India imports 60 per cent of the edible oil it consumes and runs up an import bill of ₹80,000 crore. Of that, palm oil alone accounts for 55 per cent. In the quest for self-sufficiency, the government last week introduced the National Mission for Edible Oil and Oil Palm (MNEO-OP), which seeks to give a big push to domestic palm oil cultivation.
The target is to grow it on 3 million hectares over the next decade. While palm is the most prolific and efficient source of vegetable oil, it has a really bad reputation. Activists call it the coal of the food world: bad for health, bad for the planet. In south-east Asia, palm monoculture has eaten into nearly 10 million hectares of forests. In middle-class perception, it’s an unhealthy oil. Why then the push for a policy that literally takes us from the frying pan to fire?
Dr RK Mathur, Director, Indian Institute of Oil Palm Research, speaks to BusinessLine on this polarising and fatty matter. Excerpts:
The chargesheet against palm oil seems compelling. In south-east Asia, it is directly linked to ecological destruction. It is not considered a healthy option. Why then is the government pushing for it?
If you look at the oil palm programmes in south-east Asian countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, they are actually destroying the forests and disturbing the ecology. But our palm oil plan is completely sustainable. In India it is a farmers’ crop, grown in existing farmlands with intercropping.
A sugarcane or rice farmer is free to switch to oil palm and continue to grow other less water-intensive crops such as vegetables or ginger and turmeric in the same field. We will not be cutting an inch of forest for the plantations.
As for the question of health, several global and Indian studies have shown that palm oil poses no risk. The National Institute of Nutrition in Hyderabad ICMR, for the past 22 to 24 years, has emphasised that palm oil isn’t bad for the heart.
Palm oil is rich in vitamin A and E, and in coenzymes like ubiquinone that help fight cardiac diseases. No grain – rice, wheat or ragi – is complete in itself. You need a mix of them in a healthy diet. Similarly, some oils are better than others in some aspects. You need to have a mix of several oils.
North-east is a key area the government has identified for palm.
Can you confirm this won’t affect the
fragile hill ecology?
Absolutely. There will be no forest disturbed. Plantations will come up on existing farmlands. We only request farmers to go in for palm in contiguous areas or clusters. Palm is good for sequestering carbon. It is actually a form of aforestation. A palm tree produces two to three new leaves per month. A lot of biomass, too, gets added to the soil.
Even coffee planters in Western Ghats make this claim that estates are pretty much like forests and act as carbon sinks. But it’s still farming,
with chemicals and fertilizers flowing
and hill slopes.
Here we are not using too many chemicals; the requirement of pesticides and herbicides is significantly less for oil palm compared to other crops. If you look at the fertilizer requirement, we have come up with technologies to recycle biomass as nutrients. Our scientists have come up with 25 crops that can be grown under the partial shade conditions of oil palm.
So you’re saying that the context and practice of oil palm farming in India and south-east Asia is completely different?
Yes, completely different. Please don’t compare with them; they don’t know what is intercropping, they don’t know what is irrigation. There it is grown in rainfed areas. We will grow them on irrigated lands. Our system is sustainable with the inbuilt mechanisms like intercropping.
What is the economic case for palm? Why do you say it is such
an efficient crop?
If you look at the productivity levels of groundnuts, soyabean, sunflower, sesame, and if you look at the oil palm productivity, it stands very tall. On an average four to six tonnes of oil per hectare per year is produced through oil palm. For other oilseeds it is about 0.4 tonnes. Given our population growth, food demand and the shrinking size of cultivable land, we have to look for options that offer high productivity.
Is palm a water guzzler?
No, If you look at the total water requirement, it is less than that for rice or sugarcane.
Is palm oil part of a global North-South conflict? Many Indian scientists think the opposition to palm is propaganda against
the interests of the developing countries
and their oil sources.
As far as we are concerned, we do not have any doubts on the science of palm oil. I don’t want to comment on propaganda. Palm oil is cheap because it is highly productive. Not because its bad. The cost of cultivation is low and yields very high.
If you remember, a decade or so ago, coconut oil – another tropical oil like palm – was considered bad. Now everyone is hailing its benefits.
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