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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  Science can help India regain traditional cooking mediums

Science can help India regain traditional cooking mediums

Oil from genetically modified mustard seeds should be welcomed

Photo: HTPremium
Photo: HT

Narendra Modi is spending billions of dollars on self-reliance. On roads and in factories, the Indian Prime Minister’s slogan translates to generous subsidies for home-made electric-vehicle batteries, solar panels and green hydrogen—anything that can help cut an outsized dependence on crude oil imports. There is, however, another imported oil the country is addicted to: the one used for cooking. Indian kitchens spend $19 billion annually on Indonesian palm, Ukrainian sunflower and Argentinian soybean oil.

Food from overseas soaks up dollars, but that isn’t all. In today’s geopolitical climate, it appears imprudent to leave a daily staple of 1.4 billion people to the mercy of global trade. Self-sufficiency in food has to be a legitimate public-policy concern, as Russia’s suspension of the UN-agreed corridor for grain vessels sailing from Ukraine’s ports has underscored. It won’t take expensive handouts to end this vulnerability. With some public funding, scientists can do the job. Will politicians let them?

We’ll know the answer soon. New Delhi has given environmental clearance to a genetically modified mustard crop, which promises to boost yields by as much as 28%. If all goes to plan, there’s a good chance that farmers will have access to GMO mustard before the October 2025 planting season.

So far, Monsanto’s insect-resistant Bt Cotton is the only genetically altered crop in India. It was introduced two decades ago amid strident opposition from anti-GMO activists. Debates rage even today on whether the subsequent jump in cotton yields was caused by the Bt trait or more intensive fertilizer use . However, when it comes to GMO food, the bigger objection has been raised by the Swadeshi Jagran Manch [SJM, which is part of the ruling party’s group of affiliate organizations].

According to SJM, instead of making India’s oilseed economy self-reliant, GMO mustard would render farmers “seriously dependent" on a multinational behemoth like Bayer AG, which holds the ultimate patent on the technology. Still, the Delhi University scientists who have come up with the new variant say that their research is publicly funded and, therefore, the new seeds will be reasonably priced.

Coconut oil is popular in south India, while the western regions like to deep fry in groundnut oil. Mustard oil is used more in the east and north. But for almost 25 years, local oilseed production has fallen short of demand. None of the traditional, cold-pressed, filtered oils have managed to hold their ground against imported palm, soy and sunflower oil. Almost 70% of demand is now met with imports. Prices, which shot up last year, have only slightly cooled. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union assisted India with local sunflower production; America helped with soybean. While the population never quite warmed up to soy milk or nuggets, India became the world’s largest importer of soybean oil. Ditto for sunflower, which now meets 10-12% of the country’s annual cooking oil requirement, though local production is stagnant.

After India began opening up its economy in the 1990s, large food traders such as Archer-Daniels-Midland stormed in. ADM is the largest shareholder of Singapore-based Wilmar International, whose joint venture with the Adani Group controls the country’s top edible oil brand. A barrage of advertising, trumpeting colourless, odourless, refined liquids won over the middle class. Traditional favourites like mustard, coconut, groundnut and sesame oil started looking greasier in comparison. An adulteration scandal in the late 1990s turned the move away from filtered oils into an exodus.

The most price-conscious segment of the market was cornered by palm oil, responsible for the destruction of Indonesian rain forests. Getting rid of the 8 million tonnes of imported palm oil could help India lower its ischemic heart disease mortality rate associated with it. Yet there’s no consensus on whether transgenic crops are the right weapon for this fight. At both ends of the political spectrum, there’s a shared apprehension of farmers losing the right to reuse or sell their seeds. With modified mustard, honey exporters worry that bees’ nectar collection will be affected.

India came close to approving GMO mustard in 2016, six years after overblown public-health concerns quashed an engineered eggplant. With climate change adding every year to the uncertainty of food production, delaying decisions can be costly. Almost all of the Canadian canola, consumed around the world (including India), is genetically modified. Australia has approved the release of a cross between Indian mustard and GMO canola after judging that the hybrid posed “negligible risk" to people’s health or the environment. An imbalance of three decades won’t be fixed in a day. But science can help put traditional oils back on Indian kitchen shelves.

Andy Mukherjee is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering industrial companies and financial services in Asia.

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Published: 02 Nov 2022, 11:14 PM IST
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