Building bridges between organic farmers and export markets: the role of Magosan

For centuries, Indian farmers practised a balanced system of agriculture which was based upon a thorough understanding of environments, seasons, crop mixing, rotation and gene preservation. Yet, over time, practices became ritualised, without concern for the concept that upheld practice. Hence, the systems stagnated and failed to respond to the changing needs of the times. After independence in 1947, traditional agricultural systems in India failed to meet the needs of a burgeoning population and suffered setbacks through a series of natural disasters. The government took on the responsibility of improving agriculture, by making huge investments in irrigation development and fertiliser production. The focus of agricultural research was on high-yielding varieties. As a result, chemical-intensive and water-intensive agricultural practices were actively encouraged. Heavy subsidies for chemical inputs induced farmers to practice chemical farming.

The fall-out of such practices was soon amply evident, and continues till today. It is in this context that organic farming came to the fore. Many farmers took it up because of the ill-effects of modern farming. Though still in its infancy, organic farming has a strong ideological foundation and offers many fresh ideas. It is a response to the growing eco-awareness in agriculture.

By the late ’80s, three types of people were into organic farming. The first type consisted of urban-educated technocrats. They embraced this new ideology, for the sheer pleasure of feeling the soil. But in several cases their enthusiasm was shortlived. The second type consisted of farmers with a modern education. Their farming practices reflect their earnestness to understand the strengths of traditional farming as well as their ability to assimilate scientific knowledge. A third group consists of ordinary farmers, who by sheer observation, trial and error have tried to understand and practise organic farming. Though this third group is insignificant in number right now, the future of organic farming in India lies with them.

Two striking common factors underlie most of the success stories of organic farming in the country. Almost all the successful farmers have access to sufficient water, and enough organic inputs in and around their farms. Many of them therefore grow cash crops like sugarcane, areca, cocoa, coconut, pepper and various spices. These farmers have effectively allayed apprehensions that a switch-over to organic agriculture would affect yields and income. But small and marginal dryland farmers are hesitant to change over precisely because they lack the advantages of the successful farmers (water and organic inputs close to the farms).

Marketing Options

As of now, even successful organic farmers lack awareness about marketing. Many local micro initiatives in cities lack quality control and do not link with other networks; both these factors are necessary to operate on a large scale.

With the increasing preference of consumers in developed countries for certified organic foods, the demand has been rising by about 12% to 17% every year. But the availability of certified organic foods worldwide is only in the range of 3% to 8%. This indicates the excellent potential for organic foods. It can perhaps be best  tapped through group initiatives in organic farming.

Magosan Exports (ME) was launched  in 1993, following contacts between the promoters and organic traders in Europe. It is perhaps the only officially licensed export company in India that has been able to negotiate international certification on behalf of its member farmers. We have a tie-up with the certifying agency, SKAL in the Netherlands, which has been inspecting and certifying all our group’s farms and products since 1994. The SKAL inspector visits each farm twice a year to scrutinize and gather samples for analysis. We feel that the prohibitive cost of certification can be overcome by small farmers, if they work collectively and avail of the certification facility. It gives them access to consumers in  advanced countries who are willing to pay higher prices for products that bear the pro-environment EKO mark.

A statutory requirement for certification is that a farm has to be 100% organic -i.e. no dependence on chemical fertilisers and pesticides for at least the previous three years and only restricted farm inputs allowed thereafter. The  compost pit and water source should be located at least 6 metres away from from the border or any other conventional farm. Meticulous book-keeping of inflow and outflow of inputs, and maintaining a clean and congenial environment — thereby creating natural habitats — are essential for organic certification.

Our farmers’ groups are kept informed of such requirements, and a minimum floor price is assured for their produce. We do not insist on specific products. The farmers are allowed the flexibility to select and grow the crops that are best suited to their circumstances, and this arrangement  works out very well.

Magosan is linked to 2,500 organic farmers and farmers’ organisations in several districts of Karnataka and Kerala, and in the Sundarbans area of West Bengal. The combined area under organic farming is more than 1000 ha.

Magosan collects all details and product samples from its Registered Member Growers (RMG). It assumes all the costs for certification, inspection and quality tests and does the base work for an RMG to be able to meet the international quality standards. RMGs are not restricted in their choice of crops, but have to ensure that quality is maintained.

ME collects and disseminates knowledge about various successful farming techniques and post-harvest technology to the farmers when necessary, at nominal cost. International consumers have given Indian organic foods a high rating,  in terms of taste, appearance and aroma. At present, organic spices, pulses and cotton are being exported by us; we soon hope to be able to broaden the product range.

The rampant corruption that permeates the entire system of agricultural marketing and export, undermines the sincere efforts of organic farmers. The authorities are not vigilant about quality control; we as the exporters face problems in transit or shipment. Many a time, banned chemicals used to combat diseases contaminate our consignments of organic food en route.

Steps to be taken

To place organic farming on a sound footing in India, urgent action is necessary on the following fronts:

The production process: Studies to establish crop selection, crop rotation, companion cropping and organic weedicides and pesticides. Demonstrations on recycling, in situ composting and other input practices to convince farmers of the feasibility of such actions.

The technological aspect: Knowledge development and training of farmers in grading, curing and post-harvest practices according to international standards to ensure quality outputs. Enhancement of labour efficiency by developing intermediate technologies. Value addition processes at farm-level or community level to improve the income of farmers.

The financial aspect: Arrangements for easy credit for working capital supported by buy-back arrangements will encourage farmers to take up innovative cropping.

The legislative aspect: We believe that a separate Organic Development Wing under the Ministry of Agriculture could  bring  greater synergy to the effort to promote organic farming and the export of organic products.

M.G. Sathyanarayana

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