Surangi, travels to Colombo every weekend from a suburb to purchase ‘organic’ fruits and vegetables for her little son, not yet turned one. “Although it’s an additional trip and I have to pocket out more, it is still worth it as I’m giving my child toxin-free food,” she says. Surangi who patronizes a leading organic [...]


Getting to the roots of going organic in SL


Growing demand: Organic vegetables on sale in the local market

Surangi, travels to Colombo every weekend from a suburb to purchase ‘organic’ fruits and vegetables for her little son, not yet turned one. “Although it’s an additional trip and I have to pocket out more, it is still worth it as I’m giving my child toxin-free food,” she says. Surangi who patronizes a leading organic food outlet in town is confident she gets her money’s worth. Ama who is expecting her first child will not settle for anything less than organic rice, fruits and vegetables. “When I hear of all these horror stories of excessive fertilizer, I fear for the health of both myself and the unborn baby,” says the mother-to-be who buys her week’s stock of ‘organic produce’ from another organic outlet in one of the city’s suburbs.

With supermarkets dedicating an entire section to ‘organic food’ and stores selling organic food mushrooming, ‘organic’ has become a buzzword today. The green leaves, fruits and other vegetables which grew on our hedges or home compounds in the good old days, which most may have taken for granted, have become sought after consumer products now, given the fertilizer and pesticide abuse the country is reputed for today. Yet because a label claims the product to be ‘organic’ how genuine is the claim? How confident can a consumer be that he/she is paying for a non-toxic product? What challenges do the organic farmer and industry have to counter? The Sunday Times spoke to several leading partners in the industry to find out  more.

Organic food, as Prof. Buddhi Marambe, Chairman, Board of Study Crop Science, Postgraduate Institute of Agriculture (PGIA), University of Peradeniya and Chairman of the Agriculture Sector Committee of the Sri Lanka Standards Institute (SLSI) explains, are products of farming/production systems that have avoided using most conventional synthetic agrochemicals, growth regulators and/or feed additives. In general, the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and irradiation are prohibited in organic food production, he says.

Dr. Renuka Jayatissa

For the consumer to determine if the produce is genuinely organic is a ‘tricky’ issue as Prof. Marambe points out. “Unless there is a ‘product and process certification’, the end-user will not have any clue whether the product is organically grown or not. Labelling of products by a trustworthy organization will provide some evidence and confidence to the end user that the food purchased is real and not fake organic food. The work ethics of the producer and seller play important roles here. For example, food supplied even from a natural environment has no guarantee that the product is organically grown or that the habitat is not contaminated. Further, a product supplied to a market by a crop grower whose cultivation is ‘organically certified’ with the support of a large group of out-growers whose cultivations are ‘not certified’ to be organic, give arise to issues related to marketing of organic products.”

The third party certification, where independent inspections are carried out by a certifying organization, has gained recognition worldwide compared to that of first-party certification (grower gives an assurance) and second-party certification (an organization to which the grower belongs to, gives an assurance) he says. “There is a call to test for chemical residues in the final product as it will help the consumer to identify residue-free (e.g. pesticide residue-free) finally consumed products. However, such a residue-free tag gives no guarantee that agro-chemicals or other synthetic products have not been used in the food production process,” he warns.

Prof. Buddhi Marambe

To support organic food production further, the Sri Lanka Standards Institution (SLSI) has developed standards for preparation of composts and completed obtaining public comments for the standards proposed. “It is heartening to receive a large number of comments from the general public which has helped SLSI to further refine the standards proposed for preparation of composts,” Prof. Marambe says.

The biggest drawback of organic food production systems has been the lower productivity, says Prof. Marambe. The need for organic inputs such as composts in bulk is another issue which also adds to the costs of labour and time. “Both these are likely to enhance the cost of production further in large scale production to meet the food demand of people.

In 2007, the Sri Lanka Standards Institute (SLSI) introduced organic standards for the country which are however confined to organic farming. As the SLSI sources state, these standards are now being revised. It is also learnt that SLSI is in the process of receiving the Sri Lanka Accreditation Board’s (SLAB) accreditation for further recognition in organic certification.“As the National Standards body, we maintain our independence when issuing certification and presently there is a considerable number of organic producers supplying to the local market who are SLSI certified,” SLSI sources said.

Although we often tend to think along the lines of vegetables, fruits and grains, even poultry products as meat or eggs could be organic when animals are not given antibiotics or any other growth and feed additives as the Head of Nutrition Department, Medical Research Institute, Dr. Renuka Jayatissa explains. In order to assure an ideal organic farming setting, the land should be free of outside contaminants flowing to it, says Dr. Jayatissa. “For instance, an organic farm could be threatened by a neighbouring land using agro-chemicals as they tend to flow during the rainy season. Hence organic cultivation should ideally take place on hilly lands or in a green-house setting where these outside contaminants can be avoided.”

While the nutritional composition of organic food remains the same as in the case of non-organic food, the main concern is the absence of agro-chemicals in the former. “Long term exposure to agro-chemicals could result in serious health hazards including liver disorders and cancers,” says Dr. Jayatissa who urges for intense research and development in the area of agriculture. “There has to be a serious national policy on agro-chemical abuse and there has to be research and innovation in the areas of pest-resistant grains, seeds etc. Our research has shown that the majority of our rural farmers on whom we depend, are malnourished. To make matters worse, they are affected by floods and droughts and are poverty stricken. They neither have a voice nor a good price for their crops. This scenario has to change if we are to be on par with global agricultural trends.”

As Good Market co-founder Dr. Amanda Kiessel explains, all organic exporting companies need to be certified based on the standards of the receiving country. “The majority of organic exporters in Sri Lanka are certified for meeting EU, USDA or JAS (Japanese) standards since these standards are recognized in many countries. The organic logo on the package indicates which standards were used.” The Sri Lankan Accreditation Board (SLAB) accredits that certification bodies have acceptable certification practices and are competent to inspect and certify according to the standards. Currently there is only one certification body that has national SLAB accreditation for EU, USDA, and JAS standards, which is the Control Union, but others are also in the process of applying, says Dr. Kiessel. Control Union is headquartered in the Netherlands, but operates a local office in Sri Lanka. Some internationally accredited certification bodies also send inspectors to Sri Lanka for certification.  “The National Organic Control Unit (NOCU) is being established under the Export Development Board (EDB) to ensure that all products labelled as organic are verified by accredited certification bodies.”

Third party certification is required for international export, but there is also a low-cost alternative called a Participatory Guarantee System (PGS) that can be used for local markets and short supply chains where producers and consumers can meet. The purpose of PGS is to make organic more affordable and accessible as Dr. Kiessel explains.

The Export Development Board (EDB) information stipulates that the new independent body (NOCU) which is now being set up to obtain the third country registration in Europe will be mandated to ‘govern the organic sector in the country and register Sri Lanka in the third country list of the EU, reducing the cost of certification and facilitating organic products to penetrate the EU member countries’. The exercise aspires to ‘eliminate tariff barriers on organic agricultural products and enable the exporters to be competitive in catering to the international markets to fetch a premium price.’

Citing the Australian experience with organic farming, Nissanka Ratnayake, Director, Organico Guru Pty Ltd, an Australian Certified Organic food supplier with its distribution arm in Sri Lanka says that the present (2018) Australian Domestic Organic market is estimated to be worth A$ 2.4 billion. “The market has grown 88% since 2012. Australia has 35 million hectares under Certified Organic Management, which is about 10% of all of Australian agriculture land and 53% of world’s organic farmland.”

Charitha Abeyratne, Director, Branding and Marketing, Saaraketha Organics points out that growing organically is a difficult process as crops are more susceptible to pests and weeds and farmers cannot use synthetic chemicals to protect the crop. “Even if the farmer wants to grow organically, there aren’t many buyers who would pay a higher price for the effort they make to cultivate organically; therefore there’s no real incentive to ensure that a farmer should continue practising organic growing methods. The only way to encourage organic farming is to create a better demand for it.”

In terms of national policy, Ms. Abeyratne identifies several areas which need to be addressed. A more accessible supply of organic seeds is vital she says. Post harvest infrastructure and logistic support is another area which needs addressing. “Our country’s post-harvest loss is 40% mainly because of the lack of storage and proper transportation options available. Since organic produce needs to be handled with care, the absence of a support structure makes it even more challenging,” says Ms. Abeyratne who appeals for reduced freight rates for organic exporters. “Current freight rates make Sri Lankan produce uncompetitive in the export markets.”

She also urges consumers to take more interest in understanding the journey of food from the farm to the plate. “It’s important that we ask who grew it, what fertilizers went into it, how did it travel to reach me, am I empowering a farmer who followed ethical practice? Am I feeding my family a good, clean, healthy product,” observes Ms. Abeyratne who goes on to note that since maintaining the ‘organic integrity’ is a very costly process, more demand for organic produce should be made to reduce the price of the product.

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