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Postcard from Satara

Our ongoing Interview Series explores the hidden world of fragrance and flavor through conversations with distillers, suppliers of rare extracts, perfumers, scientists and artists. We also expand the scope of our conversations by surveying the impact of shutdowns on small farms and farming communities that are connected to larger manufacturers going up the global supply chain.

Nisarga Biotech has been a patron of Litrahb Perfumery since its founding. They provide us CO2 extracts and test our Edible Perfume and fragrances since 2018. Time and again I have turned to them for valuable guidance and scientific knowledge. I spoke to Devendra Soman, the Marketing Director of Nisarga Biotech, for some perspective on the global and local shutdown and its impact on farmers as well as the international fragrance and flavor industry.

About Nisarga Biotech: This family-owned firm located in Satara, Maharashtra, manufactures a wide range of CO2 extracted essential oils that are exported to USA, Europe, and South America to well known companies and brands since the beginning of operations in 2001. Their operation is sustainable: they grow herbs and spices on their own certified organic farm and they have organized and educated farmers in their vicinity on organic and sustainable practices. They maintain quality control of their products from soil to shelf, and everyone in the supply chain makes a fair profit for their efforts, while mitigating environmental impact.

The key reason Litrahb Perfumery aligns with Nisarga Biotech is their commitment to gender equality and responsible business practices. The Nisarga Biotech Group is certified by IMOswiss AG, under the "for Life" program which ensures that good working conditions are provided as expressed in the ILO conventions, such as absence of prohibited child labour, non-discrimination, good working conditions and remuneration, and health benefits.

In January 2019 we visited their labs to film for a short series produced by Asiaville News.

(Watch Episodes 01 & 02)

Bharti Lalwani (BL): Assuming we are in a lock down till July, what does this mean for Nisarga Biotech as you usually export CO2 extracts to fragrance and flavour companies in Europe and USA?

Devendra Soman (DS): India cannot afford to shut down the economy for so long. Although lockdowns won't last and are not the optimal solution, rigorous testing is the only way forward in order to control this issue. For now, no one can say where we are headed until a vaccine is made available. Nisarga is a food manufacturer and our services come under essential categories so we are allowed to operate with some underlying limitations during lockdowns.

BL: What does this mean for your partner-farms who supply you with fresh jasmine buds, marigold flowers, coffee beans and other medicinal and aromatic botanicals?

DS: During the current lockdown, they shut down transport completely which has caused huge losses and loss of perishables for the farmers. The flower growers are a bit on the safer side as the lockdown began towards the end of March when there are no cash crop harvests. But perishable item growers have been hit hard. In terms of our farmers, since we use dried herbs, there will be supply chain delays but they won't be affected as severely as others. Also, bulk of the purchases happen either towards end of January, through February, our sector is a bit sheltered in that regard.

BL: Nisarga Biotech also has its own farms for organic turmeric and ginger, what happens if these farms go unattended?

DS: We have farm managers who stay on site at all times with their family and quarters are provided for them on the farm. The farms are actually very well looked after as we operate them as a separate individual entity.

BL: As I understand, Nisarga Biotech is actively involved with over ten thousand farmers across India to help them switch to organic farming methods. Can you tell us about how this program operates and what the lock down and implied labour shortages means for them?

DS: Depending on government advisories on mass gatherings, we may curtail any events until this pandemic dissipates. We have agronomists and people in the field who train farmers about crop management, Organic methods of cultivation and harvest as well as integrated pest management for those who are not able to transition to organic farming immediately. Usually this is the recommended route as the soil has to be weaned off of the chemical inputs over a period of three years at the very least. We have adopted two villages close to the farms and we have donated about a month's supply of essentials to 150 families in the area. These supplies provided to them should last them till the end of second phase of lockdown.

BL: Is there something that privileged citizens can do to help these farmers through the coming months?

DS: Buy local, don't bargain. Buy directly from the farmer if possible. There are co-op societies and farmer clubs in bigger cities which cut the middle man out so you get fresher produce and at a cheaper rate.

BL: How do you see the medicine, fragrance and flavour industries emerging from this by 2021?

DS: With the whole world at a standstill, no sector or field is going to remain unaffected by this. Since everything revolves around agriculture in India as well as most of the world, the farmers’ losses will have a great impact on world economies and on the value added sectors related to agriculture. The fragrance industry is a luxury, a very ‘personal touch’ sort of business so it is definitely going to suffer more in terms of new product launches, exhibition cancellations, and predictably, getting new clientele will be harder for the next couple years.

On the positive side, people are becoming more aware of their consumer-lifestyle choices that they have been making so far while understanding the importance of natural immunity as well as the part that organic herbs play in building a healthy life.

So nutraceutical and ayurveda will take a front seat in the next couple years in India, the same way it has in US and Europe. Additionally, as medical costs go up in India, people will start realising that supplementation with herbs in the long run is much cheaper than drastic measures that need to be taken to mitigate the side effects of pharmaceuticals over the long run. There will definitely be a lot of changes to the industry as a whole. For now, how far and deep the changes affect, only time will tell.


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