When Aakar Singh returned home to Bandra, Mumbai, from a week-long work trip to the US, he was surprised to find his 38-year-old wife wearing make- up for the first time in ten years. “It’s all organic,” Bani Singh proudly informed her lawyer husband. “I should’ve taken it as a warning. Since then everything in the house has been replaced by an organic alternative,” jokes Aakar, who now sleeps on organic bedsheets, eats organic GMO-free breakfast cereal, drinks organic wine, showers with handmade organic soap and organic jute towels, writes with biodegradable environment- friendly pens and makes love using vegan and organic flavoured condoms.
For Bani, the change in lifestyle occurred after she read about bone char being used to process sugar, and brewers using fish bladders to filter out yeast in beer. “I am a vegetarian. It shocked me to realise how little I know about the making of everyday products. Basic things such as salt, sugar, oil or ghee, which we always have in our kitchens—how much do we know about where they come from, who is bottling it, where it is being bottled and what is going into the bottle? For this reason, I am now a complete organic convert.” And why not, she reiterates. “I am amazed that people don’t think twice about what they are putting on and into their own bodies. Not just fruits and vegetables, but there are so many nasty chemicals, sugar and fake flavours added into cosmetics, feminine hygiene products and clothes. How can you not care about what goes into your skin and body? Being organic is about bringing a complete change to your way of thinking.”
There are several others like her in India who are ready to switch over to an organic way of life. According to a 2015 study, Rising Demand of Organic Productsin Metropolitan Cities by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (Assocham), 62 per cent of the respondents consumed organic produce, an increase of 95 per cent in the last five years. The survey, which was conducted at 1,500 retailers of non-organic and organic produce, also noted that 62 per cent bought organic out of health-related concerns, 90 per cent wanted to know where and how the food was grown and 85 per cent wished the products were less expensive. Assocham also came out with another survey in partnership with TechSci Research in October last year that projected the domestic organic market at $1.36 billion (Rs 9,250 crore) by 2020. It also noted that the market has been growing at a rate of 25 to 30 per cent annually in the last five years; a number driven by rising consumer awareness and quality of product.
Awareness alone isn’t enough though, says N Balasubramanian, CEO, Sresta Natural Bio Products, a retail chain that also supplies organic produce to corporate canteens in different cities. “We’ve found that the more range you offer consumers, the more likely they are to return. And each time they do, we try to inform them about natural manufacturing,” says Balasubramanian.
For organic store owners this ‘natural’ manufacturing process is everything. It’s their USP and how they maintain client loyalty. “Customers come to us because they know they can trust that all our fresh produce and the products we stock are made naturally—right down from the sugar in the jam to the butter in the biscuits. This is called 100 per cent organic. Knowing your manufacturer and every molecule of what goes into the product, makes all the difference,” says Ashmeet Kapoor, a Brown University graduate who is the founder of I Say Organics. The organics-only store launched its first offline retail outlet last month at Delhi’s Select Citywalk mall. Nitu Nair, founder of the Organic Lifestyle store in Bengaluru, adds to this. “People assume that an organic product is limited to fresh produce like apples, oranges, spinach, carrots and so on. But anything and everything can be organic, even ordinary household items such as utensils and garbage bags. The breadth and the depth of the market have grown significantly,” says Nair.
That is certainly visible as soon as you walk into Ayesha Grewal’s The Altitude Store in Delhi. Grewal, who launched her organic store six years ago with only 350 products, now stocks over 3,000 organic products, has opened a second retail outlet and manufactures her own line of jams, juices, cheese, charcuterie, bakery products and salads. Her store also stocks organic and natural baby food, oil, tea, coffee, meat, pasta, grain, snacks, chocolate, utensils, pashmina shawls, lipsticks, shower gels, eyeliner, garbage bags, breakfast cereal and drinks. “Awareness is still low compared to the West but the growth has been visible in the last few years, especially in the metros. Just look at the expansion of organic products and you will realise how far the market has evolved. A few years back, people would have laughed at the idea of purchasing organic thermocol cutlery or toothpaste. But now, plenty of customers understand that when you pay a little bit extra, you are buying a product that is made with ingredients you can actually pronounce and in a clean and chemical-free environment,” says Grewal. Organic deodorants are next on her wish list. “Try and Google all the ingredients that are listed on the back label of a commercial deodorant— some of the results that turn up are genuinely scary. And this is stuff that gets absorbed by your body. I would say that it is certainly worth the price for products that don’t use harmful components.”
Priced at Rs 150 to Rs 200 per kg more for fresh produce, Rs 300 to Rs 400 more for cosmetics and Rs 800 to Rs 1,000 more in the case of garments, are organic alternatives really worth the cost? According to Mumbai-based nutritionist Dr RR Sharma, organic is more about marketing hype than actual health. “What is organic food? It’s ‘normal’ food that you ate 30 to 40 years ago. In today’s climate, soil and processing, there is no such thing as a 100 per cent pesticide-free and ‘clean’ product. Yes, there is some produce that can be tainted with extra chemicals, such as apples and mangoes, but chances are, if you are buying from a well-established supermarket chain, you won’t be putting any of the really bad fruit into your fridge anyway,” says Dr Sharma. “ This trend to buy clothes, bags, shoes, make-up, canned and bottled goods under the label of ‘organic’ isn’t necessarily a healthier alternative. I recommend clients to go in for a balanced cooked Indian diet instead of falling for gimmicks. People think it’s ‘cool’ to buy organic, so they fall for it.” A survey conducted by the Ministry of Agriculture in October last year, he adds, observed that of 20,618 organic samples analysed, pesticide residues were detected in 3,857 (18.7 per cent). “So you see, simply buying ‘organic’ will not make you healthy. In plenty of cases, it’s just another label. I have my doubts about products with the necessary certification as well; who is there to monitor the farm or processing plant on a 24/7 basis?”
Dr Anjali Hooda, a clinical nutrition consultant with Fortis Delhi, has an entirely different view. “In my experience, I can say that consuming organic produce does have its benefits in the long run. The impact of pesticide-free choices isn’t something that you will get to see right away. But every little thing that you put into your body leaves its mark, whether it is on visible body parts such as skin, hair and teeth, or internal organs such as your heart, brain, lungs and cells,” says Dr Hooda. “There have been several studies to prove the health benefits as well.”
One such study was compiled in October last year by a team of nutritionists from Newcastle University. Published in the British Journal of Nutrition, the paper analysed 343 studies of the compositional differences between organic and conventional crops. Its observations then concluded that a switch to eating organic fruit, vegetable and cereals—and food made from them—provides additional antioxidants equivalent to eating 1-2 extra portions of fruit and vegetables a day. According to Dr Gavin Stewart, one of the authors of the study and a lecturer in evidence synthesis at the university, similar studies done in the past (which found organic food to have no health benefits at all) were erroneous because their evidence base was smaller. The two studies he mentions were those done by Dr Alan Dangour in 2009 from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and by Dr Dena Bravata and Crystal Smith- Spangler from Stanford University. “The larger evidence base available in our synthesis allowed us to use more appropriate statistical methods to draw more definitive conclusions,” explains Dr Stewart.
Organic producer Apurva Kothari, who co-founded the organic and fair trade clothing chain No Nasties in Goa, says that there are also plenty of buyers who opt for organic to help a community. “Organic isn’t about health benefits only. You also help an entire ecosystem survive. For example, buying an organic garment also means that the garment is being stitched in a clean and fair factory, that no GMO seeds are being used and that you are helping a small farm survive. If we don’t do our bit, then where is the incentive for small-scale farmers to practice natural farming? Already there are plenty of farmers who are selling off their land to commercial builders because they can’t afford the expense of natural farming,” says Kothari.
Ayesha Grewal of The Altitude Store adds that the costs of organic farming lie in the scale of attention that is required for each and every plant. “For example, take cabbages or broccoli—plants that are perennially prone to caterpillars and insect infections. A commercial farmer would just walk through his fields a few times a week and spray insecticide. It’s as easy as that. Now come to an organic farm where each plant has to be checked every single day for insects and special insecticides made of neem, garlic, tulsi, basil and marigold are created to ensure their health. The principle is simple— on an organic farm the emphasis is on prevention and not cure. All plants need to have optimal health from the first day itself. In the long run, we can see the results. Last year when farms in Rajasthan suffered heavy losses with their onion crops, our crop was barely affected because it was healthier, more resilient and thus able to recuperate faster,” says Grewal. For those who remain sceptical of the organic market, Grewal adds, “There will always be some who aren’t convinced in every industry. If organic food was all a ‘gimmick’ then why would people continue buying the products? The response has been so good in the last few years that pretty soon there will be organic supermarkets stocking everything that you’d find at a regular kirana store.”