Bhutan set to plough lone furrow as world’s first wholly organic country

By shunning all but organic farming techniques, the Himalayan state will cement its status as a paradigm of sustainability

MDG : Bhutan : farmers transplanting rice shoots into rice paddies in Paro valley,

Stooping to conquer … Already an overwhelmingly agrarian state, Bhutan is aiming to become the world’s first completely organic country. Photograph: Alamy

Bhutan plans to become the first country in the world to turn its agriculture completely organic, banning the sales of pesticides and herbicides and relying on its own animals and farm waste for fertilisers.

But rather than accept that this will mean farmers of the small Himalayan kingdom of 1.2 million people will be able to grow less food, the government expects them to be able to grow more – and to export increasing amounts of high quality niche foods to neighbouring India, China and other countries.

The decision to go organic was both practical and philosophical, said Pema Gyamtsho, Bhutan’s minister of agriculture and forests, in Delhi for the annual sustainable development conference last week.

“Ours is a mountainous terrain. When we use chemicals they don’t stay where we use them, they impact the water and plants. We say that we need to consider all the environment. Most of our farm practices are traditional farming, so we are largely organic anyway.

“But we are Buddhists, too, and we believe in living in harmony with nature. Animals have the right to live, we like to to see plants happy and insects happy,” he said.

Gyamtsho, like most members of the cabinet, is a farmer himself, coming from Bumthang in central Bhutan but studying western farming methods in New Zealand and Switzerland.

“Going organic will take time,” he said. “We have set no deadline. We cannot do it tomorrow. Instead we will achieve it region by region and crop by crop.”

The overwhelmingly agrarian nation, which really only opened its doors to world influences 30 years ago, is now facing many of the development pangs being felt everywhere in rapidly emerging countries. Young people reluctant to live just by farming are migrating to India and elsewhere, there is a population explosion, and there is inevitable pressure for consumerism and cultural change.

But, says Gyamtsho, Bhutan’s future depends largely on how it responds to interlinked development challenges like climate change, and food and energy security. “We would already be self-sufficient in food if we only ate what we produced. But we import rice. Rice eating is now very common, but traditionally it was very hard to get. Only the rich and the elite had it. Rice conferred status. Now the trend is reversing. People are becoming more health-conscious and are eating grains like buckwheat and wheat.”

In the west, organic food growing is widely thought to reduce the size of crops because they become more susceptible to pests. But this is being challenged in Bhutan and some regions of Asia, where smallholders are developing new techniques to grow more and are not losing soil quality.

Systems like “sustainable root intensification” (SRI), which carefully regulate the amount of water that crops need and the age at which seedlings are planted out, have shown that organic crop yields can be doubled with no synthetic chemicals.

“We are experimenting with different methods of growing crops like SRI but we are also going to increase the amount of irrigated land and use traditional varieties of crops which do not require inputs and have pest resistance,” says Gyamtsho.

However, a run of exceptionally warm years and erratic weather has left many farmers doubtful they can do without chemicals.

In Paro, a largely farming district in south-west Bhutan, farmers are already struggling to grow enough to feed their families and local government officials say they are having to distribute fertiliser and pesticides in larger quantities to help people grow more.

“I have heard of the plan to turn everything organic. But we are facing serious problems just getting people to grow enough”, said Rinzen Wangchuk, district farm officer.

“Most people here are smallholder farmers. The last few years we have had problems with the crops. The weather has been very erratic. It’s been warmer than normal and all the chilli crops are full of pests. We are having to rely on fertilisers more than we have ever had to in the past and even these are not working as well as they initially did.”

Dawa Tshering, who depends on his two acres of rice paddy and a vegetable garden, says that for decades his farming was chemical free.

“But its harder now because all our children are either in the capital or studying. Nobody wants to stay, which means we have to work harder. It’s just my wife an myself here. We cannot grow enough to feed ourselves and take crops to the market, so we have to use chemicals for the first time. We would like to go back to farming how we used to, where we just used what nature provided.”

But in a world looking for new ideas, Bhutan is already called the poster child of sustainable development. More than 95% of the population has clean water and electricity, 80% of the country is forested and, to the envy of many countries, it is carbon neutral and food secure.

In addition, it is now basing its economic development on the pursuit of collective happiness.

“We have no fossil fuels or nuclear. But we are blessed with rivers which give us the potential of over 30,000megawatts of electricity. So far we only exploit 2,000 megawatts. We exploit enough now to export to India and in the pipeline we have 10,000 megawatts more. The biggest threat we face is cars. The number is increasing every day. Everyone wants to buy cars and that means we must import fuel. That is why we must develop our energy.”

Agriculture minister Gyamtsho remains optimistic. “Hopefully we can provide solutions. What is at stake is the future. We need governments who can make bold decisions now rather than later.”

Desi by nature: on Albert Howard

FELLOW FEELING: Howard had profound appreciation for the value of women's labour. (Right) The institute at Pusa in Bihar where he worked

Albert Howard was a farmer’s son. He would become a famous agricultural scientist, with the resonant title of Imperial Economic Botanist, and be knighted, becoming Sir Albert, even to his wife in her biography of him. In the fiercely class conscious world of the British Empire he lived in, at the end of the 19th century and early 20th century, he might have been forgiven for concealing his modest origins under his undeniable success.

But he didn’t. He was proud he came from a farming family, proud of his ability to handle livestock. He had a farmer’s practical ability to look at fields and see how things were growing there – really growing, not just the way his textbooks said they should. Which was why when he was posted to India in 1905, to the big new agricultural institute the British Raj had built at Pusa, Bihar (which would later get destroyed in an earthquake, and be recreated in Delhi, where it is still called the Pusa campus), where his job was to develop commercial crops for the Empire, he couldn’t help noticing the fields, not just in his institute, but in the farms beyond.

These fields were tended by the sort of uneducated peasants he was meant to be enlightening about modern agriculture. Their plots were too small and randomly cultivated. Instead of profitably growing a single crop on a large scale, they grew a muddle of grains, vegetables and commercial crops. They raised cattle there too, even though the modern thinking was to separate livestock from crop farming. And they didn’t use the new inorganic fertilisers based on industrially produced ammonia and nitrogen that were then the norm in the West, nor the chemical pesticides that reduced the loss to pests. These peasants had no idea of them, and anyway probably couldn’t afford them. 


The agricultural authorities at that time simply ignored such farmers – as their successors in modern India still do. The assumption is that such marginal farmers have to modernise, or be driven out of business by farmers who do. But Howard had a farmer’s viewpoint which showed him that plants on these unscientific farms seemed to be doing rather better than his scientifically raised ones. They were vigorous and hardy, which seemed to help them ward off most pests. Their livestock too were healthier, which was proven during an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease when these cattle did much better than the pedigreed animals at his institute.

A more hubristic scientist would simply have ignored such oddities, but Howard started scientifically studying what those Indian farmers were doing and he became increasingly convinced that their traditional practices had merits that were being overlooked by modern agriculture of the kind he was supposed to be doing. These practices, as described, validated and further developed by Howard, were what would become the foundations of the modern organic farming movement.

Howard never used the word ‘organic’ himself, calling such methods ‘Nature’s farming’ in his book An Agricultural Testament, which must count as one of the most influential books ever to come from an Indian context. The ‘organic’ term is credited to Lord Northbourne, an English aristocrat and Olympic rower.

Howard tackled one of the central problems of Indian farmers – fertiliser. It was generally agreed that if inorganic options weren’t available, they should at least use the dung from their livestock. So if Indian farmers persisted in using cow dung for fuel, it was their folly.

Howard was more sympathetic to the farmers. He had actually got to know their lives and understood how few alternatives there were to dung as a fuel. Collecting dried leaves and wood, for example, was timeconsuming for the already burdened women.

Among Howard’s many unusual traits for his time was a profound appreciation of the value of women’s labour. His wife Gabrielle became a vital partner in his work, and he insisted she be titled Second Economic Botanist. After she died in 1930, he dedicated An Agricultural Testament to her with lines from Romeo and Juliet: “The Earth, that’s Nature’s Mother, is her tomb. . . ” (He then married her younger sister Louise, who seems to have been petrifyingly in awe of her brother-in-law and elder sister, and would dedicate her life to their legacy, writing a hugely respectful but rather dull memoir of their work in India).

Howard looked for alternatives to dung. He found it in all the wastes naturally generated by farming households. These could be collected and combined with the urine of farm animals, spread on straw, and this would serve a catalyst for the decomposition of the wastes into a form that could be spread in the fields and absorbed by plants. A large part of An Agricultural Testament consists of detailed descriptions of the creation of such composts, with scientific analysis of their value as fertiliser. What was important for him was that they were biological in origin, so they added to the living quality that he saw in soil. 


This was not fanciful, because Howard had trained as a mycologist, a specialist in fungi, and he was aware of how fungal networks in the soil literally made it a living organism. India gave him not just the inspiration, but also the best means to test his theories. One of the advantages he had here was the wide range of climates and conditions present in the subcontinent. He could test crops all the way from Quetta, where he had a research station, to the plains on which Pusa was based, to all the range of agricultural research stations the Raj had established across India. Working across climates, he could speed up his research in ways he never could have in Europe.

But there was one problem. The British hadn’t expected Howard to go ‘native’, and become a profound critic of industrial-style agriculture. His position at Pusa got increasingly strained – Louise Howard writes, “he was accused of invading fields not his own”, which was, in fact, correct, since his holistic views didn’t recognise regular academic distinctions. But the British establishment could not appreciate this.

The Howards might have had to leave India and all their fieldwork, if another uniquely Indian option hadn’t appeared. The subcontinent offered an alternative to the Raj in the princely states and it was one of them, Indore, which came to the Howards’ rescue. The Maharaja offered to set up an Institute of Plant Industry which would be financed by the Indian Central Cotton Committee and contributions from 20 princely states in Central India and Rajputana, who would all benefit from it. By 1925, the Howards were installed there and in gratitude named their composting method the Indore process. One still comes across this term in organic farming manuals, and can only hope the Maharaja appreciated the state’s name being attached to what is essentially garbage processing.

Howard’s writings from that time (most of which were out of print for years, but are now available on websites like journeytoforever. org) give an idea of his holistic and humane views. For example, he examined agricultural labour, a vital issue, but one generally overlooked by scientists. Howard recognised that his systems depended on good labour, but this wasn’t easy to get in Indore where cotton mills offered alternative employment. In a paper he detailed ways to attract and keep good labour, by a combination of fair pay, flexible hours and good living conditions.

Howard even detailed the best ways to pay labour, emphasising that “payment is made in coin. . . and nothing whatever is done to influence the workers how they should spend their wages. ” This is reflected in the current argument that providing cash transfers rather than subsidised food in relief schemes is both more efficient and equitable, since it recognises the recipients as people in their own right, rather than as just passive beneficiaries.

An earlier initiative of Howard’s which may still be helping us today was in marketing of produce. Farmers might grow great crops, but this was useless unless they were conveyed to a market where they get a decent return. Howard felt that the excellent fruit he was growing in places like Quetta would do well in cities like Delhi, and that the newly created railways were the way to get them there in good shape. But packaging standards were poor resulting in lots of damaged fruit. The obvious solution was standardised returnable crates, but the Railways weren’t encouraging this since they got more by charging farmers for each parcel separately. Howard went to battle and finally got the Railways to accept the standard sized crates for fruit that are still in use today. 


Much more than merely organic farming, it was this ability to see agriculture in its totality – from workers to markets – that was unique about his vision (he also always gave his Indian assistants their due, for example, co-crediting Yashwant Wad, one of his principal assistants at Indore, in papers that they wrote). Despite Howard being seen as odd and eccentric by the British establishment, people were soon coming to Indore to see his Institute. One visitor was Mahatma Gandhi, who in 1935 accepted an invitation to a Hindi conference in Indore at least partly because he could also inspect the process, particularly because he felt it offered a solution to his long standing concern for hygienic disposal of human wastes.

This visit took place by the time Howard had retired. He went back to England in 1931 but it was only a change of base and the start of his campaign to impress upon the world his learnings from India. He started writing a series of books, starting with The Waste Products of Agriculture: their Utilization as Humus that Louise Howard described as “one last gift of his genius to the peoples of India”. In this and other books, culminating in An Agricultural Testament, he stepped up his attack on industrial agriculture.

Howard soon found followers. Lady Eve Balfour, another agriculturally inclined aristocrat, based her book The Living Soil on Howard’s theories and in 1946, a year before Howard’s death, she founded the Soil Association, the earliest and still one of the most influential organic farming promotion organisations. In the US, Howard’s work was read by J I Rodale, who would become the publisher of very successful health based magazines like Men’s Health. Rodale recalled that reading Howard’s work had the impact of being hit by “a ton of bricks” and he started Organic Gardening magazine, with Howard as an honorary editor.

People like Balfour and Rodale would take the organic farming movement forward after Howard’s death, sustaining it through long periods when it was seen as a pursuit for cranks or as something noble, but impractical. Today it is finally receiving its due, not just in the West, where it is now almost a mainstream form of agriculture, but in India as well. Organic food shops are proliferating and so is the number of people growing organic produce on their farms. Aamir Khan recently endorsed it on ‘Satyameva Jayate’, arguing that Indian agriculture had to move in the long term towards organic cultivation. In one of his last Budgets, Pranab Mukherjee even allocated a sum for promotion of organic farming.


Yet what is ironic about all these efforts is that they seem to start from the assumption that organic farming is a Western practice that needs to be sold in India. The Indian roots of the movement, and Howard’s role have almost entirely been forgotten (one exception is Vandana Shiva’s Navdanya which for nine years had an annual Albert Howard Memorial lecture). A large part of the reason for this is because Indian agricultural research was built on the British system, which had repudiated Howard, and has since shown little interest in his work.

As a final indignity, Howard’s Indore institute seems to have been absorbed into the Indian agricultural research system so thoroughly that no memory of its internationally pioneering role seems to survive. But this is perhaps one place where a formal reassessment of Howard’s contribution to Indian agriculture can start. Some acknowledgement should be made of the Institute’s role – perhaps even a reallocation of its resources towards the promotion of organic farming. Like with Howard’s work in India this would not be a change as much as a return, to the roots of a practice with international impact, but whose roots lie firmly in Indian soil.

From horse’s mouth: Bihar farmers best

GAYA: It’s not often that a non-Bihari of repute hails Bihar and the whole nation, including Bollywood biggie Aamir Khan, cannot help but nod in the affirmative. The subject this time was not the ‘sushasan’, or good governance, of CM Nitish Kumar but two brainy Bihari farmers’ model of organic farming and giving them the pat of the superlative degree was none other than the Hyderabad-based Centre for Sustainable Agriculture’s executive director G V Ramanjaneyulu.
The public applause of the feat of Bihar farmers, one of them being the Bihar CM’s namesake and both hailing from, again coincidentally, from the CM’s “very own” Nalanda district, came during Aamir’s popular TV programme, ‘Satya Meva Jayate’, which this Sunday focused on the harmful effects on humans of the chemicals used to propel and protect the produce in agriculture fields. The debate and discussions sent the shivers down the spine: Consumers of such produce end up accumulating four to five times the permissible limit of pesticides in their bodies.
Organic farming gives quality produce that do not cause such health hazards and the quantity of the yield is also as high as chemically-boosted yield. “Any examples?” asked Aamir and pat came the reply from the agri scientist: Potato farmer Nitish and paddy farmer Sumant Kumar of Bihar have taken the lead and comprehensively beaten their counterparts in the Netherlands and China.
When TOI reached Ramanjaneyulu in Hyderabad over phone soon after the telecast, he said cultivating potato through the organic method (without using chemical fertilizers and pesticides), Nitish recorded a yield of 72.9 tonnes per hectare while the previous best yield record was held by a group of the Netherlands farmers who produced 45 tonnes per hectare. Sumant harvested 224 quintals of paddy per hectare beating the previous record of Chinese farmer Longping who produced 190 quintals per hectare.
The great admirer of Bihar farmers, has, however, a word of advice for both the state’s farmers and the policymakers: The farmers should learn from the mistakes of Punjab where the Green Revolution, while increasing the yield, has left behind deadly health hazards and depleting water table. Owing to the excessive use of chemical fertilizers, the incidence of cancer in Punjab has assumed mind-boggling proportions. One out of every five Punjab farmer suffers from the deadly disease, the scientist said.
“Go for tenancy reforms if you have to really sustain the Bihar version of the ‘Green Revolution’,” was the scientist’s message to the Bihar policymakers as tiny plots and absentee ownership of land spawn stumbling blocks to proper agricultural growth in the state. A strong advocate of SRI (System of Root Intensification) method, the scientist also favours changes in cropping pattern in the south Bihar areas where water is scarce. Replace paddy with pulse crops in such areas as over-withdrawal of groundwater creates more problems than it solves, he says.
Watch: Toxic Food – Poison On Our Plate?

Organic rice cultivation transforming lives of Damoh farmers

The longer organic variety of rice versus HYV variety. Photo: Mahim Pratap Singh
The HinduThe longer organic variety of rice versus HYV variety. Photo: Mahim Pratap Singh

Till last year, Shiv Singh, a landless labourer from the Pinarayi village of Damoh district knew of only one survival strategy-migrating to Delhi to earn his living as a construction worker.

This year, with the Rs. 8,000 he had saved from his Delhi earnings, Shiv took a 3-acre piece of land on lease and grew rice on it. The harvest in September fetched him Rs.55,000 besides enough rice for his family to last for a year.

But, unlike most success stories, his is not an isolated case.

Several villages of Damoh, which was last in news for being the hub of farmer suicides earlier this year, are witnessing a small, quiet, yet successful green revolution-of the organic kind.

Farming has not been a successful proposition in this very backward district of the parched Bundelkhand region of Madhya Pradesh since the late 1980s due to a rapidly receding water table and scarce rainfall.

Last December and this January, Damoh witnessed the first of the several farmer suicides across Madhya Pradesh when large tracts of pulses crop perished owing to frost bite.

But over the last year and a half, over 1200 farmers of 32 villages of the Tendukheda block of Damoh, have taken to farming rice organically. Most of them are small and marginal farmers; some, like Shiv Singh, are even landless labourers.

Helped by Gramin Vikas Samiti, a local pro-organic farming organization, and People’s Science Institute, a Dehradun based non-profit, these farmers together cultivated rice on a total of over 1500 acres.

The trend started with just four farmers of Beldhana village and has now spread to other villages like Ajitpur, Hardua, Harrai etc.

The farmers in these villages shunned the High Yielding Varieties and the “progressive”, high-input, fertilizer-pesticide dominated farming practices often advocated by the government and took to completely traditional methods along with a set of cultivation practices collectively called System of Rice Intensification (SRI), initially developed in the early 1980s by a French priest in Madagascar.

The results have been more than encouraging.

While the average rice yield in Bundelkhand is around 17-20 quintal/hectare, these villages recorded average yields of at least 75-80 quintal per hectare this season. While the lowest yield in these 32 villages was 44 quintals/hectare, the maximum yield stood at 115 quintals/hectare.

Even agriculture scientists, who usually advocate modern and scientific farming over traditional practices, agree.

“These are miraculous results, considering the low rice productivity found in most of Madhya Pradesh and the extremely low productivity found in Bundelkhand,” says Dr. Sanjay Vaishyampayan, Senior Scientist, Krishi Vigyan Kendra, Damoh, which comes under the Jawaharlal Nehru Agriculture University, Jabalpur.

“Moreover, these farmers used very less seed, 2.5 kg/acre compared to 40kg/acre required in non-traditional methods. They also saved on pesticide and fertilizer costs as they only used organic manure,” says Dr. Sanjay.

The farmers used traditional varieties of rice like Lochai, Ganjakali, Kesar etc which they found in the neighbourhood homes of Gond adivasis.

Along with that, they used organic manure prepared from household ingredients like cow dung and urine, lemon juice, banana pulp, milk and curd etc which were all mixed together in specific quantities and kept under a lid in an earthen pot (matka) for about 15 days.

“Earlier, most farmers of our village were hesitant so we used these techniques on a small part of our lands. Last year I cultivated half an acre. After seeing the good yield, I have brought two acres under this system,” says Moolchand of Ajitpur village, who owns four acres.

The plant thus grown is 6 feet long compared to the 3.5 feet long HYV variety and has over 300 grains compared to about 100 grains in the latter.

“This is entirely the result of the hard work of these farmers, we only suugested them to take to organic farming and use other SRI which involves planting less seeds, planting them in rows spaced 10 inches from each other and using organic manure,” says Govind Yadav of Gramin Vikas Samiti.

The new methods have also made lives simpler for women, who used to toil hard, standing for hours in ankle-deep water taking out the weed. That task (taking out the weed) is now done by the menfolk with the help of a locally made de-weeder, which costs about Rs.1000.

The farmers don’t want to form a cooperative yet, but they are seriously thinking about setting up a seed bank of traditional varieties, “which are so hard to find these days”.

The little success story of these farmers is like a ray of hope in Madhya Pradesh where rice productivity is far from satisfactory, especially since the high-productivity areas split to form Chhattisgarh.

Corporate Crimes In the Cereal Aisle: How Companies Are Fooling You Into Thinking Their Products Are Healthy

Here’s the tricks that big breakfast barons use to fool you into believing their products are pesticide and GMO-free.

October 26, 2011  |

A trip to the supermarket is an adventure into a tempting and treacherous jungle. The insatiable hunger for a ready-made breakfast that nourishes our bodies and our social conscience has made our morning bowls of cereal a hiding place for corporate charlatans. A new report, Cereal Crimes, by the Cornucopia Institute discloses the toxic truth about “natural” products and unmasks corporate faces like Kellogg’s hiding behind supposedly “family-run” businesses such as Kashi.

When these breakfast barons forage for profit, we eaters are the prey. But what are the laws of this jungle? And how do we avoid being ripped off by products that are hazardous for our health and our environment? Let’s have a look at some of these corporations’ sneaky strategies.

First, there is intentional confusion. With so many different kinds of cereal lining the shelves, figuring out which is the best requires detective work. Many make claims about health, boasting “no trans fats,” “gluten-free,” and “a boost of omega three.” Others play to environmental concerns declaring “earthy harmony,” “nature in balance,” and “sustainable soils.” With the legion of labels, separating wheat from chaff seems impossible, but the report offers one rule of thumb: Don’t confuse organic with “natural.”

Organics, certified and recognizable by the green USDA label, are required by federal law to be produced without toxic inputs and genetically engineered ingredients. “Natural,” on the other hand, is defined by the producers themselves to mislead shoppers and protect shareholders. Cornucopia’s report found that, “When determining their ‘natural’ standards, companies will consider their profitability. Environmental concerns are unlikely to weigh heavily, if at all, in this profitability equation.”


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Indian Organic firms expect to beat slowdown

19 Aug, 2011, 04.01AM IST, radhika nair,ET Bureau
Indian Organic firms expect to beat slowdownDespite the looming threat of a global economic slowdown, India’s organic entrepreneurs are upbeat on the prospects for an emerging industry. In an industry long dependent on exports, these firms are now finding that rising consumption of organic products by middle class Indians is creating a brand new market opportunity.

Rajashekar Reddy Seelam, founder of Sresta Natural Bioproducts, which sells under the brand 24 Letter Mantra is planning to increase acreage under organic cultivation.

“We intend to invest around $15 million next year,” said Reddy. Since 2004, when the company was launched, the firm has entered into contract farming arrangements with 10,000 organic farmers. The plan next year is to increase cultivation to 70,000 acres. Reddy’s optimism stems from the estimated 50% growth in demand for organic products in India that is providing a buffer in a time of global slowdown.

“We are continuously increasing shelf space for organic products, which is still a small part of our overall business,” said Thomas Varghese, CEO of Aditya Birla Retail, who runs the More chain of supermarkets.

The Indian organic industry expects its total turnover, including exports, to go up from 675 crore in 2010 to 4,000 crore by 2012, according to the International Competence Centre for Organic Agriculture (ICCOA).

The domestic growth comes at a time when industry players estimate that India’s organic exports are growing at 6-7%, down from a pre-recession high of 13-14%. “I don’t think things will get worse,” said Sresta’s Reddy, who along with his peers in the industry are battling multiple issues on the ground as they seek to meet the ambitious growth targets.

Higher prices for organic products are still an impediment. If a household shifts completely to organic food products, the extra spend comes to around 1,500 per month, according to organic producers.

But entrepreneurs justify the higher cost-to-customer as organic farmers need the incentive of higher price since they bear greater risk by avoiding pesticides and incur the cost of certification.

“We have higher per unit transport costs too as our volumes are much smaller compared to non-organic food. Similarly our storage costs are also high,” said Bangalore-based Pro Nature’s co-founder and CEO Varun Gupta, whose company procures, processes, brands and supplies organic food products.

Started in 2006, by Gupta and his wife Nidhi Gupta, Pro Nature-branded products retail in Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad, Pune and Mumbai and has 3 crore in revenue.

For farmers who supply to organic retailers the cost of certifying their produce as organic costs 9,500 to 19,000 per man day. Companies are now supporting farmers to get this certification. “We provide farmers with know-how and help in the certification process. We work with them to put the internal controls in place,” said a Suminter Organics spokesperson, who did not wish to be named.

Suminter is one of the best known organic companies in the country and was started in 2004 by Sameer Mehra. The company works with small and marginal farmers, mostly in Maharashtra and Gujarat, and has a processing unit in Indore. All the food products they process are exported and almost 60% of the cotton is exported. In 2008, it raised funds from Nexus Venture Partners.

To beat the hurdles, entrepreneurs are using novel methods. IIM-Ahmedabad alumnus, Aparna Bhatnagar decided to sell online to keep operating costs low. She launched the e-commerce portal Green and Good Store a little over a year ago. Unlike most other organic ventures, Bhatnagar focuses on non-food products and retails organic apparel, home furnishing, stationery, cosmetics and handicrafts sourced from other certified producers. Bhatnagar has consciously kept prices low, with some apparel priced as low as 300. “Consumers should not have to pay extra for choosing to buy an eco-friendly product,” said Bhatnagar.

Another entrepreneur trying to exploit the e-com platform is Sivakasi based organic cotton fabric and bed linen manufacturer, Creative Textures. The company, which was launched in 2005, turned fully organic in 2008. Today, Creative Textures has a turnover of 12.5 crore and it exports 25% of its total production, while the rest is sold to domestic garment manufacturers, who in turn export the finished products. “We plan to start online retail for the UK market very soon,” said CEO R Balaji, who has already contracted warehouses in UK.

Companies say they need to start investing in marketing and advertising to acquire new customers. But, marketing costs are a burden for organic retailers. “Many of these companies are small players and do not have the financial muscle to support a marketing budget,” said Hemendra Mathur, managing director of SEAF India Agribusiness International Fund.

Entrepreneurs are now trying to overcome this handicap. Last month, Sresta’s Reddy launched a month-long nationwide “Freedom from Pesticides” campaign to raise awareness among consumers. As part of this campaign, consumers can bring any non-organic food products and the company will give them organic products at no charge. “Market development will accelerate growth. We have so far got a good response for our campaign,” said Reddy.

While Sresta’s initiative may be a start, organic entrepreneurs concede the Indian market is a long way away from more developed western organic markets. The US organic food and beverages industry was at almost $27 billion in 2010 and represented approximately 4% of overall food and beverage sales in 2010, according to data sourced from the Organic Trade Association (OTA), a North American organic industry body. The western organic sector is also witnessing acquisitions, a sign of an industry reaching scale.

Among the more prominent acquisitions this year, were the buyouts of Danival, a French producer of organic foods, and GG UniqueFiber, a Norwegian natural foods company, by the US natural and organic food company Hain Celestial, which had $1.05 billion in sales. “We are five years away from such a scenario in India, where organic firms would have reached a scale to acquire or be acquired by a larger company,” said Pro Nature’s Gupta. But Indian entrepreneurs are confident they are on track to reach that target.