MN Balasubramanian, known as Bala, once sold Mars chocolates. As it turned out, I never met him then. Just my luck! Today, he is the CEO of the largest organic brand in India, 24 Mantra Organic. ‘Organic’, barely spoken of in the past, has received a boost since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office and expressed enthusiasm in its development. “Prime Minister Modi understands India’s advantage,” Bala tells me. “He knows that with our small land holdings, we can switch to organic easily and make the transition.”
But going organic isn’t easy. After 10 years, 24 Mantra Organic has 1,75,000 acres of land under cultivation, of which only 60,000 acre is certified as organic. It’s a long process. Soil depletion and the excessive use of fertilisers means that it takes three-four years before soil is certified as organic. During this time, there are spot checks. Also, cross-checking takes place with inspectors from Maharashtra going to Rajasthan and vice-versa. Today, farmers from Sikkim to Kerala are attempting to make the switch. Even forest land, which has never been under cultivation, takes this long to be certified.
Every state is identified for the crop that it’s most suited for. Uttarakhand, for instance, is tapped for sugarcane, chillies and sometimes rice. Then there are some states that have used so much fertiliser that they aren’t even under consideration.
Since 24 Mantra Organic also retails abroad, it is open to third-party checking. In this instance, surprise checks are carried out by inspectors from Europe and the US for certification—the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements is the nodal agency. These checks take place twice a year, so the company’s internal checks have to be rigorous as well. A product is only branded ‘organic’ if it’s sourced from land that is 100% organic. It’s a business that requires patience not only from the company, but also the farmers (32,000 at present). Ten years ago, it was difficult to convince farmers to switch to organic farming. Today, they themselves come to 24 Mantra Organic—in fact, as much as 70,000 acres of the 1,75,000 acres was acquired in the last year alone.
Bala says a major source of farmer debt is the cost of fertilisers and the cumbersome process of conducting business. Farmers with small land holdings are at the mercy of the local mandi and unfair practices. About 2% is lost in faulty weighing and another 2% if the deal is struck in cash, not to mention the cost of transportation. Heightened soil depletion means farmers purchase more fertilisers and borrow money, leading to a vicious debt cycle. With 24 Mantra Organic, farmers get a premium of 10-30% on the market price (if it passes the quality check) and have to drop their harvest off at convenient collection centres, cutting out transportation costs. In the time that it takes for the identified land to be certified, the farmer continues to cultivate his land sans the use of fertilisers. The drop in yield is not as adverse as one would expect and most farmers are now ready to wait it out and make the switch.
When Modi suggested carbonated fruit juices, his idea elicited mirth and censure, but the PM was thinking creatively and of the farmer. Bala says all fruit doesn’t make it to the table and the remainder becomes a liability. These drinks will ensure that the farmer is able to find a market for this end of his produce as well. When the PM made the announcement, there was a rush to find out whether it was ‘doable’. As it turns out, it was. That’s when Bala was called in to make a presentation on their ready-to-drink carbonated fruit juice beverages to cola companies. It’s not a health drink and still has sugar content, but it falls in the category of refreshments and is less ‘harmful’. Most importantly, it helps the farmer.
Latest reports suggest that competition is caching on and cola companies are boarding the carbonated fruit juice wagon. But what of us, the other consumer? Organic, apart from being a healthy alternative, is also an expensive one. Whole Foods in the US, in fact, has even made the experience of shopping for organic a bespoke one. But the price-savvy Indian family may not want to splurge on groceries when there are so many other temptations. Bala informs me that for a family of four, an organic grocery list will add about R1,500 to the monthly bill, roughly what they would spend on a movie outing. When he puts it that way, it’s hard to find an excuse to not try organic.
Advaita Kala is a writer, most recently of the film Kahaani. She is also a former hotelier having worked in restaurants in India and abroad