Retailers operating in India should take the lead in educating farmers about food safety and quality, an industry conference in Mumbai has been told.

Demand from India’s ever-more affluent consumers for consistent product quality has made hygienic farming practices a priority, executives told the Food Forum India 2008 conference in Mumbai yesterday (7 May).

Those companies operating in India’s growing organised retail sector are extending their reach further into monitoring and ensuring that farmers conform to global practices in cultivating food crops.

“It is the responsibility of the retailer to monitor the supplier chain and to maintain quality consistency,” Metro India managing director Martin Dlouhy told the conference.

Metro India, the local arm of German giant Metro Group, is investing in training programmes for farmers and even farmers’ wives to teach them how to meet global quality standards, not just Indian guidelines.

GlobalGAP, consultants on safe farming practices, praised Metro’s work but warned that any education would be a long process.

“Metro India is taking steps to meet global quality standards to build trust in its supply chain but it’s a process that will take a long time since change occurs when farmers see returns on increased yields,” said GlobalGAP MD Dr. Kristian Moeller.

Agri-business giant Syngenta agreed that education would not happen overnight. “The most difficult aspect in controlling the quality of food crops is educating the millions of illiterate farmers in the country,” said Sawatenter Khosla, head of government and public affairs at Syngenta India. “That is a top priority for us.”

Khosla added: “Indian farmers have practised their trade for centuries which has resulted in a huge population in the country. It is critical now that they understand the proper uses of chemicals that would not harm the consumer or the environment.”