India’s quest for food self-sufficiency goes beyond palm oil

Shakir Hussain

NEW DELHI (BERNAMA) – Reducing dependence on imported edible oils is part of India’s larger quest for food self-sufficiency.

There has been much talk in recent years about slashing the country’s huge vegetable oil import bill by encouraging farmers to boost oilseed output and allocating more land for oil palm plantations.

Palm oil constitutes about 60 per cent of India’s annual 15 million tonnes of vegetable oil imports and most of it is supplied by the largest producers Indonesia and Malaysia.

The world’s biggest edible oil importer relies on Argentina, Brazil, Ukraine and Russia for soybean and sunflower oil.

Imports are needed to meet an approximately 70 per cent shortfall in India’s edible oil demand, according to Chief Executive Officer of Sunvin Group Sandeep Bajori, who is a key industry player.

The Indian government aims to cut import dependence to about half of the country’s total requirements by 2025.

“It’s not just about palm oil. India wants to reduce its overall dependence on imported edible oil, so there are efforts to promote local oilseeds like mustard and rapeseed, soybean and groundnut,” Bajoria told Bernama.

The economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic has further highlighted India’s efforts to save foreign exchange.

The government plans to raise import tax on edible oils and use the funds to support domestic oilseed production, a recent media report said.

Annual demand for edible oils is 25 million tonnes in the nation of 1.38 billion people but the pandemic-driven economic slide has significantly brought down consumption in key segments such as hospitality and food services. “India has done wonders in agriculture to feed its huge population, so it can eventually achieve the goal of reducing edible oil dependence on imports, say, by 2025. The gestation period is four years for palm,” said President of the Indian Vegetable Oil Producers’ Association (IVPA) Sudhakar Desai.

“India will have to raise the local production from 7.5 million tonnes to 12 million tonnes to achieve the target of bringing imports to 45 per cent of the consumption basket. Continued focus with a mix of policy support and financial investment, especially in irrigation, can make it happen over a period of time,” he told Bernama.

Oilseed production is being done on 27 million hectares of land and 72 per cent of it is confined to rain-fed areas, according to information on the National Mission on Oilseeds and Oil Palm (NMOOP) website.

Potential areas identified for oil palm cultivation are in India’s south and northeast, including the states of Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Karnataka, Kerala, Mizoram, and Tamil Nadu.

India plans to have about two million hectares under palm plantations compared with 316,600 hectares it had at the end of the 2016-17 fiscal year (April-March), a paper on the National Food Security Mission website noted.

In 1991, the oil palm plantation area was only 8,585 hectares.

As imports of other commodities rise, similar opportunities for local cultivation are being looked at.

The state of Rajasthan is experimenting with olive farming to cater to the demand from affluent consumers exposed to foreign cuisines during the two decades of rapid globalisation.

Olive oil imports by India in the 2018-19 fiscal year were 11,669 tonnes, according to the Indian Olive Association (IOA), a trade body set up in 2007.

Bajoria describes olive oil as a “fancy” product for the Indian market and sees local plans to grow olives as far-fetched.

Whether a product has elite appeal or meant for mass consumption, the Indian food security mission can be trusted not to overlook it.

A June 9 statement by the Ministry of Science and Technology demonstrates how India approaches the issues of food safety.

The ministry announced initiatives to substitute imports of saffron and heeng (asafoetida), duly stating that these were the world’s most valuable spices and India imported them in significant quantities.

India’s demand for saffron is put at 100 tonnes per year but its production is about six to seven tonnes annually on 2,825 hectares of land in Jammu and Kashmir.

The country has no production of heeng and buys 1,200 tonnes worth about USD78 million from Afghanistan, Iran and Uzbekistan, the ministry said.

Whether it is frying or flavouring, India doesn’t seem to like the idea of other countries having it eat out of their hand.