Business Daily from THE HINDU group of publications
Friday, Oct 06, 2006
Foods & Food Processing
Agri-Biz & Commodities - Standards & Benchmarks
Grow safe food from farm
The other day, I was chatting with my wife over a cup of tea, when she said: "You know, I saw on the TV that Wal-Mart is shortly opening a store in Delhi. We can buy our groceries from there."
"But why from them?," I asked. "All these years, we have been buying from the shops in our colony. Why should we go all the way to a distant place for our shopping?"
"Because," she replied, "their quality is good."
"But, you will get the same stuff from Wal-Mart that you buy from these shops. After all, the manufacturers are the same," I argued, though I could see where she was going.
She replied, "You don't understand, they have a reputation for quality, and will maintain standards. They will select their suppliers. If necessary, they will import food products. At least, we will not get pesticides in our food."
Where does India stand in terms of food standards and, more importantly, their implementation, and has the PFA (Prevention of Food Adulteration Act) been effective in guaranteeing food safety? What are the expectations of the people from the integrated food law just adopted? Has any assessment been made about the technical and upgraded manpower required to meet and monitor the intended objectives? Now that foodstuff can be imported and there is a growing number of consumers ready to pay more for safe foodstuff, who will buy from the farmers unless they are enabled to meet the standards of foreign super-market chains? These are some questions that need immediate attention.
One may argue that a farmer may want not to engage in export production and continue to feed the domestic market with `value-added' agricultural produce. But what should he do if people decide to buy from a shop that guarantees safe food, whatever its source. So, either the farmer or the manufacturer meets the standards or closes shop. While the new integrated food law promises availability of safe food, its effective implementation will remain the `X' factor and the earlier one acts at different levels, the better.
Otherwise, the super-market chains in India may introduce their own private standards to remain in business. Some of the leading business houses planning to go into the retail business have already started tying up their supply sources both within and outside India, though they still need to know what their product standards should be. Foreign super-market chains may find it easier to sell because of their existing standards. As a matter of their policy and to safeguard their brand image built over decades, one does not expect them to compromise on the standards of quality and safety of the food they sell, even if it means importing products.
But how can one empower the smallest of the farmer, who is quite only too eager to sell to the emerging super-market chains, to offer food products meeting the highest safety standards? Safety of food starts at the farm and must be sustained along the value chain. The average Indian consumer is now quite quality conscious. Consumption of processed food is also rising rapidly with the changing lifestyle demands. And with the growing population, it will be important to vigorously promote the much-needed food quality and safety systems by promoting `good practices' among the domestic producers, manufacturers and those in the supply chain.
The farmer must be motivated and provided training on varietal improvement, productivity enhancement, integrated farm management, quality and `good practices', and educated on the adverse effects of inappropriate use of pesticides. In this context, capacity building at all levels will assume importance.
Farm holdings being small and the super-market needs being in cost effective marketable volumes, consolidation through farmer groups may be an efficient way of farm management. It must, however, be borne in mind that this would call for an effective internal quality control system to maintain uniformity in the production practices within the group. Contractual farm management can also be useful and corporates must ensure processes such that products are delivered in a quality-certifiable form. This will add value to their products and increase their competitiveness. India will then be seen as a credible producer of farm products. It would also build a culture for safety in the food business.
Standardisation of farm products
AGMARK may be the right agency to frame standards and certify conformity. It already has notified standards for a number of fresh produce. While these standards and procedures may be voluntary, awareness among farmers and consumers will need to be enhanced to engender the quality culture.
Similarly, implementation of food safety systems in the manufacturing facilities must be promoted aggressively. As also `good practices' in the transportation and retailing of food products to bring about a holistic impact.
There is an urgent need to effectively monitor production and marketing of pest/disease-control agents and their indiscriminate use on crops must also be curbed. A simple way would be to make all those involved agree to a code of conduct. This would call for synergy between the Central and State governments. Proper and complete labelling and the pre-harvest diffusion period of the pesticide should be made mandatory. The country should not face a repeat of 2002-03 when pesticides banned for use in France were dumped on India simply because of poor information and monitoring systems.
The point is to enable farmers, food manufacturers and small shop-keepers sell safe, pesticide-free food to the consumer. It should not become the prerogative of super-markets and consumers should not have to go too far in search of safe food.
(The author is Director, APEDA. The views are personal.)
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