Global oilseed, agribusiness and biotech corporations are engaged in a long term attack on India’s local cooking oil producers, writes Colin Todhunter. In just 20 years they have reduced India from self-sufficiency in cooking oil to importing half its needs. Now the government’s unlawful attempts to impose GM mustard seed threaten to wipe out a crop at the root of Indian food and farming traditions.
In 2013, India’s former Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar accused US companies of derailing the nation’s oilseeds production programme.
Similar claims had been made before. For instance, we could revisit the 1998 mustard oil tragedy.
At the time, Rajasthan Oil Industries Association claimed that a “conspiracy” was being hatched to undermine the mustard oil trade and charged that the “invisible hands of the multinationals” were involved (see the article ‘Monsanto and the Mustard Seed‘).
India was almost self-sufficient in edible oils by the mid-1990s. Its farmers met 97% of domestic need. However, its edible oil import bill has increased dramatically since then.
By 2013, India was the world’s second biggest importer of edible oils. Food and trade policy analyst Devinder Sharma notes that between 2006-07 and 2011-12 alone edible oil imports rose by 380%.
Sharma asserts self-sufficiency was not palatable to international financial institutions, and that, under pressure from the World Bank, India began to reduce the import tariffs on edible oils and imports then began to increase.
The impact has been felt by millions of farmers. Instead of paying Indonesian, Malaysian, American and Brazilian farmers from where India imports edible oils, he argues the effort should be to support domestic farmers.
More than half of India’s cooking oil is now imported
India meets more than half its cooking oil requirements through imports, with palm oil shipped from Indonesia and Malaysia and soybean oil from the US, Brazil and Argentina. Notwithstanding the environmental damage resulting from industrial-size mono-crop plantations (see this on palm oil in Indonesia and this on soy in Brazil), soybean imports are expected to grow even more and further threaten domestic cultivation.
In an editorial piece for Kisan Ki Awaaz (National Voice of the Farmers) in November 2015, Kishan Bir Chaudhary highlights the trend to undermine indigenous production by noting the move to completely wipe out India’s soybean cultivation.
The large-scale import of soybean meal is being contemplated at cheap prices from South America, China and USA, which would flood the Indian market. This is despite there being a more than adequate quantity of soybean meal available from locally produced soybean.
Currently, the import of soybean meal is freely permitted, with a low customs duty. Soybean prices in the exporting countries are between 30% to 40% lower because of huge subsidies. This could leave few outlets for indigenous production.
Although current laws do not permit the import of any GMO-based food or feed item into India, the fear is importers may ship in GMO soybean and soybean meal at cheap rates, which will get cleared at ports without testing for the presence of GMOs.
Chaudhary notes India’s soybean farmers are under pressure due to: the import of GM cheap soybean meal; a clamour for the import of soybean itself; the discouragement of soy cultivation by political leaders; and the active involvement of foreign seed and pesticide companies in promoting GM Soy cultivation.
He calls for an immediate ban on soybean imports as well as for customs officers to uphold the law of the land with regard to prohibiting the import of GMOs by carrying out proper checks in government laboratories.