India's Dependence on Cooking Oil Imports Limits the Country's Self-Reliance
It is obvious that people in India fill their vehicles with oil that has been imported from other countries, but how many of us are aware that the story is the same when it comes to the domestic consumption of vegetable oils? To meet the country's requirements of two oils — petroleum crude and vegetable oil — India is heavily contingent upon other countries.
While 82% of the total consumption of crude oil (worth $115 billion in 2018-2019) is met through imports, India depends on foreign sources (mostly Malaysia and Indonesia) for around 60% of its vegetable oil needs. Presently, India needs 25 million tons (MT) of vegetable oils, of which merely 10.5 MT is produced domestically. This makes India one of the world's leading vegetable oil importers. A whopping $10 billion import bill was generated in 2018-2019, and this will increase in the coming years since per capita consumption of vegetable oil is on a steady rise (possibly due to rising disposable incomes).
Today, seven oilseed crops, along with secondary oil sources like rice bran, coconut oil, cotton seeds and palm oil, make annual domestic availability of approximately 9 MT, whereas castor and linseeds are used for the production of non-edible oils (1.58 MT), mostly used as industrial input.
Are Indians consuming oil irrationally?
Too much oil is not healthy. Per capita consumption patterns for cereals and pulses over the last 15 years reveal an almost stagnant growth, but edible oil consumption has increased from 10.6 kg/person/year in 2005-2006 to 19.1 kg in 2015-2016. The number is projected to reach 21.55 kg/person/year in 2022.
The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) recommends limiting annual vegetable oil consumption to 10.95 kg per year (30 gm/day/person), but the current consumption level is almost twice that, and this unhealthy culinary practice creates a huge demand and compels imports of edible vegetable oils from other nations.
If Indians could stay within the recommended level of consumption, the total edible oil requirement could be restricted to around 14 MT, which would mean that India would look to other countries for only 4-5 MT, since domestic availability is already around 9 MT. This would much lessen the burden on our government exchequer and reduce our external dependency. Therefore, it is wise for Indians to be mindful in the kitchen when frying!
Does that mean India should cut consumption and not boost its domestic production?
Not exactly. Oilseed products offer us tremendous opportunities to earn a decent foreign exchange. Despite import dependency, India exports a significant portion of oilseed products and earns approximately 25,000 crores ($3.39 billion) annually. Oil meals, castor oil, sesame seeds and niger seeds are the major items exported. Thus, if India trims its current level of oil consumption and enhances its production, it will not only make Indians healthier, but the economic health of the country will also be improved considerably. This strategy should be implemented and pursued in a coordinated framework to produce and export more.
How to enhance oilseed production in India
To enjoy increased competitiveness in the global market, some basic production and policy constraints need to be strategically addressed to boost both the quantity and quality of the oilseed products. Except for castor, the productivity of all other oilseed crops falls starkly below the world average. In 2013-2014, rapeseed-mustard recorded an average yield of 1,245 kg/hectare in India versus world productivity of 1,994 kg/hectare, whereas the highest productivity (3,947 kg/ha) is reported in Germany. To up the production, India should focus on the following measures:
- Approximately 11.7 million hectares remain fallow after Kharif paddies have been harvested. These should be targeted to grow various oilseed varieties in the winter season. Targeting non-traditional areas and promoting intercropping will also increase production.
- 76% of Indian soil is deficient in sulfur, a vital nutrient for oilseed crops. Therefore, the practice of better and balanced nutrient management must be propagated.
- Lack of modern farm technology is also a hindrance. Mechanized production of oilseed should be promoted appropriately in an enabling policy framework.
- The wide network of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research's (ICAR's) research institutes should step up their efforts in developing more suitable high-yielding, stress-tolerant and hybrid varieties. State machinery needs to augment seed multiplication and extension efforts for rapid varietal diffusion and quick adoption of potential varieties.
When consumption is rationalized and production is optimized, this will oil the engine of the nation's economy more efficiently.