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Tears over onions


CHIDANAND RAJGHATTA Musings on life, politics and economics from TOI's Washington correspondent

Savour the delicious irony or sniff at the pungent paradox. The two nations which drive us to tears over security are among the world's biggest producers of onions. New Delhi is importing the bulb, masquerading as a vegetable, from Pakistan, which is the world's second largest onion producer per capita (2 million tons annual ) after Australia (4 million tons). The world's largest producer, overall, with 20 million tons, is China, comfortably beating second-placed India's output of around 9 million tons.

Considering the Chinese have overrun the world's marketplace with their goods, can their produce be far behind? Although India has the world's largest area (56 per cent) of arable (cultivable) land, and there has been a shift in cropping pattern in favour of horticulture vis-a-vis grain/cereals, China is kicking India's butt in the fresh produce business while New Delhi sits on its haunches.

We have been lamenting for two decades that 30 per cent of our fruits and vegetables rot because of poor infrastructure, lack of cold chain etc, and done squat about it. Heck, we even waste biodegradable waste, unable or unwilling to use it to produce energy. Meanwhile, China, which cultivates 22 million hectares of vegetable crops out of a global total of 52 million hectares, is steaming ahead, trading in the billions. Should it be any surprise that onions in your local market may soon be marked 'Grown in China' ?

India has arrived, Barack Obama told us earlier this year. Where? Certainly not in the world's fruit and vegetable marketplace. A produce expo scheduled for November 2011 in London shows registrations from countries such as Algeria, Ghana, and Pakistan, but not India. My local Fresh Field has produce from almost every part of the world, but little from India. Apparently, we eat what we produce, and what we can't, we let it rot. Which is why, despite being the world's second largest producer of fruits and vegetables, our share in global trade of such produce is dismal - little more than $1 billion.

Let's look at some numbers. India produces 68 million tons of fruits and 129 million tons of vegetables annually. Of this, 59 million tons, which is almost as much as what is traded by the rest of the world, is wasted. Oh, just in case you didn't know, we also have the world's largest population of poor, sick, and malnourished people. Go figure.

For the longest time, the world's largest traders of fruits and vegetables were high-income countries - the US, the EU, Canada etc. More recently, countries such as China, Mexico, Chile, Morocco, and even many African and Latin American countries have clambered on to this gravy train. Little Morocco exports $500 million worth of veggies, mostly tomatoes and beans, to the EU. Mexico is one of the giants of fresh vegetables, exporting about $3. 5 billion worth of produce to the US annually - mostly tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, onions, and asparagus;the US, in turn, exports nearly $2 billion of veggies, mostly lettuce, tomato, onions, and potatoes, to Mexico and Canada.

So the US imports tomatoes from Mexico and also exports them to Mexico ? That's where free trade kicks in. Free trade logistics is not just a question of demand and supply, but also geography. Pakistan is among the world's largest producers of onions but still imported from India till last year (while exporting to the Gulf) because is easier to transport onions from Amritsar to Lahore (and vice-versa ) than from Larkana to Lahore or Aurangabad to Amritsar.

Of course, free trade is a slippery path and one needs to tread carefully. The term Banana Republic, which means a politically unstable country, has its origins in US manipulation of the produce in its Latin American neighbourhood. But outside the politics of it, banana is now the world's leading trade item in fruit, generating more than $6 billion in revenues. The 'banana republics' account for nearly 60 per cent of the market value in global banana exports. India's share is negligible, a paltry few million. And guess who's the leading banana producer in the world? India;which at 22 million metric tonnes, produces more banana than all the Latin American countries put together.

Same thing with mangoes. We are the world's leading producer of mangoes (we really ought to be called Mango Republic) but our fresh mango exports to the US last year, after all the hoopla about mango diplomacy during the Bush years, was a paltry $600, 000 ($6 million in pulp). Heck, we exported three times as much in alcoholic beverages to the US!

There's plenty rotten in the Republic of India, fruits and veggies among then. Maybe our agriculture minister can explain some of these things, but he's probably busy trading in cricket.

Reader's opinion (6)

Jayant BarlaJan 3rd, 2011 at 21:46 PM

This is the price we have to pay for voting in regional coalition parties to our national parliament, parties with no national leave alone international perspective.

Jayant BarlaJan 3rd, 2011 at 21:44 PM

This is the price we have to pay for voting in regional coalition parties to our national parliament, parties with no national leave alone international perspective.

Bhavesh MishraJan 3rd, 2011 at 11:39 AM

In india fruits are still not consumed on a regular basis in our households. A poor man tastes fruit only when he falls ill. Its shame that inspite of being the largest producer of fruits the fruits are beyond the reach of common person. Time has come we should stop comparing ourselves with china !

Naveen AroraDec 31st, 2010 at 10:51 AM

nice article sir .this article show reality of our agriculture infrastructure.

Sriya SnDec 30th, 2010 at 12:24 PM

CR is bang on target!
the whole system needs an over haul!

Gaurav GuptaDec 28th, 2010 at 23:43 PM

Why the people in India behave like they will die if they won't use the Onion in daily life. In my home we haven't used the onion in food more dan 30yrs nd still the food is more tastier than Onion food. In india people make things bigger rather think sensibly. if can reduce usage pricewill b dwn

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