The internal control system (ICS) mechanism of organic certification shows Aadinath Krishi Seva Samithi as an organic cotton growers group in Madhya Pradesh’s Khargone district. But it is one of the fictitious organic produce growers groups listed in the ICS mechanism.

Several such fake organic produce growers groups exist in the system, which tends to question the credibility of the Indian organic certification system. The existence of the fake groups has now drawn the attention of a Lok Sabha member.

Khargone Member of Parliament Gajendra Patel is reported to have flagged the issue in a letter to the Commerce Ministry. The MP has voiced his concern over the exploitation of farmers by a “cotton mafia”. He has sought the continuation of the suspension on five certification agencies besides a detailed enquiry on the issue. Patel has sought stringent action against the companies. When contacted, he neither confirmed nor denied the letter and declined to comment on the issue.

Organic industry experts are calling for stringent action by the Centre to check such practices. They fear that the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA) might lose relevance in Europe and other countries if this continues. It could, potentially, impact India’s export of organic products.

Organic cotton farming

The US and Europe are the major markets for India’s organic apparel. Under the Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana (PKVY), the government has been promoting organic farming in clusters to lower the costs on certification and help improve marketing.

According to official data, organic cotton production in India is estimated about 1,23,000 tonnes or 51 per cent of global organic cotton output of 2,40,000 tonnes. Major producers are Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Karnataka.

India lost organic recognition from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) in June 2021 after it did not renew the agreement with APEDA. USDA, in September 2021, had flagged challenges related to India’s organic control system and said in a report “increased incidences of fraud continue to impact the credibility of India’s organic sector, and its exports.”

Pressure on prices, quality

The listing of large scale fake organic farmersresults in increased supply in the market and exert pressure on genuine organic cotton farmers to reduce their price. This leads to these growers not getting a reasonably good price for their organic produce, experts said. The price of organic cotton, on an average, is 30-40 per cent higher than non-organic fibre. If falsely-labelled organic cotton is eliminated, , farmers will realise much higher price.

Between 2013 and 2020, three companies were either suspended or their registration not renewed by APEDA, while another company’s license got suspended earlier this month. All these four companies are believed to be involved in certification of organic cotton in addition to other products, sources said.

As per India’s National Programme for Organic Production (NPOP) standard, an ICS can have a maximum of 500 farmers. In accordance with the sampling plans and procedures, the certification agencies are required to inspect 32 farmers in a year. Based on gestation period, number of crops, number of external inspections and risk criteria, the certification agencies would inspect a maximum of 182 farmers in three years in an ICS out of 500. It takes three years for a farmer to convert his field from conventional to organic.

The certification agencies have inspected more number of farmers in grower groups and still could not find fake farmers’ names, which needs a detailed investigation by authority, said a state government official.

“The issue of organic cotton should be seen in continuation to past events such as withdrawal of the mutual recognition by the USDA and banning of five Indian organic certification agencies by the European Commission. The organic regulations have moved from process integrity to product integrity. As data is the foundation of the organic certification process, a detailed examination and impartial investigation is required for data cleansing. Otherwise, our organic equivalence with European Union will be at stake,” said S Chandrasekaran, a foreign trade analyst and an expert in global organic farming regulations.