Edible oils are crucial in the Indian kitchen. None can separate the oil from the kitchen. So it is surprising to many that India imports most of the edible oil it consumes from different countries like soyabean oil from Argentina and Brazil, sunflower oil from Argentina and Ukraine, and palm oil from Asian countries like Indonesia and Malaysia. Palm oil accounted for the lion’s share of the total oil imports (62%), followed by soy oil (21%) and Sunflower Oil (16%) in the 2019-20 financial year.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently announced an Rs 11,000 crore National Edible Oil Mission – Oil Palm (NMEO-OP) to make India self-sufficient, Atmanirbhar Bharat, in cooking oils. The PM said, “The cultivation of oil palm seed could be promoted in the Northeastern states and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.”
As India is spending a massive amount on edible oil, the government looks at the cultivation of oil palm seeds to boost farmer earnings and save foreign exchange. The price of crude palm oil went up by 45% to Rs 102 compared to Rs 70 in the last one-year period. Oil palm crop is considered a highly remunerative crop that can provide the highest return compared to other commercial crops. However, oil palm cultivation is thus far negligible in the country compared to the other staple grains and cash crops such as wheat, rice, sugar, lentils, tea, coffee, and spices.
Palm oil production seems quite attractive financially, especially in the poor developing regions with a lack of other job opportunities. Moreover, palm farming can cut the import of edible oil, making Indian kitchens more economical and keeping down food inflation. Still, it also implies some severe problems like sustainability, deforestation, soil erosion, habitat destruction, ecological imbalance, and many other disadvantages in the long run that have been pointed out in the press and specialist articles recently.
Oil Palm cultivation leads to deforestation. Many European countries have banned the use of palm oil for this reason. Deforestation is the one main issue for environmental degradation, including climate change, and we as humans should make great efforts to reduce deforestation.
Impact of Palm Oil
Palm oil is also bad for health. It is very high in saturated fat, causing heart disease, liver dysfunction, obesity, and type-2 diabetes. Also, burning forests for its cultivation, such as in Malaysia and Indonesia, has added to the greenhouse effect. The smoke in the air caused respiratory problems and the decimation of many endangered species. Forests for us might be the planet’s lung, but for many species such as Indonesia’s orangutans, it is home.
India is rich in diverse edible oils such as mustard seed, peanut, coconut, and a tradition that implies the suitability of each for cooking a particular vegetable, fish, or meat and as a cure for various ailments. Palm oil may not be the best option for the expansion of domestic cultivation. It is not a suitable edible oil as it contains high saturated fats, leading to obesity and an increase in cholesterol, which later becomes heart disease.
Plain and straightforward – oil palm cultivation is not the best use of our valuable forests in the Northeast nor the Andaman and Nicobar islands, both rich in bio-diversity. Although the best use of the country’s abundant solar energy may be conversion to plants and agriculture, a more scientific approach is needed. The immediate expansion and cultivation of palm with the attendant and use of pesticides, fertilizers, and water may lead to the ecological disaster already seen in Malaysia and Indonesia.