Rabu, 12 Disember 2012
Organic vegetable farmers must now obtain certification before marketing their produce as ‘organic’.
While the rest of the world was busy preparing for the New Year’s Eve party last week, a few vegetable sellers were preoccupied with one thing: that new stickers bearing the words “Certified Organic” get pasted on their produce before it hits the market. On Saturday, new food labelling requirements demand that only Government-approved organic farms get to label their produce as “organic”, thus putting an end to a situation that is best described as a “free-for-all”.
This requirement, according to the Agriculture and Agro-based Industries Ministry, is intended to give some kind of assurance to consumers that they are getting genuine organically-grown stuff.
The popularity of eating safe, chemical-free food in recent years meant that many players have marketed their produce as organic, without any form of independent, third party verification or certification.
“It has degenerated to the extent that even pasar malam traders can claim they are selling organic veggies,’’ lamented Lim Mok Lai, managing director of Titi Eco Farm, who had spent more than RM40,000 to get his farm certified to international standards a few years ago.
That this is happening is hardly surprising, considering that organic produce costs more compared to conventionally grown ones, sometimes up to three times. With demand nearly outstripping supply, many farmers and retailers are tapping into this market, which explains why even pasar malam traders are getting into the game. There are no precise figures, but the organic industry in Malaysia is easily worth hundreds of millions a year, with one estimate putting it around RM800mil for 2010.
The common layman understanding of organic is that no synthetic pesticides or fertilisers are used in the cultivation process, though in actual practice, things are more complicated than that.
“Some farmers think that all that is needed to be organic is to just stop using synthetic pesticides but going organic is a total change in the way you manage the farm,’’ said Kerby Ho, owner of KK Hoganik, a wholesaler of organic vegetables in Subang Jaya, Selangor.
The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) defines it as “a production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems and people. It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects. Organic agriculture combines tradition, innovation and science to benefit the shared environment and promote fair relationships and a good quality of life for all involved.”
The Agriculture and Agro-based Industries Ministry introduced the Skim Organik Malaysia (SOM or the Malaysian Organic Certification Scheme) in 2003. SOM is based on Malaysian Standard MS1529:2001 – The Production, Processing, Labelling and Marketing of Plant Based Organically Produced Foods. SOM is now finally mandatory, after years of consultation and deliberations.
The labelling rule comes under Food Regulations 1985 and those found guilty under it can be fined up to RM5,000 per case. The enforcement of the regulation would be done in collaboration between the Agriculture Department (DOA) and Health Ministry.
However, certification is not the instant path to success, at least back in the early days. Ho learned it the hard way nearly eight years ago, when he paid RM20,000 a year to get his wholesale operations certified to KRAV organic standards, which is the most important organic certifier and organic label in the Scandinavian market. (KRAV in turn is accredited by IFOAM.)
Introduced eight years ago, the Skim Organik Malaysia certification has found few takers. This is set to change as from Jan 1, no farm can label its produce ‘organic’ without this certification. The Skim Organik Malaysia certifies only farmed produce and not processed organic food such as dried beans.
“After spending so much, we found that it did not give us any advantage in the marketplace. The process is time-consuming and costly, and I gave up the certification after holding it for two years,” said Ho.
Generally, any business directly involved in organic food production can be certified, including seed suppliers, farmers, food processors, retailers and even restaurants. Requirements vary from country to country, but most would involve a set of standards for growing, storage, processing, and packaging that include the avoidance of most synthetic chemical inputs (including antibiotics and genetically modified organisms), use of farmland that has been free from synthetic chemicals for a number of years (often, three or more), the strict physical separation of organic products from non-certified products, as well as the need for periodic on-site inspections by accredited parties.
In countries where certification is overseen by the government, the commercial use of the term “organic” is governed, and this is where Malaysia is now. For the big commercial players here who export their produce, they have long adopted foreign standards such as Australia’s National Association for Sustainable Agriculture (NASAA), and the US Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Programme (USNOP), as well as the Japanese organic certification. The first two are among some of the most widely recognised organic produce certification in the world. Three producers with NASAA certi-ficates are Titi Eco Farms, Loh’s Organic Veg Garden and Zenxin Agri Organic Food.
By and large, many industry players are in favour of the implementation of SOM, saying it would offer peace of mind to consumers, as well as weed out unscrupulous parties which are currently enjoying a free ride on the organic bandwagon.
“We fully support the Government’s latest move. It will benefit consumers, as well as encourage farmers to upgrade their standards to be on par with their counterparts overseas,’’ said John Tan, an executive from the operations office for TM Farms in Bukit Tinggi, Pahang. TM Farms currently supply vegetables to Cold Storage Malaysia and its vegetables are labelled as “compost-grown”. Tan confirmed that TM Farms will apply for SOM certification soon.
Ong Kung Wai, chairperson of Organic Alliance Malaysia (OAM), said: “In principle, OAM welcomes government action to deter misleading labelling, and we are aware of the labelling regulation since the beginning of 2010. We mentioned it in the Organic Malaysia Directory 2010, circulated to all known organic operators listed in the directory, as well as to the general public,” he said in an e-mail interview.
The Penang-based OAM is recognised by IFOAM and has offered to collaborate with DOA and Health Ministry to iron out bugs in the certification process. “We are in discussion with DOA on ways and means to facilitate a smooth enforcement of the SOM labelling regulation. There are issues of cost, as well as the lack of manpower from DOA to audit farms.”
OAM’s response hints at the raft of problems that is expected to arise once enforcement begins on the ground. For one, Ho is not pleased with the stated requirement in SOM that “farms must undergo a conversion period of at least two years of organic production from conventional farming and at least one year for virgin jungle”.
“This means a farmer cannot sell his produce as organic for the first two years, and SOM does not provide for any form of interim labelling or certification,” said Ho.
NASAA, on the other hand, allows farmers to use the labels “in conversion” for produce that is harvested in the first two years of operations, while awaiting for the organic certification to be awarded. “SOM does not allow for this leeway, and this actually serves to close the door to organic farming, rather than opening it wider for more entrants,’’ said Ho, a founding member of OAM.
Farmers are also generally not conversant in either English or Malay, and this serves as another barrier in obtaining certification. There are at least 14 forms to fill, and when it is done, the file is nearly 10cm thick, recalled organic farmer Ng Chee Yee, who obtained his SOM certificate in October. The former draughtsman ventured into organic farming 14 years ago.
Ho added: “Those who are illiterate will really have a tough time. Certification is essentially about good record keeping, of being able to account for all input and output, of ensuring traceability. But a farmer will probably be way too busy tending to his farm, which requires long hours, and attending to unforeseen events like equipment failure and floods.’’
But what will probably be the largest barrier is the acute shortage of qualified organic farm inspectors from DOA. “In theory, they are supposed to visit every six months or so, but in reality, this almost never happens,’’ said Ho.
Of the 186 applications for SOM, 42 have been approved. These certified farms cover 2,000ha compared with 200,000ha for conventional farming. A ministry spokesman said 65 agricultural officers have been appointed as SOM auditors. “These officers conduct SOM audits on top of their daily routine tasks at DOA. This number is insufficient to cover the current scope of work, especially when it comes to auditing new applications,” said the spokesman.
Some producers prefer to obtain internationally accepted labels, such as Australia's National Association for Sustainable Agriculture (Nasaa).
As it is, DOA inspectors are already struggling to certify all the applicants of the Skim Amalan Ladang Baik (Malaysian Farm Certification Scheme for Good Agricultural Practice, meant to assure consumers that pesticide residues, heavy metals and microbial contamination are within permissible levels). Of the 1,166 applications received since 2002, only 286 farms (totalling 5,000ha) have been certified.
The only bit of good news is that SOM is being issued at no cost since July 2010. Prior to that, there was a RM120 charge for the first inspection. However, farmers who want to use the services of private labs to analyse their soil, water and produce samples for traces of heavy metals and pesticides will have to fork out at least RM400 per sample.
Given the growing demand for chemical-free farm produce, there are many “green farms” that are interested to get on the bandwagon, where farmers try their best to do without synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilisers.
“There are many organic farmers out there who work on plots that are no bigger than 1.2ha and they need help in achieving organic certification. They also happen to be not highly educated. Given this, the regulatory door to organic production must be opened wider, rather than made narrower,’’ said Ho.
While waiting for SOM to take off, OAM had created the Organic Malaysia mark two years ago as an interim measure, meant only for domestic use.
“We have received favourable feedback about it. We are now preparing to launch Organic Malaysia this year,” said Ong, who added that Organic Malaysia has wider coverage compared to SOM, which is limited to vegetables and fruits.
“Currently SOM does not cover processing activities. There are local and imported organic processed products in the market, with many being imported in bulk and repacked locally. In this regard, we believe the OAM domestic labelling programme is a suitable complement to SOM.
“We see our initiative as offering a private sector option. Although it is not projected to be our main focus, the OAM domestic labelling programme can help to relieve the SOM waiting list for farmers who are willing to pay for a fee-based service.”
Not a cure-all
However, those in the trade say SOM will not eliminate cheats. “Farms that are not certified could sell their produce through another certified farm under what is termed as a win-win arrangement. Another loophole is that a farmer who owns multiple farms can still channel produce from a non-accredited farm to be sold through his accredited farm,” said Ho, adding that certification is not a cure-all if integrity is lacking in the overall system.
Edmund Yong, a free-range poultry farmer in Raub, Pahang, is dismissive of the value of certification. “My customers know me, and they trust me, so I reckon the best thing for a consumer is still to know your farmer and his farm. Certification could end up being a waste of time,’’ said the farmer who does not intend to go into the export market, or raise the level of his output to match market demand as it conflicts with his philosophy. “I’ve had stores approach me to supply them with (organic) vegetables, without them even making a single visit to my farm. It seems that they are only interested in getting more to sell.”
A check of supermarkets shelves a fortnight ago revealed that only two brands carry the SOM logo. But do consumers care whether their organic vegetables are certified or not? While acknowledging that the market is still price-driven, Ho believes that consumers’ choice of brand is a matter of taste and to a lesser extent, appearance.
“Newbies may buy based on appearance, but once they are hooked on eating organic, they will be able to tell the difference in taste. No matter what the label says, if they do not like the taste, they will not buy that brand again.” – By Meng Yew Choong