The food on your plate: Is it safe? Is it organic?

While organic fruits, vegetables and staples are much sought-after especially in metro cities like Bengaluru, consumers are often not able to verify the quality of the produce. What makes it ‘organic’ and how can we check?

This article is supported by SVP Cities of India Fellowship

Why does one need to know the source of vegetables?

Given the state of the environment today and the fact that each one of us is a consumer at some level, it has become almost imperative that our concerns grow beyond just our purchase and include the journey of the product before and after we use it.

The fear among people seems to be related to heavy metal contamination. Kiran R V, a resident of Rajajinagar, says the vegetables might have been grown using contaminated water, or using sewage as fertiliser, which might even be contaminated with industrial waste and heavy metals.

A study done in 2006, titled “A market survey of vegetables in Bangalore for heavy metal contamination in relation to human health” by L. R. Varalakshmi and A. N. Ganeshamurthy, Division of Soil Science and Agricultural Chemistry, Indian Institute of Horticultural Research, threw light on the subject for the first time. It shows that leafy vegetables and root vegetables collected from K R Market contained excess amounts of Cadmium, Chromium, Nickel, Lead and other heavy metals which would affect human health adversely. The vegetables checked included Stem Amaranth, Spinach, Fenugreek, Coriander, Dill, Mint, Carrot, Radish, Beetroot, Knolkhol, Tomato, Brinjal and other vegetables used in everyday cooking in Bengaluru.

The same researchers also found out in 2010 that such concentration of heavy metals was higher especially in the vegetables grown using untreated waste waters of Bellandur, Varthur, Byramangala and Nagavara lakes in Bengaluru. It is anyone’s guess that same would be true for the vegetables grown in the outskirts where waste water from the city flows out, especially the entire Vrishabhavathi river belt.

Farmers resort to freely available water, resources and pesticides without much thought given to the safety of food they grow, as they don’t want to incur losses, and want farming to be a rewarding exercise. The awareness among farmers regarding the issue is also low.

What is the difference between safe and organic food produce?

Technically, they mean different things. When vegetables or produce are marketed as Safe, that generally implies that the residual effects of the fertilisers and pesticides are within the limits prescribed under the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India.

To achieve this, big farmers and farming industries typically follow Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) recommended by Quality Council of India. Many vegetable growers use greenhouses to grow vegetables in a controlled temperature, humidity and atmosphere, and use specific hygiene practices to avoid pest menace, thereby reducing the chances of pesticide usage. The fertilisers used could be either organic or chemical, in these cases. The space is used to an optimal extent, and yield is maximised, in this method. Deemandala Farms in Nelamangala, a supplier of vegetables to Metro Hypermarkets and many other outlets, uses greenhouse farming.

Organic refers to the process by which the vegetables, fruits and staples are grown: using soil amendments, biodegradable fertilisers and repellents that come from plant sources that cause no harm to soil or animal health. Organic products can either be certified or not. Farm cooperatives like Navadarshanam and many organic terrace gardening hobbyists resort to this method, but do not always go for certification. Brands available in the market that go for certification include 24 Mantra, Organic India and Pronature.

Jana Reddy, a technologist who runs the The Living Room Farm says: “We have to take an educated judgement at every stage… The packaging of “organic” is so convoluted that having a bit of clarity on what we want to be among so many possibilities of organic/ natural/ traditional/ modern/ native/ hybrid etc.. was essential for us.”

How can I tell if the vegetables I’ve bought have been grown organically or not?

That’s not always easy. To a lay consumer, it is difficult to tell the difference merely by looking at an organically grown vegetable versus one grown with chemical fertilisers and pesticides.

But Sunita Rabindranathan, a consultant on Sustainability, Agriculture and Environment, suggests that vegetables can be bought from known sources or organic shops where the shopkeeper might know the sources of vegetables. She believes that trust goes a long way in organic vegetable business. However, a certification process is a must for the products to be called organic officially.

Growing organic food without pesticides and chemicals is possible, but the cost works out to be high. Pic courtesy: The Farming Collective

Parvez, partner at Organicz4u, an organic store that caters to customers around Frazer Town and surrounding areas, agrees that trust on the source or the farmer group growing the produce organically is most important. He verifies the sources through friends in the environment or the agriculture sector, or by visiting the farms on his own. If he is unable to verify the source, he says he doesn’t keep the products in his store.

Bigger players like Bigbasket leverage their reach and network; Vipul Mittal, their National Head, Fruits and Vegetables section, says that Bigbasket has introduced a separate section on their portal to cater to consumers who consciously want to support organically grown vegetables. He says that at the back end, they ensure this by tapping into geographies that are untouched by chemical fertilisers and pesticides. They invest in setting up collection centres at these locations and offer market linkages for the farmers as an incentive to continue organic practices.

Therefore, universal opinion seems to be that as a consumer, we must know where our vegetables come from. Parvez says, “It is important for the consumers to check where the produce comes from and to verify sources. These days, since it is convenient, people opt to buy online without verifying. Instead it is best to support a local organic store after verifying the source’. He gets his vegetables and fruits mostly from farms in Devanahalli and some produce from Ooty too.

Sunita agrees. She says one should ideally stick to purchasing vegetable and fruits that have been certified organic. “If not, buy from shops that are ready to take you to the source farms where these vegetable and fruits are grown.”

Bigbasket also assists farmers with the due diligence necessary for getting certified under the Participatory Guarantee Systems. This is a an internationally applicable organic quality assurance system like ISO 9000, implemented and controlled by committed farmer producers and consumers, through active participation based on verifiable trust. It is simpler and cheaper for the farmers. It is not an “inspection raj” certification system but, rather, one that is based on personal integrity and peer pressure.

When something is certified as organic, what does it mean?

Having worked previously as an organic food certifier with a leading certification agency in India, Sunita throws more light on this: “For our vegetable and fruits to be organic we need them to be grown organically i.e without the use of chemicals (of any kind). The soil usually needs to go through the conversion process of three years and should be certified by a certifying body.”

The three-year process is for the soil to be fully prepared and be chemical free, if chemical spraying was being done earlier. If non-chemical farming was being practiced then the three-year certification can be reduced to two years, but only for annual produces. It depends on the type of farming being done before the certification process starts.

Farmers find it difficult to wait for so long for the conversion phase of their farm, as it is a tedious process. But if they are convinced about the change they will bring in, the results will be different. The change is obvious in the produce that comes out of organic soil – there is a huge difference between the taste of organically grown vegetables and the ones grown using pesticides. Health benefits are also more.

A consumer should look out for the India Organic logo which is the official certification grant for being organic, then look for the various logos of certifying bodies – USDA if the product is to be exported, Indian certifying agency logo, or PGS. FSSAI has now initiated a logo program which was notified in June 2017 and became mandatory from July 2018. More details of this are available on the official website.

This link has a book with details on how to grow organic vegetable and produces. This article explains how to get organic certification in India.

Organically grown fennel plant, bolted and ready to yield seeds. Pic: Shree D N

Is there a way to tell which farm my vegetables come from?

Vipul Mittal of Bigbasket says they handle this by setting up their own Collection Centres in the villages through their Farmer Connect programme. They ensure a tech-based process of weighing, sorting, grading and payment, so that the whole process is transparent for the farmer and the company. This also helps in traceability.

The retailers who buy from KR Market know who sells the produce to them, but they could be middlemen, or sometimes even growers. It is unlikely that they will know whether the vegetable is ‘safe’ or ‘organic’, though, more often than not, the vegetables sold in open market are grown in the standard way, with chemical fertilisers and pesticides.

Vipul shares that Bigbasket is working on a software for traceability that they will roll out soon – so that consumers can actually track where their produce comes from!

Currently, for Bangalore, they get the tomatoes and greens from Malur and Chikkaballapur near Bengaluru, while onions come from Nashik in Maharashtra. Potatoes come from Agra in Uttara Pradesh and many fruits like Mosambi, Watermelon, Melons and Papaya from Anantapur in A.P.

For more details on which vegetable comes from where, read this.

As a consumer, are there other things one should know/be concerned about?

As Vipul Mittal says, packaging is a huge challenge especially for fruits and vegetables.

Interestingly, Vipul feels that consumers need to consider banking on traditional knowledge. He says the older generation, for instance, would have known how to naturally ripen a banana (by wrapping it in newspaper and leaving it for a day) but that same knowledge hasn’t necessarily gotten transferred to the next generation. Today customers feel they’ve been cheated and complain if they receive a semi-ripe banana. Many don’t realise it just needs to be wrapped in newspaper and kept for a day or two!

Our previous generations knew to ripen mangoes by storing them in straw or inside rice containers; they would check the quality of produce by checking if the bitter gourds were dark green or if the stem joint (calyx) of the brinjal was big.

Parvez adds that when buying from an organic store, a consumer can easily get upset if a produce is unavailable or when it is available only on specific days. For example, his shop gets vegetables only on Tuesday and Fridays.

More than anything else, when buying our vegetables and fruits, let’s get a little more curious about where they come from, where they go and what brings them to our kitchen! Happy cooking and eating!

Shree D N contributed to this article.

This article is supported by SVP Cities of India Fellowship. This article is a part of The Food on Your Plate series, that explores food options, availability and food safety in Bengaluru.

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