A Guide To Identifying Organic Products
Image Credit: Fruit shop in Himachal Pradesh. Photo by Royroydeb/Wikimedia Commons.

By Irfan Shakeer and Priya Ranganathan 

You might have seen organic food products at your local grocery store. But what is the process that goes into certifying these products as organic? And why are they so expensive?

Organic food products are produced by organic farming techniques and tools. Such practices are primarily aimed at sustainable agricultural production in an eco-friendly, pollution-free environment. The major focus here is on using naturally available resources, such as organic wastes (crop, animal and farm wastes, aquatic wastes) and other biological materials along with beneficial microbes (biofertilisers/biocontrol agents), as inputs, to release nutrients to crops and protect them from insects, pests and diseases, for increased agricultural production.

Reports from IFOAM-Organics International,  global network of organic stakeholders, and FiBL Switzerland, a research institute for organic agriculture, highlight that the global organic market has been growing at a compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of 8.7% over the five-year period from 2015 to 2020. Market research statistics from India have forecasted a 22% growth of CAGR for the period of 2022 to 2028 – a value of about $4082 million.

Organic food stall in Tamil Nadu. Photo by Thamizhpparithi Maari/ Wikipedia Commons.

What constitutes organic farming?

There are four principles of organic agriculture which are related to health, ecology, fairness and care.

The principle of health determines that organic agriculture should sustain and enhance the health of the soil, plant, animal, human and planet as one and indivisible. In view of this, it should avoid the use of fertilisers, pesticides, animal drugs and food additives that may have adverse health effects.

Organic agriculture should also follow the principle of ecology which means it should be based on living ecological systems and cycles, work with them, emulate them and help sustain them. Those who produce, process, trade, or consume organic products should protect and benefit the common environment including landscapes, climate, habitats, biodiversity, air, and water.

In terms of principle of fairness, organic agriculture should build on relationships that ensure fairness with regard to the common environment and life opportunities. Fairness requires systems of production, distribution, and trade that are open and equitable and account for real environmental and social costs.

Under the principle of care, organic agriculture should be managed in a precautionary and responsible manner to protect the health and well-being of current and future generations and the environment. Decisions should reflect the values and needs of all who might be affected, through transparent and participatory processes.

In view of the rising threat of global climate change, land degradation, and biodiversity loss, one of the most vulnerable natural resources on the planet is soil. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), soil, agriculture and climate change are intricately linked, with soils acting as the world’s largest reservoir of carbon, even more than terrestrial vegetation and the atmosphere. Agriculture and other human land use activities account for 23 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions (IPCC 2019). However, natural land processes also absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, acting as a carbon sink. Thus, organic farming has the potential to maintain healthy, natural soil, which in turn will absorb carbon. Additionally, by not using artificial chemical pesticides and fertilizers – the production of which is the second-largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions – organic farming contributes to combating climate change.

But why do organic products cost so much?

Organic products are typically more expensive on the shelf than their non-organic counterparts.

According to the FAO, the production cost of organic farming is estimated to be higher because of high standards or farming, quality of seeds and biofertilisers and a smaller scale of production.

Farmers are required to maintain higher standards of farming practices – such as maintaining healthy farmlands, safe handling of crops and livestock, and hygienic storage and transportation of products – in accordance with government certification guidelines. Additionally, farmers must invest in the procurement of organic seeds and good-quality biofertilisers, which furthers the cost incurred. Post-harvest handling of relatively small quantities of yields can also increase the cost of production. Given these factors, organic products are pricey, but it’s possible that they will become comparable in price to conventional goods in the future.

Post-harvest handling of relatively small quantities of yields can also increase the cost of production. Photo by Pradeep717/ Wikimedia Commons.

Boat carrying sacks of rice in Alappuzha, Kerala. Post-harvest handling of relatively small quantities of yields can also increase the cost of production. Photo by Pradeep717/ Wikimedia Commons.

What is the benefit of organic farming and its products?

Unlike conventional farming products, organic food products are demonstrated to have a lower environmental impact. Organic farming helps maintain soil nutrient levels and fertility by maintaining soil biodiversity and reducing topsoil erosion. It also aids in water conservation; conventional farming releases high concentrations of pesticide and fertiliser residues into waterways, polluting the freshwater supply downstream, adversely affecting aquatic biodiversity, and creating algae buildups. However, organic farming avoids heavy fertiliser and pesticide application, reducing the nitrate and phosphate load on adjacent water bodies. Additionally, organic farming is known to contribute less to climate change by maintaining healthy soil, which serves as a carbon sink for atmospheric carbon and by emitting fewer greenhouse gases than conventional techniques. Furthermore, organic farming promotes better health in consumers. They have lower levels of toxic metabolites such as heavy metals (cadmium, etc.), synthetic fertilisers and pesticide residues. Given the lack of use of pesticides, organic products are often farmed locally and shipped shorter distances, resulting in healthier products on the market.

Which systems of organic certification are recognised in India? 

In India, there are two systems that certify organic food products. One is the Participatory Guarantee System (PGS) which is implemented by the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare, and the other one is the National Programme for Organic Production (NPOP) which is implemented by the Ministry of Commerce and Industry. Both systems are independent of each other and to make the certification system affordable and accessible without the need for third-party certification agencies, PGS-India was implemented. This is a farmer group-centric certification system for local and domestic markets.

Each has a series of steps that need to be followed while undergoing the certification process.

Organic or not? Check the certification logo

Organic food certification confirms and guarantees adherence to organic food safety standards set by the government or other independent organisations. The certification logo lets everyone know that the product successfully fulfilled the norms for organic farming’s best practices. Instead of getting tricked by marketing labels that say “100% organic”, consumers should look out for FSSAI's organic logo on the packaging label. Depending on the certifying system the product receives certification from, the products may also have additional logos from NPOP and PGS systems of India.

Organic food Certification labels in India. Logos compiled by researchers.


This article is republished from Mongabay India under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.