The future of India’s spices sector looks bright thanks to the growing demand for spices and spices products. Its increased application as extracts in wellness, pharmaceuticals and nutraceutical industries coupled with rising product diversification in the food industry also augurs good. All these indicate a sustained growth for the sector, says R Dinesh, Director, ICAR-Indian Institute of Spices Research, Kozhikode.

However, balancing the needs of the diverse stakeholders will require careful policy design to ensure equitable growth and inclusive development among the stakeholder communities, Dinesh told businessline in an exclusive interview.

Edited excerpts:


How do you envision the strategies for Indian spices to compete globally?

The Indian spices have created a special niche in the global spice trade. However, to consolidate and strengthen our credentials as a global supplier of spices, we need to respond to the demands of the global markets such as the rising concerns about food safety and traceability of the product. Though India enjoys rich diversity in spice varieties and cultivation, it should also be open to the higher and finer levels of product differentiation happening across commodities and product lines in the sector.

We have several heirloom varieties with unique quality parameters that can be commercially leveraged to access premium markets. Our ability to nurture and support innovative product development will also be critical to remain competitive in the global markets.

Further improvement in product packaging and presentation notwithstanding the isolated and scattered examples of innovative branding and packing of spices and creation and nurture of the human resources for these envisaged strategies are also critical in shaping the future course of the spices sector.


What are the required measures to address instances of detecting adulterated spices?

Such issues needed to be tackled at various levels starting right from the primary production stages. The instances of adulteration, which can affect domestic consumers and end users of global value chains, could arise from lack of awareness and absence of good production practices. Some of the reported cases of adulteration turn out to be cases of mislabelling.

IISR has a multipronged approach focusing on creation of awareness about quality parameters of spices among the consumers and educating the spice farming community on production of clean and food safe spices. It also engages with the spice processing industry to address the issues of adulteration at the intermediate levels of supply chain.

The institute has developed several cutting edge technologies for detection of adulteration in spices and spice products. All these measures are expected to result in desirable outcomes. This capability comes from sustained efforts of institutions like the Spices Board, Food Safety Standards Authority of India, APEDA, etc.


What are the measures taken by IISR in this direction?

Among the stakeholder community, farmers remain our key priority and we constantly engage with them through diverse channels. This helps in understanding the pulse of the spice farmers which helps in dovetailing our research agenda.

The advances in communication technology and the spread of digital platforms have enhanced our capability to communicate directly with the farming community, reducing the knowledge gap, especially for the geographically disadvantaged stakeholders. The institute has also leveraged its partnerships with farmer collectives, NGOs and industry organisations to offer our advisory services to a wider audience. We have seen a tremendous rise in our visibility across the country as a result of this focused engagement with the stakeholder community.


Can you elaborate on the new research directions in spices?

The research themes of the institute reflect the national priorities and the changing dimensions of agricultural research across the crops. Our approach to research has witnessed a shift from crop system focus to food system, replacing the yield maximization goal with profit maximization for the farmer. New paradigms are being incorporated in the research goals and objectives including development of climate resilient varieties and agronomic practices, promoting carbon positive interventions in cultivation and processing, adoption of ecosystem approach in measuring the impact of our interventions.

We believe that the research programmes should yield results that can be translated into new products and services, which can further be optimally utilised through a strong innovation and start-up ecosystem.


What is the scope of AI in spices research?

The scope of AI and AI-enabled technologies in spices research is promising. Tools and technologies based on AI are being increasingly harnessed to enhance the cultivation, processing, and quality control of spices.

For instance, machine learning algorithms can assist in site specific input management, predicting optimal planting times and monitoring weather parameters critical for spice crops. Field level quality testing assessment is increasingly being used to provide support for producers and aggregators enabling farmers to get premium prices for superior produce while helping the spice processing industry to have better control over the quality of raw materials.

Several AI based systems are already being employed for identification of diseases and pests affecting crops. AI-powered market analysis can provide insights into consumer preferences and trends, guiding producers and exporters in making informed decisions.


On the current trends in spice production in India?

With nearly 4.5 million hectares under spice cultivation, the area has increased by 10 per cent indicating sustained preference for spice crops by the farming community, which, in turn, augurs well for the spice export sector.

Another positive aspect of the spice production is the wider base both in terms of geographic distribution of production and the diversity of spice commodities in our portfolio. Our diverse climate and geographies support cultivation of all the major spice crops with as many as 13 states producing more than one lakh tonnes.


How critical is the export sector to the spice economy and how well has the spice exports fared?

Though we export only less than 15 per cent of the total output with the rest mopped up by the domestic market, spice commodities from India reach more than 180 countries.

But considering the price premium associated with export markets and the potential for employment generation across the spice value chain, the export sector is an important driver of growth for the spices sector. Moreover, India is also the leading producer and exporter of spice extracts like essential oils and oleoresins.

The ability of the Indian spice export sector to meet its export commitments, even under adverse conditions, has cemented our image as a reliable supplier of quality spices.