Pesticide Residues in Food Produce Sold as Organic

Public Statement, put out on Jan.1st 2015

With reference to recent media reports about pesticide residues in food sold as organic, we – Organic Farming Association of India (OFAI) and Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture (ASHA) – note foremost that there is no dispute regarding the growing domestic demand for safe food by the increasingly-aware citizens of India. Larger numbers of citizens now understand the correlation between exposure to toxic pesticides, and numerous acute and chronic health problems.  The study cited by the pesticides industry seems to be a frivolous diversionary ploy, away from real food safety concerns of citizens.

In sharp contrast to conventional foods grown with the use of toxic chemicals, organic farming does not allow the use of any hazardous synthetic substances or GMOs. It is thus ironical and unreasonable that conventional foods produced using hazardous substances like synthetic pesticides totally escape the onus of disclosure and/or certification of safety and liability of prosecution, while significantly safer organic produce (safer for consumers and for the environment) which is subjected to much higher standards of control and certification, forcing greater costs on organic producers and others in the supply chain, is being portrayed as being more unsafe. While the farm sector urgently needs to move towards ‘Non Pesticide Management’ (NPM) and organic farming with pro-active support from governments, mandatory disclosure of hazards from the ones using synthetic chemicals is what is needed.

Nonetheless,  OFAI and ASHA also express serious concern about the need to ensure that proper systems, checks and measures (including farmers’ collective ‘Participatory Guarantees’) are in place to protect organic consumers from malpractices in the market that unethically cash in on consumers’ concern for safe food, by charging high prices based on willfully fraudulent claims. We call upon all concerned consumers to become pro-actively involved in knowing more about their food (both conventional and organic), including the source, how the food is grown, and where possible, the farmers or farmers’ collective that grew it. We further call upon all genuine organic producers and outfits associated with such producers to maintain transparency, traceability, be watchful against unscrupulous players and be whistle-blowers against any fraudulent practices.

OFAI and ASHA would like to acknowledge the current debate on the vitally important food and agriculture issues we presently face, including burning concerns of safety, sustainability, sovereignty and the survival of many millions of farmers.

It is a foregone conclusion, undisputed worldwide, that agri-chemicals such as fertilizers and pesticides are unsustainable inputs in agriculture. The World Agriculture Report (or ‘IAASTD Report’) prepared over four years by more than 400 agricultural experts and 1,000 multi-disciplinary reviewers from 60 countries, and endorsed by 58 nations, including India, along with representatives of FAO, WHO, World Bank, UNDP, UNEP, etc. bluntly concluded that “Business as usual is not an option.” The Report recommended the urgent need to promote bio-diverse agro-ecological methods, and to support small family farms to overcome the many serious problems confronting world agriculture. The organic approach emphasizes the ecological and economic sustainability of agricultural processes and practices as much as the safety and health quality of the end-product. It is widely accepted now that a holistic organic approach enables multiple benefits in terms of conserving and regenerating soil fertility, greater energy efficiency,  greater water efficiency, greater diversity of crop produce for more balanced nutrition, reduced vulnerability to erratic fluctuations of climate and weather, reduced vulnerability to rising prices and supply disruptions of imported agricultural inputs and fossil fuels, and increased self-reliance for regaining food sovereignty.

It is acknowledged that in the initial years of transition from the chemical method to the organic approach, there may continue to linger small residues of chemicals from earlier years. Moreover, infiltration of chemicals from neighboring conventional farmers cannot be entirely stopped until neighboring farmers also adopt organic farming. Taking this into consideration, the current organic certification systems have paid more importance to the processes and practices adopted by organic farms than the end product, assuming rightly that if these practices and processes are correctly followed, the end product will become safer. However, today, the entire organic certification system and mechanism is much too expensive and cumbersome for small and medium organic farmers. Special measures are needed to help them market their produce, and to get a fair, remunerative price for it.

OFAI and ASHA take this opportunity to express their joint recommendations to the government and society at large –

  1. Easy and affordable access to labs for testing toxic chemical residues: Currently, accessing labs for such testing of marketed foods is both costly and cumbersome for consumers or organic farmers. It is recommended that the government open up more labs for easy and inexpensive access to public to test toxic pesticide residues in both organic and conventional (chemically grown) produce available to households. This will have a positive effect on transparency relating to both, allowing greater informed choice to consumers.
  2. Fair parity of safety standards for organic and chemically grown foods: Various reports reveal that the permissible residue limits for foods are routinely exceeded, without any fear of accountability for such hazards. If organic farmers are required to produce certificates of safety, so should conventional farmers be asked to produce certificates that their produce is within the standards laid down for such produce, even as there is a lot of scope of improvement in standards such as MRLs.
  3. Greater transparency in terms of sources/Traceability: Consumers and society at large have the right to know the source of the produce offered for sale. Such transparency, achieved progressively, will create better trust in the minds of farmers and consumers. We believe that more and more localization of food consumption within the same area/region it is grown, is the best way forward, wherever feasible. This would help consumers know firsthand if their food is indeed being grown organically. This also requires more direct marketing support to be provided to producers/their collectives.
  4. Allow alternate and low cost forms of certification for organic farmers: As mentioned earlier, third party certification systems have proved too expensive and cumbersome for small and medium organic farmers. However, there are other collective certification systems for farmers, which are based on trust and transparency, such as the Participatory Guarantee System (PGS). It is recommended that the government take cognizance of such systems and encourage them since they are reasonable, low-cost alternatives to third party systems, which are too expensive for small and marginal farmers.
  5. Public procurement of organic food: It is highly recommended that existing government systems such as FCI, PDS procure locally sourced and safe organic food for schemes such as mid-day meal and antyodaya. When locally sourced, these foods are expected to be cost effective. In addition, nutritious foods such as millets can also be included in such food schemes, which in their traditional systems of production are “by default” organic.

Finally, OFAI and ASHA would like to state that today, more than ever, all stakeholders must seize the opportunity to ensure that sustainable farming, which provides wholesome, non-toxic food, becomes the mainstay of India’s agricultural policies and programs, since there is rapidly growing need and demand for such safe food. All concerned citizens are invited to discuss this in greater detail in the upcoming Biennial Organic Farming convention to be held in Chandigarh in March 2015 (http://www.organicconvention.in/).

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