Rising Covid cases in India boost demand for organic foods

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Workers at an organic farm collection centre

When agriculture entrepreneur Sharmila Oswal learnt that her sister, best friend, and nephew were all affected by Covid, she was shaken and began thinking about what could be done to help people build up their immunity. She was convinced that unhealthy food was one of the main reasons for their vulnerability because the majority of crops in India are nurtured using chemical fertilisers and liberally sprayed with pesticides and fungicides.

Her son Shubham, who had recently returned to India after studying in France, suggested that affordable organic food might be the answer. As she was already working with farmers through an NGO called the Green Energy Foundations for applications such as water-efficient agriculture, the next step to building a supply chain for organic agriculture appealed to her. That was the start of her venture 1Organic.

“The whole objective was to find the ‘Ikigai’ of our life. We found it in working for human health through organic food,” says Oswal. In a span of six months, she has developed a supply chain network of 5,000 workers who work in clusters in the states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, and Meghalaya. “We want to break the myth that organic food is only for celebrities and only sold in malls.”

She says by developing robust linkages between farmer produce organizations and marketplaces they are able to offer organic produce such as lentil or hand-pounded rice at prices comparable to conventional products.

Sharmila Oswal, Social Entrepreneur and Co-Founder 1Organic

For years, organic agriculture was shunned by a majority of farmers as without chemical inputs their output would suffer and often their produce would perish before they found buyers. Vegetables, fruits and grains would not find buyers easily as they did not look as nice as chemically-grown produce. 

However, the onset of Covid has jolted people to seek out food that boosts immunity. Wholesaler Metro Cash & Carry India recently reported that there has been a 60% year-on-year growth in demand for food products that are seen to boost immunity.

No chemicals in my food, please

Vijay Salunkhe, a 40-year-old farmer in Maharashtra’s Satara district, says there is suddenly an upsurge in customer enquiries for his organic produce which he has been growing for about a decade. “Last month, Big Basket came to me. They wanted to know if I could get more farmers like myself so that they could set up a collection centre.”

He grows a variety of organic products ranging from vegetables to grains like wheat and millets on his 15-acre farm. “I made the switch a decade back because I could no longer see any benefit from chemical inputs. My productivity was stagnant and that is when I decided to switch.”

However, the decision to convert is not an easy one for most farmers. It takes between 3-5 years to convert a field into organic produce and even if nearby fields use chemical inputs then they are denied the government certification. This is because there is a risk of chemical run-offs every time it rains or floods.

Mukesh Narwal, founder of farmer’s collective Kisan Utpadak Sangathan, says that he has seen a 20% increase in demand for organic produce in the last one year,but he adds that there are challenges that sometimes buyers are not willing to pay a bit more for products like forest honey sourced from the hills of Kashmir or Northeast. “So some farmers do get disappointed and drop out. The production is also less for the first three years before farmers get the organic certification, which is also a challenge.”

Industry experts said that the problem could be solved with the help of government support to handhold them through the initial period and then later help them find an assured market for their produce. Finding a market for superior food products won’t be too difficult as consumers are increasingly reading the list of ingredients written at the back of a packet, said participants at the recent Food World India summit.

“There is no doubt that during covid the demand for eating safe and hygienic food has become very high,” says Vivek Chandra, CEO of LT Foods. “There is an unmistakable shift towards food that provides health and immunity.” 

He says their business group’s organic food company, Nature Bio Foods, which mainly supplies food ingredients, has seen a big spike in demand. “The key in organic produce is how you get the back end supply chain right. The recent policy towards more contract farming can create a reliable supply chain,” he adds.

Growing awareness bodes well for organic

Former Agriculture Minister Sompal Shastri, who himself comes from a family of farmers in west Uttar Pradesh, said that in the mid-sixties he was impressed by the results obtained through the use of chemical fertilisers, though his grandfather had warned him that this would ultimately cause harm to soil health. “By the mid eighties, I observed that the soil was becoming progressively less productive and we had to increase dosage of nitrogenous fertilizers every subsequent year,” he said.

The water requirement for the crops also doubled and crops were more vulnerable to pest, insect and fungal attacks. It was then he came across a book titled “Violence of Green Revolution” by Vandana Shiva, which explained in detail the harm caused to soil and human health with the use of chemical fertilisers. Later, he found that even mother’s milk was having high degree of toxic residues and that the chemical residues damaged the kidneys, liver, the intestine as well as the stomach.

Later as agriculture minister under former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee he set up a taskforce on organic agriculture and afterwards along with 10 scientist friends founded the International Competence Centre for Organic Agriculture as a knowledge centre. Now the group works in 16 states to guide farmers for crop certifications and connects them to buyers and processors. They have also been organising international trade fairs on the subject.

Sompal says that he has seen a steady increase in organic farming in the social media of late. “Many people have started growing organic on their rooftops and balconies. So obviously the awareness is increasing day-by-day and the demand is also increasing. He says that the consumer would need assurance about the genuinity of the product for the consumption to pick up further.

Businesses appear to have already realized that the trend towards better foods is only set to grow as long as there is no quality compromise. 

Swati Dalal, managing director of Abbott Nutrition, says that this is already reflected in better lifestyle choices whether it be exercising more regularly or good quality food. “There is a big shift in consumer behaviour. They now realize that good nutrition is going to be extremely important to support vaccination. They will continue to consume such products even post vaccination.”

“In the next 18-24 months, this trend will continue and we will see more innovation,” she added.

Biman Mukherji is a columnist and consulting editor at Indoasiancommodities.com. He has worked for international news organisations such as Reuters, The Wall Street Journal as well as for newspapers like The Times of India. He can be reached at biman.mukherji@indoasiancommodities.in

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