Who will seed organic India?

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Who will seed organic India?

Saturday, 15 February 2020 | Indra Shekhar Singh

Indian food exports to the EU and the USA are rejected due to toxic residues found even in certified organic produce. This can only be corrected once the whole organic supply chain, seed to produce, is developed and there are no gaps in between

The Union Budget 2020 on agriculture sends one very clear message: The Modi Government is committed to sustainable agriculture. Through poetry, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman spelled out a plan to increase the area under organic farming to four lakh hectares by 2020-21.  Under the Green revolution budget, the Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana (CSS) has been allotted Rs 500 crore for increased coverage of the area under organic certification and additionally has got 0.51 lakh hectares (Ha) for organic certification.

In total, the Government has given Rs 687.5 crore through three schemes to promote agro-ecological farming in the country. Not only would this increase the production of more organic food for local consumption and exports but it would also ensure that India strides towards sustainability and climate mitigation.

On the export front, the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA) approximated Indian organic exports at Rs 5,151 crore in 2018-19, a 49 per cent jump from 2017-19.

Other commendable steps announced by the Finance Minister to ensure that agro-ecological practices return to Indian farms were the creation of an online portal on jaivik kheti to bolster the organic market and the village storage scheme to empower Dhaanya Lakshmi. All these steps are consistent with Piyush Goyal’s Budget Speech of 2019, which made organic food production the eighth dimension of the Modi Government’s vision for 2030.

The current Budget is also in line with the BJP’s manifesto promise and comes as a relief to millions of sententious environmentally-conscious consumers and swadeshi supporters alike.

Meanwhile the APEDA projects organic export to increase to $50 billion by 2025. However, many veterans of the organic and grain sector wonder who will seed organic India? Do we even have enough certified organic seeds? Exports of this magnitude can’t rely on landraces or traditional varieties of grain alone. We need more efficient mechanisms for breeding organic seeds to support this growth. Indian farmers need superior quality even in organic grain to sustain this boom.  

Four lakh hectares are a humongous area. To put things in perspective, one hectare is roughly the size of two football fields. So imagine about 7,50,000 football fields, spread across India. Many of these areas are in the remote parts of the country and inaccessible to the formal seed sector.

 While most people in India, including farmers, confuse untreated seeds (pre-soaked in fungicide or chemicals) as organic, the fact remains that they are misinformed.

A seed can only be called organic if it is grown in organic soils with agro-ecological practices and an organic certificate. And truth be told, the options of buying high performing organic grain are very limited as the organic seed industry is still very primitive when compared to the competitive and research and development-based industry of the USA or Germany.

With the emergence of greater demand for organic food, regulations and standards will only become stricter.  The consensus between all organic certification mechanisms is that all seeds used to grow organic foods need to be certified too.

The current level of the technology enables organic certifying agencies to trace residues in the seed. And further, this may be a critical point in the future of organic trade, especially to the EU and the US.

Even today Indian food exported to the EU and the USA are rejected at respective ports, due to toxic residues found even in certified organic produce. This can only be corrected once seed to the final produce, in fact the whole organic supply chain, is developed and there are no gaps anywhere in between.

As per reports, the global organic seed market will be worth $5.4 billion by 2024. Hence, India needs to swerve towards not just more organic food yields but also become an organic seed production hub.

The Government and plant breeders should create a policy for organic seed production in consultation with global certifying agencies and so on. This may be followed by a push to create organic seed production clusters in Sikkim, Uttarakhand, Himachal and the North-eastern States. Sikkim, an organic State, can be most suitable for this endeavour. The Union Budget needs to have a special concession for tax breaks and easier land leasing terms in organic zones to have a discernible effect on the incomes of farmers and plant breeders.

India, especially in the biodiversity-rich zones, is a treasure trove for seed production. By harmoniously working with nature, farmers can produce greater yields and resistance in their seeds, while also conserving water and their habitats. The National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (NBPGR), through a novel programme and perhaps some funding from the Government, can encourage organic seed entrepreneurs in these zones.

Other organisations such as Biodiversity International, ICAR and State agricultural universities can strengthen this drive. New modules need to be created for advanced levels of evolutionary participatory breeding (EPB) that are available to plant breeders and farmers in regional languages. This programme should be implemented with the assistance of the Government. Food Production Organisations can play an important role, too, in this.

To sum up, the Modi Government must prepare to remove any impediments to make India the largest exporter of organic food.  Organic seeds are not only vital for this vision but if pursued with determination, may fulfil the Government’s aim of increasing seed exports to 10 per cent and enrich Indian farmers four times over. The question only remains, will India make hay when the sun shines on Indian organic produce or nip the budding organic seed sector?  

(The writer is Director, policy and outreach, National Seed Association of India)

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