India which was self-sufficient in edible oils in the early 1990s has emerged as a leading importer in the last decade or so. Liberalisation of imports in the early 1990s has impoverished the oilseed growers leading to a drastic reduction in oilseed growing area. Currently the country imports 15 million tonnes of edible oils. India consumes 25 million tonnes of edible oil of which 45 per cent is palm oil. Per capita consumption of edible oil increased from 3 kg annually in 1950 to 14.2kg in 2010-11, to 19.2kg in 2019-20. Consumption has been steadily increasing due to increase in income levels. This growth trend would translate into edible oil consumption approximating 32 million tonnes by 2030.
Large scale imports
Obviously, meeting this huge demand through imports is irrational, as this would further impoverish the oil seed farmers in the country, and lead to further shrinkage of area under oil seed cultivation. A proper strategy to achieve self-sufficiency in oil seed production has to be evolved. Expansion of oil palm is one viable alternative to achieve self-sufficiency. India with 20 per cent of world’s oilseed growing area produces just 5 per cent of world’s edible oil. With the current mix of oilseeds, 9 million tonnes of oil is being produced in the country in 15 million hectares. The same quantity of palm oil could be produced from just two million hectares. India is a land scarce country and expansion of oil palm could be a huge land saving strategy.
Leaving aside the debate on the health benefits of palm oil, it is undoubtedly a safer option when compared to Genetically Modified (GM) crops. Although, India is producing oilseeds free from GM crops, it is compelled to import the GM soybean oil in order to meet our domestic demand. And Bt cotton seed oil has unavoidably entered the food chain. Oil palm has emerged as a very important crop having a wider impact on government’s objective of doubling of farmer’s income, rural employment generation, growth of agro-processing industry and national edible oil self-sufficiency. Globally the demand for palm oil is projected to grow from the present 65 million tonnes per annum to 95 million tonnes per annum by 2030.
AP leading the way
Currently, India has 3.3 lakh hectares under oil palm cultivation, as per government estimates. Andhra Pradesh has emerged as a leader in oil palm cultivation in two lakh hectares. However, according to unofficial estimates roughly 0.3 lakh hectares have been uprooted by the desperate farmers, in Andhra Pradesh alone, due to adverse market conditions. More than three decades after the introduction of oil palm in India, neither the oil palm development programme (OPDP) under the Technology Mission on oil seeds nor the programme of Oil palm area expansion under Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana (RKVY) could make signific ant a chi evement in a r e a expansion. Price volatility is a major obstacle in the expansion of oil palm. International price fluctuations have not been cushioned off by appropriate import tariff regime.
Oil Extraction Ratio
The Oil Extraction Ratio (OER) for the oil palm crop in India is less than 18 per cent as against 23 per cent in Indonesia and Malaysia. Due to less OER the price realised by farmers in India is also very less. Policy makers at the helm often forget the fact that the small farmers in the country cannot compete with the forest plantations of Malaysia and Indonesia where corporate companies own thousands of hectares and need no investment in irrigation.
Oil palm expansion in India could emerge as a sustainable option if monocropping is abandoned and diversified by inter-cropping of cocoa, pepper, nutmeg, cardamom, vanilla and other shade loving species. Multi- layer cropping has the advantage of efficient utilisation of land space and conservation of water. This would enhance employment opportunities, productive utilisation of domestic labour on India’s small farms and conserve irrigation water.
– Dr K Kranthi Kumar Reddy (Writer is general secretary of National Oilpalm Farmers Association and can be reached at email@example.com)