Carrots came to India from Afghanistan sometime around the 10th century; potatoes were brought by the Portuguese in the 17th century. However, there’s nothing alien about mustard. It is native to India and has been around for thousands of years. Food historians tell us that mustard was cultivated in the foothills of the Himalayas as far back as 3000 BCE — and yet mustard, sadly, does not get the kind of support and promotion that a heritage crop of such antiquity should.
Mustard is the second-most important oilseed crop in India after groundnut. It is also the country’s most important winter oilseed crop. The year 2017-18 may turn out to be a good one for India because, after a long time, the country had a bumper crop of oilseeds; but this doesn’t change the fact that India continues to be an oil-deficit country. On an average, India has to import over 15 million tonnes of edible oil each year to bridge the demand-supply gap, making it the world’s largest importer of edible oils. These imports mainly comprise palm oil from Malaysia and Indonesia and soybean oil from Brazil and Argentina.
That’s where mustard oil comes into the picture. In recent times, the medical and scientific fraternity has been rediscovering the significant health benefits offered by mustard oil. A series of studies has shown that it is the best edible oil for heart health in India, given the dietary habits, lifestyles and culinary practices prevalent across the country.
Against this backdrop, there is a strong case for the government to treat mustard as a national crop and, therefore, spearhead certain landmark policy changes that could encourage farmers to focus on mustard as a cash crop, increase the area under mustard cultivation, reduce the domestic edible oil demand-supply gap by increasing the production of mustard oil, and thus, reduce edible oil imports and save valuable foreign exchange. Moreover, since mustard oil is inherently and historically an Indian product, such policies would dovetail seamlessly with the government’s “Make in India” initiative.
However, policies alone are not enough to drive the growth of mustard cultivation and mustard oil production on a long-term basis. For some time now, we have been recommending the establishment of a Mustard Oil Development Board by the government. Broadly, such a board can be modeled on the lines of the American Soybean Association in the US. The association looks after the interests of all soybean stakeholders, ranging from farmers to oil manufacturers, proactively lobbying with the Congress and the Administration to ensure that their interests and stakes are protected, not just within the US but in other countries too.
Similarly, Spain has established the International Olive Council as an intergovernmental agency to protect and promote the interests of olive and olive oil producers. Another example of such a board would be the Malaysian Palm Oil Board established as a premier government agency entrusted with the responsibility of promoting palm oil all over the world. In fact, the Malaysian government spearheads this promotional drive and has managed to market palm oil globally at a government-to-government level instead of a mere business-to-business level.
In India, mustard oil can benefit enormously from such an outreach.
The Centre should establish a Mustard Oil Development Board to promote the growth of mustard — both as a national crop as well as an important edible oil. It can ensure an integrated approach to the development of the mustard industry as a whole, expanding the area under cultivation, offering remunerative prices to farmers, raising productivity and enhancing value-addition. The board could also play a pivotal role in exporting mustard, mustard oil, and mustard-based products to the world.
Take another aspect of national — and international — importance: Climate Change. One of the most important corrective steps that any nation can take in this regard is to promote non-polluting, environment-friendly businesses. The mustard oil industry is one such business. The industries that use cold-pressing technologies in the manufacturing process uses no chemicals, do not produce any toxic waste and do not release any pollutants. In view of this, the government should extend financial incentives, subsidies and carbon credits to the mustard oil manufacturing sector.
There are also various other areas in which favourable policies and modification of existing policies could benefit the mustard sector and catalyse its development. For instance, the recent introduction of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) has certain anomalies that are adversely affecting the interests of mustard oil manufacturers. The mustard business has a peculiarity that probably does not exist in any other business: The production of its by-product, in the form of mustard oilcake, is roughly three times the production of actual mustard oil. Managing this by-product is, therefore, a critical component of the mustard business. Most commonly, the mustard oilcake is sold as cattle-feed or is used in the production of cattle-feed formulations and hence it should be a tax-free item under GST.
To conclude, mustard is a vital Indian crop and mustard oil is an ancient, traditional Indian product. Strategically devised government policies can, therefore, go a long way in benefiting millions of farmers, workers, and consumers who are the real stakeholders in the country’s mustard oil sector. As India continues to grapple with the demand-supply gap in edible oils, the time is right for putting mustard on the national agenda. (MR, Inputs: Agencies).