The National Mission on Edible Oils - Oil Palm (NMEO-OP) was launched by the Government of India on August 18, 2021, with the aim of bringing more area under oil palm and reducing dependence on imports of palm oil.

Special focus has been given to promote oil palm cultivation extensively in the North-East and provide additional financial support, such as additional 2 per cent on the price of crude palm oil exclusively for oil palm farmers from the region, over other parts of the country.

Post-launch of the aforesaid mission, certain questions have been raised on biodiversity and monoculture plantations, oil palm being a water-intensive crop and ecological implications, such as deforestation, carbon emission etc., by citing the example of South-East Asian and African countries, where palm oil is grown at the cost of the environment.

Here are some responses to address those concerns:

Micro irrigation, a game changer

From the early 90s, oil palm cultivation was started in India in areas where either the land was fallow or through crop conversion (short-duration crop to oil palm cultivation) under the system of irrigation. This was the first such instance in the world where oil palm was grown successfully and sustainably without touching forest cover and under irrigation, unlike SE Asia where it is grown by deforestation, under rain-fed conditions.

Grow oil palm, grow with oil palm

Oil palm (OP) is no more of a monoculture crop since, with micro-irrigation, a lot of less water-intensive intercrops like pepper, ginger, turmeric, etc., are grown under partial shade conditions in the existing plantation.

Crop per drop concept through micro irrigation has been a game-changer in OP plantation. The total water requirement in an oil palm field is less than that of other popular crops like rice, banana and sugarcane.

*for two crop seasons in a year

Ref. BN Rao Et al. (2016) Technical Bulletin – Irrigation Management in Oil Palm, IIOPR

Irrigation is specially required during short dry spell in N-E for hardly four-five months. Precipitation has improved in many places in Andhra Pradesh where oil palm is cultivated largely.

In India, oil palm is good for sequestering carbon. It was proven in one study in Andhra Pradesh that the net green house gas removal by sinks in palm plantations over a period of 20 years is estimated to be equivalent to 10.35 lakh tonnes of carbon dioxide.

Certain codes of practice (COP) are developed for small-holder farmers by local companies and that serves as a benchmark to assess sustainable production of fresh fruit bunches. Each COP can be measured and improved.

Why is there so much hue and cry over oil Palm in Northeast?

Environmental activist groups feel that growing oil palm in NE India will damage green forest cover and affect the environment. They call for retaining the existing green cover without any development or introduction of improved agricultural crops and practices.

Palm oil mission to augment edible oil availability: Tomar

This sense of insecurity stems from the absence of engagement of local tribes. The desire, wants and needs of the local tribes remain unfulfilled despite huge natural resources available in N-E.

What do we need to do?

Let us accept that due to lack of development and poor source of income from existing agriculture, farmers remain hungry generation after generation and go for shifting cultivation in the N-E. This is the main reason for actual decrease of forest cover, as has been reported by Forest Survey of India during the assessment period of 2009-11 and 2017-19 by – 549 sq km and 765 sq. km respectively. Reduction of forest cover every year can be minimised by engaging local tribes or offering better alternatives towards rehabilitation of tribal families, if made through the establishment of oil palm cultivation in a judicious manner, which will provide assured return throughout the year sustainably. NMEO-OP scheme provides initial support during gestation period of this crop and later on also to the oil palm growers.

Once oil palm cultivation is started in these areas without touching Forest Cover and the farmers start getting financial support from the government, there will be behavioural change. They will move less towards forests for encroachment, and this will aid in improving the forest area over time.

An Atmanirbharta mission for oil palm

This will also provide the local tribes better opportunity towards growth, once they start getting returns out of oil palm. Shifting cultivation will slowly disappear and reduction of forest cover will also go down.

Let us not be apprehensive at this stage but rather be assertive and join hands together to start oil palm cultivation scientifically in the areas other than forest cover, by adopting best management practices, using available resources like soil and water judiciously. This becomes the stage of capitalisation towards:

1. Steady source of income for local tribes

2. improvement in engagement of local people through agricultural practices, like growing oil palm sustainably.

3, Improvement in domestic edible oil production and thereby improving food security & sufficiency.

Time will come when we see a green cover outside the forest area by growing a tree crop like oil palm and the forest cover remains undisturbed. If we are able to enable the local tribes in the North-East to come out of this vicious cycle, the North-East will be green beyond the forests as well.

The writer is former CEO-Oil Palm Plantation, Godrej Agrovet Ltd. Views are personal