Spices Board plans to boost pepper output

Spices Board plans to boost pepper output

Kochi: The Spices Board of India targets producing 100,000 tonnes of pepper in four years, half of which will be exported, said a top official.

A task force set up by the government trade promotion body, which fixed the production target, met here last week to decide on an action plan that includes supplying sufficient planting material that would help pepper farmers to raise both production and productivity, Spices Board chairman V.J. Kurian said.

The agency proposes to plant 31,000ha with pepper in phases in three-five years and seek government support to implement the programme, Kurian said.

Pepper production is declining in the country, with this year’s harvest likely to be only 45,000 tonnes, down from some 50,000 tonnes in the past two fiscal years.

An erratic monsoon has taken a toll on production. With heavy pre-summer showers and a weak monsoon, it is only now that berries are appearing on vines, instead of the usual August and September, in Kerala and Karnataka, two of India’s largest pepper-growing states. This will not only delay harvest, but also reduce production since most of the berries won’t grow to their full size.

A wasp attack on the poles on which the vines grow has also laid waste to almost 70% of the crop in Wayanad, one of Kerala’s large pepper-growing districts. M. Tamilselvam, who heads the Directorate of Arecanut and Spices that makes crop estimates, said the pestilence has spread to Idukki district, the state’s other large pepper-producing region.

Ironically, the fear of being forced to import pepper to meet an annual domestic consumption of at least 50,000 tonnes has forced the industry to pool resources and establish a special committee to work out a strategy. The committee is likely to meet next month.

K.P. Mammootty, head of the Kerala Agriculture University’s pepper research station, said low yield and overall production needed to be addressed on a war footing. The research station is credited with Panniyar, the world’s first hybrid pepper plant created in 1967.

The centre is currently working on developing drought- and disease-resistant varieties by grafting wild-grown pepper vines and other local varieties. Mammootty said there has been some success, but the issue of raising yields needs to be addressed further.

The scientist said alternatives have to be found and it has been noticed that some local wood, including silver oak in plantations and jackfruit trees, can be successfully used for vines to grow.

Philip Kuruvilla, chairman of the All-India Spice Exporters’ Forum, said at the Spices Board meeting that the industry has offered its support to expand the net of pepper farmers, as well as support development of disease-resistant and high-yielding pepper varieties. The forum will also provide funds, if necessary, he said.

A novel project in involving local communities in pepper cultivation has been launched in Taliparambu village of Kannur district, where pepper vines have been grown on more than 7,000 trees by 325 households. This needs to be spread to other areas, Mammootty said.

The task force should look at identifying potential areas, interact with locals, induce them to take up pepper cultivation that needs little labour, except at the time of harvest, and ensure them of sufficient planting material, said E.V. Nybe, head of plantation crops and spices division at the Kerala Agriculture University.

The organizations involved should grow planting material locally rather than elsewhere and transporting it, Nybe said, pointing out that this can damage at least 40% of the plants.