Barc to help preserve onion stocks

The plan is expected to be executed by March after scientists at the Trombay-based Barc. (Photo: Bloomberg)
The plan is expected to be executed by March after scientists at the Trombay-based Barc. (Photo: Bloomberg)

Summary

  • The move comes after a successful pilot project in the last Rabi season, or winter crops

NEW DELHI : India’s premier nuclear research centre is lending a helping hand with the nation’s kitchen staple—the onion.

Scientists at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, or Barc, are advising central government officials on how to preserve post-harvest onion crops by irradiating the perishables with low levels of Gamma rays.

The move comes after a successful pilot project in the last Rabi season, or winter crops, a senior official said, referring to a common post-harvest problem of onion stocks rotting in the rain.

Around 1,274 tonnes of onions could be irradiated in collaboration with the Krushi Utpadan Sanrakshan Kendra in Lasalgaon, Maharashtra. Another potential collaborator, Avanti Mega Food Park, however, has opted out because there has been no procurement of Rabi onions in Indore, Madhya Pradesh.

Irradiating with cobalt-60 isotopes could bring down the post-harvest loss in storage to 8.8% from the usual 25%-30%, giving the vegetables an average shelf-life of five months.

The plan is expected to be executed by March after scientists at the Trombay-based Barc, which is harnessing nuclear technology for not only generating power, but also for industry, health and agriculture among other applications.

“Last year, we irradiated around 1,274 tonnes of rabi onion. Recovery is good at around 85%. The storage loss is minimal, and the quality is good. Though it is not economically and commercially viable, I think we will continue to do it after discussing it with Barc again. It provides us with technical guidance—the type of stock that is to be selected and monitoring the health of stored onions every week," the official said.

Irradiating onions costs 2 a kg and cold storage 1.75 a kg per month. Buying onions at 17-18 per kg, irradiating and storing them in a cold storage facility involves cost between 60 and 70 a kg, which is not commercially profitable, the official explained.

“The result of the pilot project is desirable. Last year we did it in the Krushak (Krushi Utpadan Sanrakshan Kendra) irradiation facility. We also collaborated with Avanti Mega Food Park in Indore. It, however, could not take it up because we could not buy any quantity in the last season from Indore.

“Our initial target for both plants was around 4,300 tonnes. For Krushak alone, we targeted around 1,500 tonnes. The stocks were stored for an average of five months. Without irradiation, rabi onion can be stored with a post-harvest production loss of 25-30%. Our observation here is that storage loss is about 8.8%. The longer you store, the loss will be higher."

In March, Mint reported the Centre is planning to irradiate onions with Gamma rays before sending them into cold storage on a pilot basis to reduce post-harvest losses to 10-12% from the prevailing 25%. Wastage of the highly perishable kitchen staple is estimated at 11,000 crore annually as about one-fourth of rabi onions, rot in conventional storage facilities.

The government has been maintaining an onion buffer to check in onion prices. The annual buffer has been built by procuring onions from rabi harvest for release in major consumption centres during the lean season.

The onion buffer has played a key role in ensuring the availability of onion to consumers at affordable prices and in maintaining price stability. There are two harvesting seasons, with rabi accounting for 65% of India’s total onion output. Rabi onion is harvested in April-June and is stored until the Kharif variety is harvested in October-November to meet the demand of consumers.

So far, the government has been able to procure 630,000 tonnes of kharif and late kharif onions of targetted 700,000 tonnes for the 2023-24 season.

Queries sent to the consumer affairs department and Bhaba Atomic Research Centre remained unanswered at press time.

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