This article is based on a presentation at the 2nd International Summit of Processed Food, Agribusiness and Beverages, organised by the Associated Chambers of Commerce (ASSOCHAM) and supported by the Ministry of Food Processing, Government of India. The presentation was made to a mixed audience of retailers, manufacturers, farmers, government functionaries and service providers, and rather than provide answers, the objective was to raise questions that were not being discussed.
The old saying goes: where there are issues, there are opportunities. By that standard, the perishable commodities supply chain offers plenty of issues and, hence, opportunities.
Part of the problem, or opportunity, is that there are so many steps between the farmer and the consumer, so many hands through which the produce passes, especially in the case of India. With every step in this supply chain, there is the potential of waste and deterioration with time, and on the flip side, there is also an opportunity to add value and improve.
Misalignment on Motivation
One core issue, at the heart of most problems with the perishables supply chain, is widely different perspectives and the lack of alignment.
For instance, there is competition at the basic level between cities and villages. But there is even misalignment between the development needs of ever-growing cities that are taking over neighbouring agricultural lands, and the need to feed people living in those very cities. Similarly, the motivations for small sustenance-driven landholders are different from those of the wealthier farmers with large holdings. And, of course, within the supply chain, the tug of war is between consumer vs retailer, retailer vs brand, brand vs producer.
This is but natural in any economy, even more so in India whose rapid growth is widening the already existing gaps and intensifying the inherent disconnects.
Misalignment on Value
However, there is also another significant potential misalignment, of which we need to be keenly aware. This is in the very definition of value.
Given that we have been discussing “value-addition” as a driver for the food supply chain, I think we also need to understand that the word value has various connotations and implications, depending on who we are speaking about. Each throws up different challenges, and needs to be dealt with differently.
In my mind, the three aspects of value related to the food sector are:
The complication is that these three aspects address three very different audiences in society.
For a large part of India’s population, simply providing adequate calories is the main problem. For this chunk of people, not only do we need to have more productive land under use, we need to maximise the output from each piece of land, and ensure that the productive output reaches the population that needs it the most. Within that, there are several social, political, logistical and economic challenges to tackle: clarity of land-holding, availability of arable land to agriculture rather than non-agricultural uses, unit area productivity with efficient use of other resources, safety during transportation and storage, and distribution at prices that are affordable.
Nutritional value is the next step up: packing more nutrients into each gram of produce and delivering the right mix and balance is a critical issue for consumers who get enough calories, but can benefit hugely in physical and mental health through the quality of the nutrition they are taking in.
In pushing up both calorific and nutritional value, we also run into two entirely different debates.
One is whether genetic modification (GM) is desirable. The argument against GM foods is that we shouldn’t tamper with the most basic building blocks of biology, because we don’t understand the implications completely. The powerful argument for GM is that it is a must, to ensure that we have enough and ever-improving food available to a growing population.
The second debate is about organic produce. The organic camp believes strongly that organic is better, nutritionally superior. The other side argues that organic delivers no clear demonstrable increase in either calories or nutrition, and instead pushes production down and prices up: a recipe for complete disaster in a growing country.
But most interesting to me is the fact that in most industry platforms such as this, when we speak of “value-addition”, it is neither calorific nor nutritional value that is being targeted, but only economic value.
Obviously, companies are profit-driven by their very nature, and if calorific or nutritional value does not deliver economic value to them, they will not focus on those aspects. For that reason, most companies engaged in or being encouraged to participate in the food supply chain do so through food processing: the transformation of the basic produce into a manufactured packaged product with higher economic value per gram. A thinking consumer may be tempted to ask, am I getting proportionately better food (especially more nutrition) for the extra unit value that I am paying for orange juice (as compared to oranges), ketchup (as compared to tomatoes) or chips (when compared to potatoes)?
My concern is that such a deep misalignment in the definition of value can cause a huge amount of friction and potential politicisation, especially if only one aspect of “value-addition” is constantly in focus.
Misalignment on Losses
I’d also like to briefly comment on another aspect of value: losses.
We’ve all come across the much-quoted “fact” that in India 30-40% of the agricultural produce is wasted. That’s incredible! A country otherwise so frugal pushes a third of its valuable food into the gutters? Can that really be true?
I have not come across any authoritative study that clearly demonstrates that India actually wastes that much food.
Of course, there is wastage due to improper harvesting, lack of post-harvest processing and gaps in the storage and transportation infrastructure. But that figure, depending on what product and part of country you pick, varies hugely and the overall average is nowhere close to the 30-40% figure.
Overestimating the size of the problem leads to overestimation of the opportunity, and that misdirects investment. I think the correct way to look at the issue is not just in terms of value-lost, but in terms of opportunity lost. There is certainly an opportunity for farmers to grow their incomes by ensuring that better agricultural and post-harvest techniques are followed. If harvesting products at the right time, chilling the produce at the farm immediately, adequate sorting and grading, or even the simple act of washing can lead to higher prices for the farmer, I’m all for it.
The opportunities we are missing may be bigger than the waste that we imagine.
The Drivers of Value
Obviously, the technological, political and business mandate changes dramatically, depending on where we want to focus on building value. Is it to increase, improve, protect or change the produce? Are we going to focus on the seed, on growth, on harvest and post-harvest, on processing, on storage, on packaging or marketing.
Given the diversity of the questions, I think the discussion on value should also include – openly – a widely inclusive group. Obviously large corporate retailers, brands and producers, and the various arms of the government would be part of the discussion, but the table should also have room for farmers of every hue, technology innovators that address not just aggregated large land-holdings but also small farms, and platforms that encourage both ultra-modern and traditional knowledge, both from within India and outside.
By focussing on an over-simplified view of “value-addition”, we risk not addressing fundamental issues. In fact, we could be losing sight of humongous opportunities.
In the food supply chain, we are dealing with a product that is perishable; given our economy’s rapid transformation, the opportunities are perishable, too. We should get cracking.
(To download the PDF of the presentation, please click here.)
Who knew that a mere vegetable – the humble purple, shiny brinjal, eggplant, aubergine – could create such an uproar?
And why retailers and consumer product companies should be concerned about genetically modified (GM) crops is a complicated story with multiple twists and turns across political, economic, social, scientific and philosophical landscapes.
At their basic level, brinjals have so far been possibly equally hated and loved for their flavour and texture across the world. But their newest avatar – Bt Brinjal – is now being viewed on the one hand as an evil alien transplant that will kill everything good and natural, and the first step of capitalist monopolies to dominate food crops in a large and growing market, while on the other hand it is seen as a saviour of the embattled farmer, an eco-friendly alternative to pesticides and a well-thought out scientific solution to agricultural productivity.
Though it might appear that genetically modification is a 20th century invention, the fact is that such food is not new. Since the time we began farming some 10,000 years ago, we have been carrying out genetic screening and selection, and modifying to create plants and animals that suit our purposes. All farmed products are a product of artificial rather than pure natural selection, as humans have pure-bred and cross-bred strains of crops that are seen as more beneficial in terms of nutrition, hardiness and ease of cultivation.
However, there are some important differences between earlier efforts and now, which underlie the recent loud and violent debate. Let me outline the concerns as seen from the anti-GM side of the table.
Previous genetic selections and modifications happened not just over generations of plants, but generations of human beings. By default, this allowed time to try and test different variants and arrive at varieties that met multiple criteria – profitable cultivation, nutrition, taste, durability and safety. There are concerns that not enough is known about the eventual impact of the new GM crops on human and environmental health, and the speed of adoption frightens people. (In 1948 a Swiss chemist was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work on DDT’s effectiveness as a pesticide, just a few short decades before it was banned from widespread agricultural use for – among other things – apparently causing cancer, and being acutely toxic to organisms other than the pests at which it was targeted.)
In the past, if some variety was wiped out due to climatic variation or pests, it was very likely that alternative varieties were close at hand to substitute it. (Estimates about the number of brinjal varieties in India alone vary widely, from 2,000 to over 3,500 though most of them are not actively cultivated in any significant number.) On the other hand the agricultural information and supply chain today is far more integrated, allowing a previously unknown speed and completeness of adoption of new technology and inputs, frequently at the cost of traditional knowledge. Extinction of natural species is not just due to hunting or disasters, whether man-made or natural. If a new engineered variety is profitable in the foreseeable future, farmers would very likely replace other varieties without examining the long-term impact. (This is true also of other inputs, like overuse of heavily promoted synthetic fertilisers or pesticides.)
Previous ‘engineering’ was restricted to pollination, grafting and selection, whereas now we are attempting to manipulate individual genes or sets of genes, and transplanting genes across species (from a bacterium in the case of Bt). This approach is similar to how we look at most things, today – individually, separate from or devoid of the natural context, ignoring any interaction with other elements (other genes, in the case of genetically modified crops). While in some cases there may be no significant impact on the outcome, our knowledge of genetics is far from complete and holistic to be able to confidently make the statement about no long-term harm.
All agriculture in the last 10,000 years was based on the assumption that future generations of the crop could be raised from seed saved from previous generations. Current genetically modified varieties, on the other hand, are seen as corporate intellectual property created with huge investments, where the return of investment is sought from fresh seed being sold by the company to the farmer for each planting. This is one of the most violently opposed aspects of GM crops, not just in developing economies like India but in developed economies such as the US as well.
I believe I’ve listed the major concerns of the anti-GM side of the debate above, with the rider that not everyone on the anti-GM side shares all the concerns equally.
Unfortunately, the debate is neither simple nor clear as emotions and stakes run high on both sides of the debate.
Pro-GM groups and individuals express the view that their opponents are stuck in the past and are standing the way of progress that is urgently needed to solve immediate human problems.
For one, proponents of genetic modification will point out that the humongous increase in human population needs new strains of crops that can grow more with fewer inputs in terms of water, fertilisers and pesticides. Without such crops, we run the risk of widespread food and water shortages around the world. ‘Green’ concerns may also be quoted in favour of GM crops. The argument is that using genetically modified crops would actually do less damage to the environment than conventional crops, for instance by needing lower doses of pesticide, or producing more crop from smaller patches of land.
Another concern quoted by the pro-GM group is that publicly funded organisations do not have the skills, the scale or the funding to undertake massive and rapid research for the breakthrough agricultural solutions needed in the short term, and that fundamental research needs to be carried out by commercial for-profit organisations. Obviously, as an outcome of that, the profit from the intellectual property needs to be protected such that it can provide adequate returns over a period of time.
For now, most governments (including in India) are playing it safe by maintaining the current status, and disallowing the introduction of GM crops, although there are opposing viewpoints even within each government.
As consumers, also, we could take the view, as many consumers are taking, that what exists (or what existed many years ago) is the best and safest option, since it is the most proven. We could give more muscle to producers and sellers of natural, organically grown varieties, by choosing to buy only such merchandise and rejecting GM foods completely.
I wish it was that simple.
I wish we could say that everything artificial is harmful and everything natural is beneficial. I wish we could blithely accepts labels such as ‘Franken-foods’ for genetically modified crops, treating them as a monster creation.
I wish we could say that one side or the other is adopting more robust scientific methods so that we can take clear and well-informed decisions.
As consumers, unfortunately for us, the truth is not so clear. There are pros and cons on both sides, which will get quoted in and out of context, to support different arguments, for and against genetic modifications.
More importantly, both for consumers and the industry, what is not clear is how complete separation of GM and non-GM products can be maintained. Once GM foods enter the supply chain, it is likely that they will mix with non-GM produce, whether at the farm, in storage or in processing. The current compliance standards in the global food sector offer no confidence that the non-GM and GM supply chains can be sealed off from each other and monitored separately, such that retailers and consumers can make their choice with complete confidence that they are buying what it says on the label.
In this case, more time, and a more robust and holistic investigation may be the only solution. The Environment Minister has asked us to ‘watch this space’.
Now what we end up with in terms of individual, social and economic health will depend on what kind of effort and intent goes into that space. Industry, consumers, scientists, farmers, and governments, all have a role to play in shaping that intent. We all choose whether we want the green organic genes – or the other kind, be they blue genes, purple or yellow.
Four months ago in this column (“Organic – Hope or Hype?”) I wrote about the need for customers to make themselves aware of the true nature of organic products, and it is time to reopen that discussion.
Food is an emotive subject with us as consumers, food distribution and retail is big business with us as the trade, and agriculture is a sensitive area of governance.
On top of that, studies are seldom exhaustive enough in terms of sampling, duration of the study, establishment of controls etc., and for every study that proves the superiority of organics, you will be able to find counter-studies and opposing arguments.
In recent years brands have tended to make much of their organic certification. Marketers are known for overstatement anyway, and the promotional language used by some implies (or even explicitly states) that these products are superior to other alternatives. Surely, then, the consumer should be willing to pay higher prices for these “better” products?
If only, if only, facts were that straightforward.
In the earlier column I’d written: “We expect organic products to contain more nutrition and be better for our bodies. While this may be true of organic animal products compared to their inorganic counterparts, it has not been demonstrated for plant products, other than anecdotal experience of taste and appearance.” I had also raised the question: if organic foods are no better nutritionally than inorganic and could be as productive for the farmer, are many of the organic brands just skimming the gullible customer while the going is good?
Well, the debate just got messier. Recently a study sponsored by Britain’s Food Standards Agency last month (July 2009) really set the cat among the pigeons. The report was based on review of existing research papers to find out if organic products were nutritionally superior to inorganic products. And their conclusion was that the studies reviewed did not provide enough evidence that organic food is more nutritious.
Well, what the report really said was that on the basis of the limited number of studies that were deemed to be rigorous enough, there was not enough evidence to prove that organic food is more nutritious.
Imagine an examiner saying that he does not have enough evidence to prove that a student who has passed did not cheat. Notice, he is not saying that the student actually cheated. But wouldn’t this statement alone raise suspicion in your mind about the student’s integrity?
Unfortunately, newspapers and electronic media sell headlines, and headlines need to be short and snappy. Here are a couple of examples about this study.
These clearly raise questions about any benefit at all from organics.
In the noise, the disclaimers by the team that prepared the report seem to have been ignored. For instance, this one: “It should be noted that this conclusion relates to the evidence base currently available on the nutrient content of foodstuffs, which contains limitations in the design and in the comparability of studies.” The report also states: “This review does not address contaminant content (such as herbicide, pesticide and fungicide residues) of organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs, or the environmental impacts of organic and conventional agricultural practices.”
Like any good research report, it admits that “it is important to recognise the potential limitations of the review process”. And the final line in the Conclusion section of the detailed report says: “Examination of this scattered evidence indicates a need for further high-quality research in this field.”
As a reader or TV viewer, how many of us would be motivated to go to the original source and read these disclaimers as well?
Promoters of organic farming, such as Britain’s Soil Association, of course, have trashed the study saying that it is too narrow having excluded most of the available research papers since they did not meet the review standards, and that it ignored the biggest long-term health impact – that of pesticides and other chemicals used in inorganic produce.
Their opponents, in turn have trashed defendants of organic farming by calling them unscientific and narrow-minded in their own right. They point out that high-output inorganic farming is far more useful to serving the exploding human population, than low-intensity organic farming.
One of the readers of the British newspaper Daily Mail was emphatic that she didn’t “eat organic stuff to get extra nutrition”, but was “happy to pay more to be free from additives”. Certainly that is a significant benefit that motivates most people who are well into organic products. In an unusual open letter, the Chief Executive of the Food Standards Agency clarified: “Pesticides were specifically excluded from the scope of this work. This is because our position on the safety of pesticides is already clear: pesticides are rigorously assessed and their residues are closely monitored. Because of this the use of pesticides in either organic or conventional food production does not pose an unacceptable risk to human health and helps to ensure a plentiful supply of food all year round.”
The other motivation for organics is our attitude towards the environment, which can either benefit us over the longer term or, if we are irresponsible, it could accumulate toxins which only show their impact over decades and generations. But, let’s be honest, are most consumers likely to buy products because of some distant benefit to the environment, or products that benefit themselves immediately?
Possibly the answer lies in the organic sector cleaning up its message.
Are consumers any wiser after this study and the debate? I’m not sure. For now, my take on this issue remains: be aware and make up your own mind about what you want to ingest, because this debate isn’t over yet.
The organic movement has touched a variety of products, including clothing, cosmetics and home products. Possibly the most emotive area is organic food, because food products are directly taken into the body while other products have a limited and external contact.
In a sense, before the appearance of industrial agriculture and the application of synthetic nutrients and pesticides, all farming was organic. In fact, the traditional Sanjeevan system of India dates back several millennia.
Even the existing organic farming movement has been around since its founding in Europe in the early-1900s. This was initially treated as fad and its proponents were seen as eccentric (at best) or insane. However, as damage to the environment and to human health became a bigger concern, organic farming emerged as the healthier option.
Organic farming is based on the following fundamental premises:
The aim is to drive a more healthy approach all around – for the environment, for people, as well as for the animals and plants.
The organic trade (all products) is currently estimated at over US$ 40 billion globally, with an annual growth of approximately US$ 5 billion. Organic production is driven today more by demand than by supply – in many cases supply constraints of certified organic produce is more of a concern than the market demand.
Every year, increasing numbers of consumers consciously buy organic products regularly or occasionally on the basis that it is good for them and good for the planet. Certainly, true organic farms do not use synthetic materials, avoiding damage to the environment and can help to retain the biodiversity. Whether measured by unit area or unit of yield, organic farms are more sustainable over time as they use less energy and produce less waste.
It is not as if, after decades of individual enthusiasts pushing their ideas from the fringes, consumers have suddenly become more environmentally conscious. This mainstream awareness has possibly been pushed up in recent years by the involvement of large companies which have spotted the tremendous growth of a profitable niche. “Organic” is the new speciality or niche product line that can be priced at a premium due to the greater desirability amongst the target consumer group, with potentially higher profits than inorganic products or uncertified products. Today, at least in the two largest markets (the USA and Europe), large companies have the lion’s share. For instance, statistics from Germany show that in 2007 conventional retail chains sold over 53% of organic produce, while specialist organic food retailers and producers lost share during the year. Similarly in the US, after the development of the USDA National Organic Standard in 1997, significant merger and acquisition activity has been visible.
However, as the interest in organic products has grown, so have the noise levels in the market. With that the potential for confusion in customers’ minds has also grown.
In day-to-day conversations, we tend to treat organic as superior to inorganic. But the reality is a little bit more complex.
For instance, we expect organic products to contain more nutrition and be better for our bodies. While this may be true of organic animal products compared to their inorganic counterparts, it has not been demonstrated for plant products, other than anecdotal experience of taste and appearance.
There are studies that suggest that inorganic farming can produce more crop per acre and more meat per animal, and is, therefore, the better option for a planet bursting with overpopulation. (Some proponents extend that argument to genetically modified foods as well, but let’s stay away from that for the moment.)
However, there are also other studies that counter this argument by suggesting that the organic farms can end up being more efficient and productive in direct costs, yield and long-term sustainability.
Then, the big question is: if organic foods are no better nutritionally than inorganic and could be as productive for the farmer, are organic brands just skimming the gullible customer while the going is good?
We might expect certification and regulation to clear the air, but in many instances these leave out as many things as they include. Labelling is yet another concern. Countries where labelling is more stringently monitored allow logos such as “100% organic”, “organic” (more than 95% organic ingredients) and “made with organic ingredients” (over 70% organic ingredients). In other countries logos and where labelling may be less strictly monitored, the use of the term organic is far looser and even more confusing. What’s more, the usage of terms such as “Bio” or “Eco” can also mislead consumers into believing that there is something distinctly superior about the product they are about to buy when, in reality, it is often only a marketing gimmick.
Further, just because something is certified as organic does not mean it is a higher grade of product. Organic produce may end up having a shorter shelf-life, or may also be otherwise inferior to inorganic produce in the store. In fact, as the KRAV (Sweden) website states: “The KRAV logo is a clear signal that the product is organically produced but does not say anything about the quality. That must be guaranteed by the producer, i.e. yourself”. This is similar to saying that the fact that someone has a management certification from a certain institute means that he or she passed the tests of that institute in a particular year, but that does not automatically make him or her a good businessperson.
Countries and regions that have a poor record of environmental consciousness, poor transparency norms, are also not seen as the best source for organic produce even if it is apparently from a certified producer. In some cases, certification may be carried out second-hand and unverified, leading to instances such as the one in 2008 where the US retailer Whole Foods pulled out pesticides-laden “organic-certified” ginger that was shipped from China. The mixing of inorganic ingredients of uncertain origin, especially in blended products such as juices or snacks, can also make a mockery of the organic labelling.
Another visible concern today is the carbon footprint, and some people raise the question whether buying local (whether inorganic or organic) may be less environmentally damaging than importing produce from distant countries. In such instances, the evidence of lax certification, such as the Chinese case mentioned earlier, takes support away from the cause of organic imports.
Arguments have also been raised about whether the larger “organic” factory farms merely follow the letter of the law rather than the principles behind the organic movement? Small organic farmers allege that large organic-certified factory farms – especially those selling animal products – do not really follow the core principles of “natural” growth, and confine their animals in unnatural surroundings.
With all these arguments and counter-arguments flying about, some organic (or nearly organic) producers elect not to be certified, letting their customers vote with their wallets. Some of these smaller farmers may be driven by economic necessity since certification could be costly and cumbersome, while others may just find it more feasible to stick with a local sales strategy where the customers are able to physically see the organic nature of the farm.
It’s clear that all of these questions will take years to sort out – through debate, research, legislation, as well as social and commercial pressure. Meanwhile, most conscientious retailers and concerned consumers will need to do their own studies to educate themselves, and will need to examine each product for genuineness of the organic promise.
And, if you are not quite that savvy, the final message would be: “caveat emptor” (“let the buyer beware”).
At the outset let me mention the fact that in the title of this post lies a Freudian slip. The intended title was “Corporate Responsibility – Beyond Labels”. But the new – unintended – title captures the thought perfectly. (And I’ll come back to that in closing.)
Third Eyesight was recently asked by a multi-billion dollar global consumer brand to facilitate a round-table discussion focussing on the issue of how to drive ethical behaviour and sustainable business models into their sector. This company has a well documented strategy and action plan until 2020, and their team was travelling together in India visiting other corporate and non-corporate initiatives, to learn from them.
For the round table, we brought together brands, retailers, manufacturers, compliance audit and certification agencies, craft and community oriented organisations and non-government organisations (NGOs working on environment stewardship. Some were intrinsically linked to the consumer goods / retail sector, others were not. Among those present was Ramon Magsaysay award winner Mr. Rajendra Singh of the Tarun Bharat Sangh, an organisation that has, over the last several years, worked in recharging thousands of water reservoirs leading to the rebirth of several rivers.
The diversity (and sometimes total divergence) in views among the participants was a powerful driver for the debate during the day, which was the main intention behind having a really mixed group.
(Try this experiment yourself. Get a bunch of people together who define their work as being in the “corporate responsibility” stream. Then ask them the meaning of that phrase, and watch the entirely different tracks people move on. You might be left wondering, whether they are really working towards a common goal.)
At the end, though, the result was productive, since the divergent perspectives opened avenues that may have previously not been visible.
In the case of our discussion, the topics that were covered included labour standards and compliance, reduction of the product development footprint, closed-loop supply chains, water management, organic raw materials, energy conservation and community involvement in business. Some of the issues raised were:
My view is that these diverse areas and views can be aligned most effectively if we look at responsibility and sustainability in all its dimensions. These dimensions, to my mind, are:
– The Environment
– The Community
– The Organisation
– The Individual
Here is a suggested list to start with, which we can use to try out thought-experiments, viewing each issue in different dimensions and from different points of view (for example, buyer based in a developed market, supplier based in a developing country, an individual working in the supply chain, his family and broader community):
In closing, let me come back to “Babel”. According to the Book of Genesis, a huge tower was built “to the heavens” to demonstrate the achievement of the people of Babylon who all spoke a single language, and to bind them together into a common identity. God apparently was not particularly happy with this self-glorifying attitude, and gave the people different languages and scattered them across the earth.
Whatever your religious (or non-religious) affiliation, this story holds a gem of a lesson.
No matter how noble the cause of the corporate responsibility warrior, it is good to be humble and allow diversity rather than trying to capture everyone under one monolith with an apparently common goal. The diversity may be a lot more productive and help to spread the benefits wider than one single initiative.
The day that we spent on the sustainability round-table certainly demonstrated that very well.
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