The Union Cabinet introduced the National Mission on Edible Oils – Oil Palm (NMEO-OP) on August 18, 2021. The centrally sponsored scheme focuses on North Eastern states and Andaman and Nicobar Islands, with a reported aim to increase the area and productivity of oil seeds and oil palm. Being one of the largest importers and consumers of palm oil globally, steps to ensure self-reliance in edible oils should be India’s topmost priority. But the pressing question is whether the extensive monoculture of oil palms is in the best interest of the economies and the sensitive ecosystems of the North East.
Oil palms are a water-intensive species that will aggravate the region’s desertification and deplete its groundwater sources. The deforestation preceding monoculture will lead to greenhouse gas emissions and regional smoke haze, in addition to causing soil erosion and sedimentation in rivers and streams. A recent Meghalaya-based study has showed that the permanent loss of forest cover caused by oil palm cultivation consequently lowers the area’s species density, thereby leading to increased human-animal conflicts. Air, water and soil will be severely polluted as a direct result of oil palm monoculture. All these detrimental effects can be seen in Indonesia and Malaysia, the world’s largest oil palm cultivators.
Self-reliance in terms of edible oil should be the Government’s priority, but it should not come at the expense of sensitive ecosystems. The non-native oil palm should be replaced with endemic cash crops like bamboo and coconut palm. Research has shown that bamboo yields between two and three lakh rupees per hectare in place of the one lakh rupees per hectare from oil palm. Bamboo also requires lesser water and input costs per hectare. The dynamic properties of coconut oil make coconut palm cultivation also a sustainable alternative to oil palm.
The focus of any scheme in the North East should be on building a climate-smart future through long-term earning and job creation in sustainable agriculture. The Government should study and implement practices like agroforestry and forest rewilding that have the potential to create jobs for two million households in the North East alone. Sustainable alternatives like bamboo and coconut palm should be encouraged through science-driven and climate-informed policies to ensure that the environment does not suffer as the country progresses towards self-sufficiency in edible oils.