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How Science Can Fix a Different Oil Imbalance in India

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Narendra Modi spends billions of dollars on his autonomy. On the roads and in the factories, the Indian Prime Minister’s slogan translates into generous subsidies for homemade electric vehicle batteries, solar panels and green hydrogen – anything that can help reduce an over-reliance on crude oil from the Middle-East. There is, however, another imported oil that the South Asian nation is addicted to: that used for cooking. Indian kitchens spend $19 billion a year on Indonesian palm oil, Ukrainian sunflower and Argentinian soybeans.

Food bought abroad absorbs dollars, which no developing economy wants to part with yet. But that’s not all. In the current geopolitical climate, it seems unwise to leave the daily lives of 1.4 billion people at the mercy of global trade. Food self-sufficiency must be a legitimate public policy concern, as recently underscored by Russia’s suspension of the UN-agreed corridor for grain ships departing from Ukrainian Black Sea ports. It won’t take expensive donations to end this nutritional vulnerability. With a little public funding, scientists can do the job. The question is whether the politicians will let them.

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

So far, Monsanto Co.’s insect resistant Bt cotton is the only genetically modified crop in India. It was introduced two decades ago amid vehement opposition from anti-GMO activists. Debates still rage today as to whether the subsequent rise in Indian cotton yields was caused by the Bt trait or by more intensive use of fertilizers. However, when it comes to GMO foods, the biggest objection has come from Swadeshi Jagran Manch, the leading economic think tank in the right-wing Hindu cultural movement that backs Modi’s ruling party.

According to SJM, instead of making India’s oilseed economy self-sufficient, GM mustard would make farmers “seriously dependent” on a multinational giant like Bayer AG, which holds the ultimate patent on the technology. Still, the University of Delhi scientists who developed the new variant claim that their research is publicly funded and therefore the new seeds will be reasonably priced.

Over the millennia, the cooking methods of the Indian subcontinent have been as diverse as the foods eaten in the vast region. Coconut oil is popular in the south, while western regions like to fry in peanut oil. Mustard oil is used more in the east and north. But for nearly 25 years, local oilseed production has fallen short of demand. None of the traditional, cold-pressed and filtered oils has been able to withstand the relentless onslaught of imported palm, soy and sunflower oils. Nearly 70% of demand is now met by imports. Prices, which had surged last year, have only fallen slightly in 2022.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union helped India with local sunflower production; Americans helped with soy, initially marketing it as a solution to India’s protein shortage. While the population never really warmed up to milk or soy nuggets, India ended up becoming the biggest importer of soybean oil in the world. Ditto for sunflower, which today covers 10 to 12% of the country’s annual edible oil needs, even if local production is stagnating.

After India began to open up its economy in the 1990s, big food traders such as Archer-Daniels-Midland Co. stormed the second most populous nation. ADM is the main shareholder of the Singaporean company Wilmar International Ltd., whose joint venture with the Indian group Adani controls the first brand of edible oil in the country. A barrage of advertising dollars, trumpeting the perceived health benefits of colorless, odorless refined liquids, has won over the middle class. Traditional favorites like mustard, coconut, peanut, and sesame oil suddenly started looking heavier and greasy in comparison. A tampering scandal in the late 1990s turned the filtered oil movement into an exodus.

The most price-conscious segment of the market was captured by palm oil, responsible for the large-scale destruction of Indonesia’s rainforests. Getting rid of the 8 million tonnes of imported palm oil could help India reduce the death rate from ischemic heart disease associated with the cooking environment. Yet there is no consensus on whether transgenic crops are the right weapon for this fight. At both ends of the political spectrum – left and right – there is a shared apprehension about farmers losing the right to reuse or sell their seeds. With the modified mustard, honey exporters fear that bees’ nectar collection activities will be affected.

India came close to approving GMO mustard in 2016 – six years after exaggerated public health concerns quashed a modified eggplant. (Bangladesh has licensed the variant with considerable success.) With climate change adding to the uncertainty of food production every year, delaying a decision is starting to look like a costly mistake. Almost all 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 ruling the hybrid posed a “negligible risk” to human health or the environment.

An imbalance created over nearly three decades will not be corrected overnight. But with the help of science, it may be possible to put the country’s traditional oils back on the shelves of Indian kitchens.

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andy Mukherjee is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering industrial companies and financial services in Asia. Previously, he worked for Reuters, the Straits Times and Bloomberg News.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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