental impact (e.g. packaging) and importantly more costs. Added are the costs of accreditation and verification. This is a yet another challenge.
It is important therefore to apply Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) and judge whether globalization of organic food is the way ahead LCA related to food production looks into: energy required to manufacture artificial fertilizers and pesticides; fossil fuel burnt by farm equipment; nutrient pollution caused by nitrate and phosphate run-off into water courses; release of pollution that may cause acid rain; and the area of land lost under farmed that could have been used for some other beneficial use. It also looks into material burden on packaging, storage space (with climate control) and spoiled food waste, transport and disposal of fruit residues if processed. Such an accounting of resources, energy and wastes/emissions may just show that getting organic apples from New Zealand to Mumbai may not simply be environmentally sound. Ideally, organic apple of New Zealand should be sold and eaten in Christchurch and not in Mumbai!
(This article was originally published in Green Prospects Asia from Malaysia)
For Students – Research on the criteria for Organic Food, Organic Cotton, associated Eco-labels and come up with a common criteria. Attempt quantification of benefits and costs over life cycle of going organic. Take a case study on organic food that travels long distances. Understand the term Traceability. See http://up.agri.net.in/organicmain.aspx to know e-organic traceability organic food in Uttar Pradesh in India.