Golden root opens new global prospects for Indian farmers amid Covid pandemic

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Sachin Babar, a farmer in western India’s Maharashtra, has rarely bothered about the world outside his tiny Wai village. However, these days he keeps a close tab at what’s happening beyond the immediate borders thanks to an upsurge in the global demand for turmeric — the golden spice – which seems to have become a favourite for all in their battle against Covid-19.

From Bangladesh to restaurants in Hong Kong, there has been a surge in enquiries for the spice that is the foundation of the Indian curry. Always famed in traditional Indian Ayurveda medicine for its healing properties, turmeric has now started gaining reputation worldwide as a virus beater.

“I have got myself a government certification for exports,” said Babar, referring to a nodal state-run body called the Agricultural  and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority, which facilitates agriculture shipments.

“I plan to increase turmeric plantings not only on my own farm land, but also sow the crop in half of a plot that I have taken from my friend on lease.”

Indian farmers like Babar have been shy of increasing their plantings because turmeric is a tough crop to grow since it requires constant weeding through an eight- to nine-month period before maturing. Domestic demand had also been modest in the last 2-3 years, but with the spread of Covid farmers are now looking at planting more.

Prices of turmeric on the National Commodities and Derivatives Exchange (NCDEX) have risen by 15% since mid-May to around Rs 6,000/100 kilograms. That comes as Indian companies like Amul and Mother Dairy have started peddling turmeric milk as a health elixir, adding to the buoyant global demand.

Dairies, pharma look for turmeric

However, many of the Indian farmers had finished their crop plantings for the current season by the time there was a spike in demand from around June. Typically, the turmeric is planted in April-May in India, which accounts for around 80% of the global production. Myanmar, Vietnam, Indonesia and parts of Africa also grow the spice.        

“Suddenly, there was more demand for turmeric from pharmaceutical companies and milk federations which launched haldi (turmeric) milk. Apart from that, demand from Bangladesh increased a lot,” said Subhranil Dey, senior commodity research analyst at SMC Global Securities Ltd.

India exported 9,000 tons of spices and 5,000 tons of turmeric in July alone, an unusually heavy demand. Every year India exports around 150,000 tons of turmeric.

Traders said that one of the main reasons for the surge in demand for the spice from Bangladesh was that a lot of shipments were routed from the country to China indirectly, as trade relations between New Delhi and Beijing India soured following a border clash between troops.

However, Chinese scientists and medical practitioners have testified to the healing properties of turmeric including for virus infections. When a group of Indian nationals were stranded in the Covid-epicentre Wuhan for weeks due to a lockdown and emerged largely unscathed afterwards, the belief grew that it was because of the curries they consumed.

“I would say that overseas enquiries for Indian turmeric has increased by about 40% lately,” says Amrutlal Kataria of Bano Traders based out of Nizamabad, which has exported turmeric since 1961. The southern state of Telangana, where his firm is located, accounts for a bulk of the nation’s turmeric output.

Demand set to rise

He said that Indian output of the turmeric crop is set to rise in coming months not just because of planting area alone, but that may had started switching to a new high-yielding new variety called Pragati from the Indian Institute of Spice Research that cuts down the crop duration to around seven months.

Kataria expects most of the increased demand to continue coming from overseas. “Indian demand has also increased after the recent launch of products like turmeric milk, but it’s limited to a small segment,” he added. 

Some of the domestic demand has also suffered as many hotels and restaurants remain closed amid a lockdown, Many weddings have also got deferred to next year amid the pandemic, where again large quantities of the spice are used for banquets.

Meanwhile, the popularity of Indian turmeric group is growing with dedicated user groups set up on social media to discuss everything from cures for pet dogs to ailing family members. Many have posted recipes for kneading turmeric into edible oils to make an all -purpose medicinal golden paste, while others consume them in pills and powders.

“My uncle has arthritis and he is drinking a turmeric tea that helps with the swelling and pain,” says Mary Mark, a Facebook user, in response to another asking for recommendations for treating acute joint pain. There are countless others who have vouched for its many benefits, including adding to longevity.

Indian traders have stocked up for meeting this kind of demand that they anticipate will increase in coming months. A pile up at domestic ports in the last two to three months have also hampered shipments.

“Prices of turmeric powder are likely to rise. It’s hard to predict to what extent, but even double of current rates may materialise,” said Hardik Sarda, a wholesale trader.

Farmers’ gains have so far been limited as the last crop harvest in February came just ahead of the Covid-related demand and they had sold most of their crops to traders. 

But they are eyeing prospects for the next season.

“We are hoping that next year we will benefit more from good demand,” said Babur, adding that he would definitely plant more turmeric next year.

Biman Mukherji is a columnist and consulting editor at Indoasiancommodities.com. He has worked for international news organisations such as Reuters, The Wall Street Journal as well as for newspapers like The Times of India. He can be reached at biman.mukherji@indoasiancommodities.in

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