India’s organic certification procedures under cloud as APEDA penalises 3 more agencies

Subramani Ra Mancombu | | Updated on: Jul 30, 2022
All three firms were found to be involved in certifying organic cotton and were found violating all norms during the unannounced inspections by an evaluation committee

All three firms were found to be involved in certifying organic cotton and were found violating all norms during the unannounced inspections by an evaluation committee

These firms had no staff, no infrastructure as they certified organic cotton

All is not well with the certification process of Indian organic products with the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA) penalising three certifying agencies, including termination, for irregularities they committed in violation of the process. 

In its latest orders issued a week ago, APEDA, the nodal agency for the National Programme for Organic Production (NPOP), has withdrawn the accreditation given to Bhummatha Organic Certification Bureau (BOCB), terminated the accreditation of APOF Organic Certifying Agency and suspended the certification of Fair Certification Services Pvt Ltd for six months.

Bhummatha and APOF will have to pay a “pecuniary penalty” of ₹5 lakh, while APEDA will notify European Commission on Fair Certification. 

Recurring violations

APEDA’s latest rulings have led to the country’s accreditation system for organic farming, production, processing and trade being questioned since APEDA banned five certifying agencies eight months ago. The ban was imposed after organic products certified by them for exports were found violating ethylene oxide norms of the European Commission.

In January this year, the nodal agency suspended TQ Cert for similar violations. APEDA’s current findings are similar to the ones for which TQ Cert was penalised. Traders and experts say recurring violations require a total review of the certification and accreditation process. 

 The National Accreditation Board (NAB) provides accreditation against these agencies. “The issue with the latest action that APEDA has taken against the three agencies is how are such firms given accreditation,” wondered a trade source, who did not wish to be identified. 

‘Intentionally compromising’

According to S Chandrasekaran, a trade analyst who tracks organic product exports, despite APEDA suspending or terminating five certification companies (in October 2021), the certification companies are either not serious or intentionally compromising the system due to lighter penal provisions.

The trade source agreed, saying while these certifying agencies earn crores of rupees, but they are penalised only ₹5 lakh. 

A copy of APEDA orders for the three agencies shows glaring omissions that had been noted earlier too. All three have been penalised for committing irregularities in the organic cotton procedures. 

A common violation found in these cases is that these firms had certified organic products when there was nothing on the ground. These firms did not have staff or infrastructure for carrying out inspections or supervision of organic production. 

Surprisingly, all three firms were found to be involved in certifying organic cotton and they were found violating all norms during the unannounced inspections by an evaluation committee (EC) during February 21-22 this year. 

Grower groups unaware

The EC found that growers were unaware that they formed part of a group involved in organic farming. They did not follow any norms for organic farming and applied agrochemicals to their crop. These firms did not have an internal control system, which required an office in the place where the grower group grows the organic produce. 

In the case of APOF, soyabean was shown as cotton and the yield per acre did not match for either cotton or soyabean. All three were given an opportunity to explain these irregularities, but NAB was not convinced during its hearing on June 30. 

In the case of Fair Certification, the NAB acted after Bangladesh Textile Mills Association, through its High Commission India, approached the Textile Ministry and complained that transaction certificates (TCs) had not been issued for 16,100 tonnes of organic cotton imported from India. TCs are given by certifying agencies after farms are thoroughly scrutinised by their field staff. 

In response, Fair Certification cancelled 73 applications for TCs and re-issued 72 such certificates for over 8,000 tonnes of cotton that was bought from various cotton growers groups. 

Curious case

The trader said the curious case of Bhummatha should make the Centre and officials sit up and take notice of the repeated violations. An inspection carried out by the evaluation committee to validate its findings found that BOCB did not have any documents on the grower groups registered for producing organic cotton. 

BOCB had issued 900 transaction certificates but documents were available only in the case of 50. The trader pointed out that the growers’ groups had shifted to Bhummatha for certification after TQ Cert was suspended by APEDA.

“These groups have changed from Noca to Bio Cert to Vedic to TQ Cert and now to Bhummatha. All got into trouble for violations. The Centre allows the transfer of grower groups to ensure farmers do not get affected. But when this recurs, it is time for a policy review,” the trader said. 

BOCB issued a huge number of transaction certificates between March and April this year. The area under organic cotton farming certified by it increased from 15 hectares to 2.83 lakh hectares. “TQ Cert was suspended in January end. This happened in March and April. This is a clear case that needs to be probed deeper,” the trader said. 

Decades-old penal provisions

Chandrasekaran said NPOP penal provisions are two decades old.  “The revamping of the accreditation process of organic certification agencies and enabling strong penal provisions will have to be done immediately,” the analyst said.  

The current status of organic certification in India is a disincentive for investing in or promoting organic brands, Chandrasekaran said. “This prevents the growth of organic agriculture in India,” he said. 

Traders and experts say with the EC taking a strict view on the issue of violation of norms of organic product imports into the union and coming under pressure to act against APEDA, the Centre will now have to review its policies and procedures on organic products. 

Published on July 29, 2022
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