Home/ News / India/  Onions to be irradiated with gamma rays to curb post-harvest losses

New Delhi: The Centre is planning to irradiate onions with Gamma rays before sending them into cold storage on a pilot basis. Irradiation prevents sprouting and thus brings down post-harvest losses, two officials said.

“Post- harvest losses of onion in India are significant. Onion noticeably gets rotted and starts sprouting even in cold storage. To reduce post-harvest losses to 10-12% from prevailing 25%, we will send freshly procured onion to irradiation plants and then to cold storage," one of the officials said.

The perishable nature of onions, combined with lower processing penetration and sub-optimal storage infrastructure causes post-harvest losses.

The Centre is considering irradiating around 4,000 tonnes of rabi season onion after it kicks off procurement from April. In the 2023-24 rabi marketing season, the Centre aims to procure about 300,000 tonnes of onion in anticipation of a bumper crop, beating last year’s record procurement of 250,000 tonnes.

Onion production in 2022-23 (July-June) is estimated to be 31.8 million tonnes compared to 31.7 MT.

“However, production may be affected due to precipitation in the last few days. The picture will be clear after 15-20 days," said Suriander Babu, an onion trader based in Delhi’s Azadpur.

Currently, red onions are being procured by the National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation of India and National Cooperative Consumers’ Federation of India to support farmers amid falling prices. Kharif and late kharif onion or red onion is highly perishable and cannot be stored for over a month. Therefore, the rabi variety, which accounts for 65% of the onion harvest and has a longer shelf life of about 5-7 months, would be considered for irradiation.

“Rabi onion will be sent to Krushi Utpadan Sanrakshan Kendra at Lasalgaon, Nashik and Avantee Maga Food Irradiation in Indore within seven days of procurement. If it is not irradiated within seven days of procurement, the recovery rate will lag at 75-76%," the other official said.

Gamma ray irradiation is an effective form of preservation that extends the shelf life of the crops and reduces spoilage. The process also benefits the consumer by reducing the risk of illnesses caused by foodborne diseases.

“If the pilot project succeeds, the recovery rate of onion is expected to increase to about 88-90%, leading to an extension in shelf life of rabi onion," the official said.

Farmers in most states harvest rabi onion in April-May and sell it during June-July. Kharif harvesting takes place in October-November and the crop is available in the market till the Rabi harvest. During this period, supply remains insufficient to meet India’s high demand. Therefore, every year onion prices rise sharply during August and November when rabi stocks are sold and kharif harvesting starts.

Onion prices typically start softening from November till mid-February with the fresh arrivals of kharif and late kharif crops. However, this year, onion prices crashed in the wholesale markets, leading farmers across Maharashtra to dump and burn their produce.

Maharashtra is the leading onion producing state, followed by Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Gujarat. These states account for about 80% of India’s total production.

According to the e-governance portal Agmarketnet, red onion on Tuesday was trading in the range of 400-700 per quintal at Lasalgaon, the benchmark market in Maharashtra. The prices of the red variety had dropped as low as 200 per quintal last month.

The decline in prices has been attributed to a bumper crop amid adequate rainfall and the short window between kharif and late kharif arrivals.

India’s annual inflation rate, based on the Consumer Price Index (CPI), eased to 6.44% in February from 6.52% in January. The retail inflation dipped mainly because of the statistical effect of a high base and moderation in prices of food items, particularly vegetables.

The vegetables index declined 2.5% month-on-month in February. Vegetables are important in the CPI basket and influences India’s food inflation. Onion contributes only 2% per cent to overall food inflation.

“While vegetables continued to remain in the deflationary mode for four consecutive months, it is cereal inflation which is pushing retail inflation outside the comfort zone of RBI,“ said Rajani Sinha, chief economist at Care Edge.

Food prices contribute to about 40% of the CPI basket. Economists expressed concern over rising prices of cereals, milk and spices that drove up food prices.

Farmers are frequently seen throwing their produce, especially onion because of low market that does not cover their cost of production. This results in onion wastage reportedly about 4-5 million tonne (MT).

“To prevent onion going to the waste, schemes like Kanda Chal Anudan Yojana should be adopted and promoted at pan-India level since onion is perishable and preserving it for a long time is not possible," said Vijay Jawandhia, Founding member of Shetkari Sanghatana Paik.

Kanda Chal Anudan Yojana, a subsidy to onion growers by the Maharashtra government, envisages up to 100 tonne for individual farmers and 500 tonne for cooperatives for setting up kanda (onion) chali of 5, 10, 15, 20 and 25 tonne capacity and offers a maximum of 3,500 per tonne as financial assistance.

The scheme is to encourage farmers to set up an onion mill, through which it will lower the loss in onion storage and help them gain more profit.

Arguably, the government should set up at least one-two processing units each in major growing district of Maharashtra, and make powder after crushing dried onions, said Nana Bachhav, Director at Krushi Aviskar Farmer Producer Company Limited.

Experts say that the Centre should introduce minimum support price (MSP) for onion, which will cover their production cost and prevent from incurring losses in an unprecedented situation.

“The Centre must fix onion MSP at 1,500 per quintal. Additionally, the government should allow farmers to export onion and provide them with a subsidy of about 500-600 per quintal on it," Bachhav said.

Till Feb 14 in FY23, India has exported 1.52 MT of bulb or common onion against 1.54 MT in the 2021-22 fiscal. India is the second-largest onion producer after China, and contributes around 10-15% to the global market.

Puja Das
Puja Das is a New Delhi based policy reporter covering food, farm, fertiliser, water, and climate for Mint. Puja reports on farmers' distress and how the agriculture sector is impacting India's rural economy from time to time along with policy initiatives to help meet the pledges made at CoP-26. Puja holds a post-graduation degree in Broadcast Journalism from the Indian Institute of Journalism & New Media, Bangalore.
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Updated: 21 Mar 2023, 11:59 PM IST
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