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Spread of palm oil trees to disrupt local biodiversity in ecologically sensitive zones

By Bharat Dogra 

Did we protest when the exotic, narrow genetic-base varieties of various crops displaced thousands of indigenous varieties?
Did we protest when many millet crops were being displaced?
In both these cases the lack of any sustained opposition by a significant number of people (leaving aside the opposition of a small number of scientists and farmers) proved very costly. Much later, when a lot of damage had already been done, some calls for correcting serious mistakes were made, and it remains to be seen how effective these calls really are in the middle of wider adverse changes that have been unleashed.
Now we are at a similar point in the context of the rich traditional oilseeds heritage of the country, and an attempt should be now before it is too late. Now is the time for action, tomorrow will be too late.
India has a very rich heritage of many diverse oilseed crops. The difficult situation now has appeared due to the predominance given to palm oil for meeting the edible oil demand in the country. Palm oil has been a cheaper source of obtaining edible oils, and so when domestic shortages appeared, the government and trading interests were one in opting for a solution in the form of increasing palm oil imports rapidly. Later the government decided to accord much higher importance to increasing domestic production of palm oil as well, and if government programs succeed, then Indian market will be dominated soon by palm oil soon to a much higher extent in the form of domestic production while imports are also likely to continue because of the market conditions remaining favorable for this. This being much cheaper will prove to be a disincentive for traditional oilseeds including groundnut, mustard, sesame, coconut and others. With cheaper palm oil dominating the market, it will become even more difficult for farmers of traditional oilseeds to get a fair price for their produce. Hence within a few years, the share of imported and domestic palm oil will further increase to an even more dominant position while the share of traditional oilseeds will decrease further and over a period of time this will become a self-accentuating trend.
This will be very harmful as livelihoods of a very large number of farmers are based in oilseeds and they have very well developed skills and knowledge for this. These traditional oilseeds are very well adapted to weather and agro-ecological conditions, mixed farming systems and rotations which are very well understood by farmers and are sustainable, whereas the prospects of newly introduced exotic palm oil are uncertain and risky.
Traditional oilseeds are rich sources of nutrition and their palatability and taste in terms of local preferences are well established. Most traditional oilseeds in their whole form (without extracting oil), are associated with the preparation of several nutritious and highly relished dishes, apart from being consumed in raw or very slightly processed form to provide high nutrition. Various by products of these crops and trees have many important uses. The oilcakes obtained after oil extraction are a very important source of farm and dairy animal nutrition. Many traditional oilseeds are a very important source of medicines in everyday life, and these medicinal uses are well understood by people. These traditional oilseeds being very familiar to preferred consumer tastes are more amenable to being used in wholesome forms with less processing, which gives high nutrition. Their local processing is possible in small units, hence the potential for large-scale rural employment still exists, and such local processing will facilitate supply of more, cheaper oilcakes to local dairy and farm animals.
Most of these benefits are denied in the case of exotic oilseeds including palm oil. Due to consumer resistance to unfamiliar taste, the possibility of use of hydrogenation and related technologies is more likely in their case, and this will increase health hazards while reducing nutrition.
The spread of palm oil trees will lead to disruption of local biodiversity systems in ecological sensitive regions. As these require vast amounts of water for good yields, water scarcity and over-exploitation will be accentuated. As ripe palm oil fruit has to be rushed for quick processing in large-scale units (otherwise it will be spoilt from the point of view of getting edible oil), this will result in the need for very quickly raising a lot of additional infra-structure in ecologically sensitive areas.
In fact it may be difficult to meet such excessive requirements and if this happens then palm oil tree cultivation with high yields may simply fail to take off. In fact cases of farmers uprooting palm oil trees planted earlier in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have already been reported as high enough yields to make them profitable in Indian conditions were not possible.
So there are two possibilities. The one more likely is that fast spread of palm oil fruit trees in Indian conditions will not succeed. In this case several thousand crore rupees best used for promoting traditional oilseeds will be wasted on an undesirable exotic edible oil tree.
The second possibility is that somehow by concentrating all resources the government manages to increase domestic palm oil production in a big way as per its present stated plans. This increased domestic production will not lead to elimination of imports as once a cheaper product is established the imports will also continue. The higher domestic production and continuing imports will harm the traditional oilseeds the most.
Hence the government should change its policy and concentrate fully on traditional oilseeds. Secondly, the introduction of GM crops in the case of mustard should be stopped immediately. Thirdly, there should be a consumer campaign to consume healthy edible oils and avoid hydrogenated forms. This campaign should also inform people to avoid excessive consumption of edible oils as it is possible to cook in healthy and tasty ways with lesser quantities of edible oils. It has been often seen that people often tend to use higher than necessary quantities if edible oils, which is harmful for health.
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The writer is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include India’s Quest for Sustainable Farming and Healthy Food, Planet in Peril and Man over Machine

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