Recently, the union cabinet has approved a plan to expand domestic palm oil output. The government has allocated upwards of 10,000 crore in its National Mission on Edible Oils – Oil Palm in a bid to reduce India’s dependence on import of edible oils. This plan is now being touted as a game changer and it entails promoting edible oil plantations in northeastern regions and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
All of us know that Palm oil is the cheapest kind of vegetable oil that is available today and is used in food items from pizza to bread.
If the plan includes promoting plantations, why is it such a bad thing? Simply because unlike oilseed crops, edible oil plantations are a threat to biodiversity. I am sure you are wondering how more trees can be bad for biodiversity. It is true that certain trees are not suited for biodiversity, another example being eucalyptus tree. The eucalyptus tree has high growth and high adaptability to different environmental conditions but eucalyptus plantations result in soil degradation, decline in ground water level and consequentially a decline in biodiversity. At one point, the government of Karnataka also banned fresh cultivation and planting of species of eucalyptus on the reason that high intensity and number of eucalyptus plantations is one of the many causes for the falling level of the groundwater table.
Coming back to palm oil, studies done in the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra islands confirm the negative biodiversity effects of edible oil plantations.
Passing the bill for palm oil, the ministry has said that it is ‘’aware’’ of sustainability issues.
India is currently the biggest importer of edible oil and almost two thirds of our requirements are met through imports. While plans to become self-sufficient is great, achieving these goals in an environmentally sustainable manner is very important. It is for this reason that all policies, acts, laws or bills that directly or indirectly affects the environment needs to take in to account and approval of an environment expert. These experts could help build the project in a way that it is does not harm the environment while also maximising the benefits. For example: it is well known that edible oil plantations consume a lot of water for its production and therefore these plantations have to be built in an area that receives rainfall rather than having to depend on ground water or other sources of water. Another important factor is that such plantations should never be mono-cropped and other plantations that support the environment need to be planted along with these. We don’t have to emphasise at this point that rainforests should not be cleared for edible oil plantations.
In the past, between 1976 and 85, over 16 sqkm of forest land was used for palm oil plantations in little Andaman. And then a decade later, in 1995, NGOs moved the Supreme Court to defend the island’s rainforest and its indigenous communities. The court subsequently banned the introduction of exotic species in 2001. The push for replanting palm oil has come after a recent NITI Aayog Intervention in 2018 and the govt’s hasty and ill-conceived plan to improve palm oil production. More importantly, this is a plan that has kept out the environmentalists to suit its own agenda.
Policy makers need to be deeply aware of the sustainability outcomes of any project that they undertake as it leads to depletion of bio-diversity that takes a very long time to restore.
Self-sufficiency can never come at the cost of sustainability. It is alarming that India is making way for edible oil plantations when we are at a very perilous stage of ecological diversity.
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