India is the world’s largest consumer – and importer – of palm oil, inexpensive edible oil that suitably serves the need of the country’s growing population. Even as India’s palm oil consumption has soared more than 300 percent – from 3-million tonnes in 2001 to nearly 10-million tonnes now, the need of the hour is to cut reliance on imports and boost domestic production. Stepping up local oil palm produce will not only save precious foreign exchange but also augment farmer incomes and boost the country’s rural economy.
Grow in India
Oil palm cultivation in India is a unique story, different from oil palm plantations in other parts of the world. While some of the dominant oil palm producing countries are facing stiff environmental and climate change challenges, India is taking sustainable strides in bringing more land under oil palm cultivation. Currently, oil palm is grown on more than four lakh hectares across 12 states, with Andhra Pradesh alone accounting for more than 80 percent of total oil palm area in the country. Over the past 25 years, the oil palm area has expanded in the country through crop conversion from agricultural and horticultural lands, with farmers switching from short-medium duration crops like maize, tobacco, sugarcane, etc. to the long-term prospects of oil palm. Additionally, waste areas and degraded lands have also been converted to oil palm plantations.
The salient feature of India’s oil palm story is that the country’s forest has not been destroyed or disturbed to create palm plantations, in keeping with the “no harm to nature” philosophy. Most of the oil palm cultivators are farmers and the average size of farm holding is less than 2 hectares per farmer.
Soils of oil palm area of Andhra Pradesh are mostly red soils having loamy to sand texture, with some pockets bearing black clayish soil. These soils inherently have low initial carbon content and oil palm cultivation plays an important catalytic role in carbon storage. As a result, considerable carbon sequestration has been registered after the introduction of oil palm plantations with good agricultural practices like biomass recycling and mulching adopted by farmers.
According to one study, the net greenhouse gas removal by sinks in oil palm plantations over a period of 20 years is estimated to be 10.35 lakh tonne carbon-dioxide equivalent in Andhra Pradesh plantations under Godrej Agrovet factory zone alone. This translates to an average value of 18 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per hectare every year. Other sustainable practices adopted include micro-irrigation which helps in optimisation of water uses and fertigation which furthers the principle of ‘more crop per drop’. Incidentally, Godrej Agrovet is the first company to get the Indian Palm Oil Sustainability (IPOS) certification, matching international sustainability requirements for oil palm cultivation and sustainable practices being followed by individual land-owning farmers.
Nadir Godrej, Chairman, Godrej Agrovet said, “Oil Palm cultivation in India does not require deforestation. It continuously adds biomass throughout its life cycle thereby helping carbon sequestration and carbon enrichment of the soil. Oil Palm also gives the highest edible oil production per unit area. Therefore, increasing oil production in India will not only enable the nation to move towards sustainable self-reliance but, it will help in improving farmer’s income considerably with assured returns throughout the year. With the right mix of Government Policies, Subsidies & Precision farming, India can feed & meet the growing demand of edible oil & bring prosperity to lakhs of farmers”.
The first five years of oil palm crop being the juvenile plantation phase, there are no yields for the initial three years and the yields start picking up from the fourth year onwards. A variety of intercrops are adopted by farmers to generate additional income and sustain during this gestation period. More than 25 such intercrops are grown to generate income during these non-yielding or low yielding years. This sustainable practice also covers the land and contributes to the addition of carbon content in the soils. The entire value chain is operated under the public-private partnership model, giving assured buy-back facility to farmers at a fair price through corporate tie-up to process the fresh fruit bunches for palm oil extraction.
With 21 percent of the world’s area under oilseed production and 5 percent of the world’s production, India is the fourth largest oilseed producing country in the world, next only to the US, China, and Brazil. The country possesses the resources for self-sustenance and given the right push through government policies, subsidies, modern farming methods, new production technologies, and sustainable farming practices, India can engage all stakeholders to substantially reduce the import of edible oils and ultimately achieve self-reliance to sustainably meet the needs of its citizens. A potential one million hectares can be tapped for oil palm alone, bringing prosperity to lakhs of farmers while meeting the needs of millions of consumers.
Oil palm being the highest oil-yielding crop per unit area (3.5 – 4.5 tons oil /Ha) vis-à-vis other oilseed crops (0.5-1 ton oil/Ha), this crop can be a game-changer in producing more oil from limited land resources. Ensuring further augmentation of farmer incomes, the Indian Institute of Palm Oil Research (ICAR-IIOPR) and government of Andhra Pradesh’s horticulture department are jointly encouraging cultivators and land-owning farmers to undertake cocoa as intercrop in mature oil palm plantations, which potentially doubles their income in a more sustainable manner.
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