IS INDIA’S PALM OIL PUSH A VIABLE OPTION?

INDIA’S PALM OIL IMPORTS:

–India barely produces about 1.5% of its palm oil while importing about 9 million tonnes from Southeast Asian countries, particularly, Indonesia and Malaysia. India is one of the world’s largest vegetable oil consumers but remains heavily import-dependent. The import dependence also impacts food inflation.

–It is also used in various forms from chips and instant noodles to toothpastes, lotions and other cosmetics. A whopping 50% of the products that an average Indian uses daily contain palm oil.

GOVERNMENT’S NATIONAL MISSION ON EDIBLE OILS

–The government’s National Mission on Edible Oils – Oil Palm (NMEO-OP), aims at boosting domestic production of palm oil, increasing the total area under oil palm from the current 3.5 lakh hectares to 10 lakh hectares by 2025-2026. The Centre has announced a Rs. 11,000 crore package to boost palm oil output, of which it will bear 80%.

–Growers would be entitled to a ‘minimum viability price’ for their fresh fruit bunches (FFB) production via direct benefit transfer (DBT). Also, the industry attached should pay an assured sum monthly to the growers.

–The focus on oil palm is not misplaced as it is a crop that can yield 20-25 tonnes of FFBs per hectare, translating into 4-5 tonnes of Crude Palm Oil (CPO). No other oilseed can produce so much.

CONCERNS REGARDING PALM OIL:

–There are concerns over health issues, as India happens to be the diabetic capital of the world.

–There are concerns regarding climate impact as well. Palm plantations are water-guzzling in nature. It is a monoculture crop with a long gestation period of around 4 years after planting.

–There are also valid concerns over the proposed introduction of oil palm in the tropical rainforests or biodiversity-rich areas such as the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and the Northeast.

–The current definition of forest in India includes oil palm plantations, the potential loss of rainforest cover could go unaccounted for.

–There is hardly any land available in our country for compensatory afforestation. The ability of plantation crops to absorb carbon dioxide is also less.

–It will benefit only a handful of industries.

–If in future, government decides to cut duties on edible oil imports, due to fluctuating situation in global markets, palm oil imports from Southeast Asia will become cheaper than the domestic oilseeds, and our Indian domestic market of oilseeds will collapse.

WAY FORWARD:

–The crop is better suited for states such as Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Odisha. But, the focus should for now, be on states already cultivating oil palm. Small rice fields rather than forests should be targeted. Drip irrigation should also be encouraged.

–An assured viability price protecting farmers against fluctuations in global edible oil markets should instill confidence among them, already growing the oil palm. Let them expand acreages first before others in more ecologically fragile regions.

–The Centre must also not ignore the traditional oil seed crops that can address the edible oil security besides sustaining thousands of farmers. The push to oil palm should be accompanied by incentives to sunflower, groundnut, mustard, which cater to small farmers.

–If similar subsidies and support are extended to oilseeds which are indigenous to India, and suited for dryland agriculture, they can help achieve self-reliance in edible oils, without dependence on oil palm.

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