The Northline (22/09/2021) - Traditionally, our subcontinent has found sustenance in ghee and other healthy oils. But now palm oil is being forced on our plates
Our subcontinent is ‘ghee land’. Since the time of nomadic Arya’s yagnas to Mughal biryanis, taste, health and, for Hindus, even the sacred is accessed through this yellowish clarified liquid. But it’s not only ghee, every bio-region has its own oil. Mustard, castor and, more recently, groundnut and cottonseed oil are on our thalis. India is abundant in edible oil’s diversity. So, why has the Government invested Rs 11,040 crore to expand palm oil plantations to another 6.5 lakh hectares (ha)? Let’s examine this move.
To the agri economist’s eye, it’s a numbers game — reduce imports, promote “cheaper” oil, create more agro industry and earn agri dollars; it’s a win-win for all. But what about the small and medium farmer, biodiversity and environment; perhaps our “agri experts” are missing the bigger picture.
But first let’s discuss African palm oil tree and palm oil production. This tree is foreign to India and agronomically suited to tropical islands only. It has a 25-year cycle, with the yields declining with age. Malaysia and Indonesia brag about increasing production based on their agro-climatic disposition. Here, too, the production ratios vary. Palm oil trees can’t be pollinated by bees or Indian pollinators, these require the Weevil Beatle or mechanical alternatives. Being suited to tropical climates, this tree requires a lot of water: 80 gallons per tree and, if the palm fruit is not processed within a day, it goes rancid. In simple terms, it has a much shorter shelf life than mustard or other oilseeds.
Globally, palm oil plantations have led to deforestation from Brazil to Indonesia, land conflicts with the indigenous people, culling of animals like orangutan, Sumerian tigers and given the consumers a plethora of cardiovascular diseases. Some experts state that palm oil even causes cancer.
The fact that Wilmar as the “world’s largest palm plantation owner”, “processor” and “controlling over 40 per cent of the palm oil trade” doesn’t bother our “agri economists”, is alarming. Wilmar, along with Indian partner Adani, also owns the Fortune edible oil brand. Wilmar by itself is a behemoth, with a near-monopoly on palm oil. If India embraces palm oil, we may just be walking into commodity trap where 10 lakh ha of our pristine land will be growing a commodity that is unhealthy for people and our economy, due to foreign oligopolies. The industrial giant ADM also owns “16 per cent stocks in Wilmar”. This scenario really reeks of an industrial food cartel.
The foremost reason for this could be the fact that palm oil economy is highly dependent on industry. Small farmers or oil millers can’t extract palm oil by themselves. Industrial plants are required to extract the oil, and the industry is lopsided towards corporations. Small farmers contribute 40-50 per cent of the total oil from Indonesia region but keep in mind the 22-hectare farms (considered “small farms” in that country). Despite this, there are licensing and certification issues which further prevent these “small farmers” from increasing their income. It was estimated that over 12 per cent of small farmer incomes are spent on certifications and licenses in Indonesia. Overall, palm plantations are a Big Ag business affair, with farmers getting only crumbs from the pie.
So if Indonesian farmers can’t get profits, how can Indian farmers? Also, keep in mind that the average land holding is below one acre and the situation in the Northeast is even more dire as these States are already reporting deforestation and falling prices of palm oil. Farmers in the Northeast region are shifting back to traditional crops or other fruits to increase their income. The supply logistics there due to poor infrastructure have added to the problems with palm oil.
Palm oil has no direct use in the food culture in the NE and, if expanded, can destroy the forest-farmer relationship. Currently the forests during the summer months transform into food forest for the indigenous people and farmers; they supplement their diet by adding wild forest produces. With the advent of industrial palm oil plantations, all native forests will be threatened. These plantations will also absorb all the water in the area, disturbing the hydrological balance and water availability for the region.
Overall, if palm oil is pushed on India, small farmers will be the worst hit. And especially those growing traditional oilseeds like mustard, castor and groundnut. In the current scheme, the Government has highly subsidised palm oil plantation from saplings to growing or processing. Our tax rupees are being used to implant a foreign oil economy in India with the help of a few corporations. The big players have already come forward to support this step.
Finally, India is at a crossroads. Should we invest this huge resource to promote indigenous oilseeds and edible oils that give us health, taste and benefit our farmers, or allow Big Ag designs to penetrate deeper? We can’t have good oils for the elite and push unhealthy, hexane-soaked palm oil on the poor.
Read more at https://www.thenorthlines.com/okay-to-force-palm-oil-on-ghee-culture/