The dangers of India’s palm oil push

Source: Indian Express

Relevance: Issues associated with Palm oil cultivation

Synopsis: The recent push by Government of India to promote production of palm oil in Northeast and Andaman Nicobar islands has raised various concerns. A brief look.

Context

On August 15th, 2021, PM announced a support of Rs 11,000 crore to incentivize oil palm production. The government intends to bring an additional 6.5 lakh hectares under oil palm cultivation and aims to reduce the country’s dependence on palm oil imports, especially from Indonesia and Malaysia.

Background
  • The Yellow Revolution of the 1990s led to a rise in oilseeds production.
  • Most of these oilseeds are grown in rain-fed agriculture areas of Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh.
  • Though there has been a continuous increase in the production of diverse oilseeds — groundnut, rapeseed and mustard, soybean — that has not matched the increasing demand.

Thus, the National Mission on Oilseeds and Oil Palm is a part of the government’s efforts to reduce the dependence on vegetable oil production.

Why the recent push?

The recent push comes from the “success stories” of the two Southeast Asian countries, Indonesia and Malaysia. Indonesia has emerged as a significant palm oil hub in the last decade and has overtaken Malaysia. The two countries produce 80% of global oil palm. Indonesia exports more than 80% of its production.

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Impact on Malaysia & Indonesia
  • Declining biodiversity– Studies on agrarian change in Southeast Asia have shown that increasing oil palm plantations is a major reason for the region’s declining biodiversity.
  • Loss of forest cover– for example Indonesia has seen a loss of 1,15,495 million hectares of forest cover in 2020, mainly to oil palm plantation
  • Increasing water pollution– in the region due to area expansion for oil palm cultivation
  • Increasing carbon emissions– The decreasing forest cover has significant implications with respect to increasing carbon emission levels and contributing to climate change
  • Affects customary land rights of Forest dwellers–  Legislation allowing the clearing of tree cover and cutting forests for growing palm trees has led to increasing land-related tussles between government officials, locals and agribusiness groups in Malaysia and Indonesia
  • Against the notion of community self-reliance– The initial state support for such a crop results in a major and quick shift in the existing cropping pattern that are not always in sync with the agro-ecological conditions and food requirements of the region
  • Increases vulnerability of farmers– Palm oil cultivation has had a positive impact on poverty eradication in Malaysia by increasing income levels of small and marginal farmers, but in case of variations in global palm oil prices, households dependent on palm oil cultivation still face vulnerabilities from external factors.

In, India’s case it also goes against the government’s commitments under the National Mission for Sustainable Agriculture– which aims to make agriculture more productive, sustainable, remunerative and climate resilient by promoting location specific integrated/composite farming systems. The palm oil mission, instead, aims at achieving complete transformation of the farming system of Northeast India.

Conclusion

The increasing focus on palm oil will gradually result in focus shifting away from rain-fed oilseeds. Apart from the possible hazardous impacts in Northeast India, such trends could have negative implications on farmer incomes, health, and food security in other parts of the country in the long run.

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