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Edible Oils: Growing Foreign Dependence and High Disease Burden

Processing and heating of palm oil causes glycidyl fatty acid esters (GEs.) to form. When digested, these GEs break down and release glycidol, known for its carcinogenic effects in animals. The same may be suspected in humans. Taking palm oil along with medications that also slow blood clotting might increase the risk of bruising and bleeding. — Prof. Bhagwati Prakash Sharma


The policy shift introduced in the1990s, paving way for blending of edible oils with imported palmolein and other cheap oils, along with import facilitation of non-conventional oils has turned India from an erstwhile edible oil exporter to an import dependent country with a high disease burden. Consequently, the traditional domestic oils like mustard, sesame and groundnut oils have largely been replaced by palm oil and soybean oil to the tune of 75%in last 3 decades. Now these non-conventional oils have been believed to be leading to increased disease burden, comprising coronary heart disease cancer, thrombosis, certain ailments of brain and so on.

So, further incentivizing “oil-palm” cultivation and promotion of palm oil against the traditional oils would further aggravate and jeopardize the health profile as well as lead to further economic centralization in the edible oils sector. Indeed, decentralized production in the edible oils sector, by promoting traditional oils and oil seed cultivation can generate manifold more jobs, with more inclusive economic growth. Wider participation of the people in farming and non-farming jobs in the edible oils sector is possible through conventional oil seeds, as it would promote oil expellers across the villages, instead of large solvent and extraction plants. 

Edible Oils, Health Profile and Disease Burden

Edible oils are not mere cooking media for food items. But, they are key sources of nutrients, necessary for proper functioning of heart, brain, body, muscles and nervous system along with the endocrine environment. Beyond this, they can as well be a very rich source of micronutrients and bioactive substances such as alkaloids, carotenoids, and polyphones. Since, the edible oils are one of the main components of our diet, especially in India, it is important to compare the nutritional and biological effects of different oils. There is a wide variety of edible oils in the market and most common among these vegetable oils today include palm oil, soybean oil, groundnut oil, mustard oil, cottonseed oil, sesame oil, sunflower oil, corn oil, and coconut oil etc. Each of these oils has different composition, characteristics and physiological action. Oils play an important role in the nutrition, causation of diseases, immunity patterns and treatment management of diseases. Genetic expression is also found to be affected by the fats found in oils constituting the diet.

Palm Oil: A Major Health Hazard

Palm oil is made from the fleshy part of the palm fruit, and it contains 52 percent saturated fatty acids. Saturated fatty acids of palmolein are hazardous to cardiovascular health. Besides, oxidized palm oil presents even greater health risks. The oxidization occurs during processing for culinary use, generating toxins that adversely affect the heart, liver, kidneys and lungs. Raw, unprocessed palm oil isn’t associated with these effects, when fresh. However studies link a boost in atherosclerosis development in as little as six months while reheating palm oil to cook foods.

Moreover Carcinogenesis from palmolein is also emerging as major health concern. Processing and heating of palm oil causes glycidyl fatty acid esters (GEs.) to form. When digested, these GEs break down and release glycidol, known for its carcinogenic effects in animals. The same may be suspected in humans. Taking palm oil along with medications that also slow blood clotting might increase the risk of bruising and bleeding.

Soybean Oil and Genetic Degeneration in Brain

In a new study at the University of California (UC) Riverside, researchers reported a link between soybean oil and genetic changes in the brains of mice. Researchers in 2015 examined the potential contribution of soyabean to cause obesity and diabetes and reconfirmed it. Soybean oil has shown impact on the brain especially changes in the hypothalamus, a brain region ssociated with a number of functions like body weight, metabolism, body temperature, reproduction and stress response.

The researchers also concluded that certain genes in the mice that were given soybean oil weren’t operating properly, identifying about 100 of them. They noticed one particular gene that produces oxytocin, also known as the love hormone, and essential for parent child bonding seemed to be impaired in mice who ate soybean oil. Among those mices, oxytocin levels were lower than normal. When the researchers tested coconut oil on the mice, they found it didn’t produce as many gene changes in the hypothalamus as the soybean oil did.

From Exporter Status Bharat has become Import Dependent

Traditionally, India has been an exporter of edible oils before Independence and had remained self-sufficient in edible oils up to 1994. Several post-Independence policy changes, including import facilitation since early 1970s has turned the country import dependent with elevated disease burden dued to policy bias in favor of palmolein and soybean oils. Inspite of policy shifts in favor of import of edible oils, of 1970s and 80s oils, India regained its self-sufficiency in the early 90s from 1991-94. But, as a result of several policy blunders, now we have turned into the biggest importers of edible oils in the world. India imports around 65-70% of edible oils, worth more than US $ 12 billion (Rs 90,000 crore).This constitutes more than 65% of our annual edible oil requirement of 23 million tones.

The ethnic cuisine, traditional ayurvedic wisdom and the concern for health, had led to the preference for mustard oil in north and east India, coconut oil in south India, ground nut or cottonseed oil in west India, and sesame oil in Rajasthan. Sesame oil is described to slow the aging process and promote al-round health of the consumers. In 1973-74, the healthy traditional oils like groundnut, mustard, sesame and cottonseed oils had a thumping 96% share in total consumption of edible oils which has come down to 25% today. Traditionally the oil industry was highly decentralized, wherein, in most of the blocks, towns and even villages indigenous oil expellers and expelling clusters were widely spread. The oil seeds were traditionally extracted by cold pressing and then this oil was filtered. This technology suited to small scale processing, leading to perpetual employment for generations in oil cultivation, expelling and trading. It also encouraged localized procurement. Thus, it was an ecologically more sustainable system to avoid long distance transport, involving pollution.

It was since 1976 that the government banned the use of ground nut oil and mustard oil for making vanspati to help vanspati industry to turn more profitable by use of imported cheap palmolein which was never used in food till then in the country help palmolein exporters as well.  The palmolein become the main stay of the vanspati industry for enhanced profiteering at the cost of human health. It rendered oil seed cultivation less remunerative due to dumping of cheap palm oil. So, the whole ecosystem was dismantled. It had a detrimental effect on the growth of domestic decentralized edible oils sector, affecting cultivation and local expelling a losing proposition for farmers as well as domestic MSMEs operating in edible oils sector. Its production stagnated at around 10 billion tonnes of oilseeds between 1970 to 1986, while the growing population had considerably pushed the demand up. But, the government passed on these benefits to foreign exporters of cheap cheap palmolein for unknown reasons. Thus, a vicious cycle was put in place to eliminate oil seeds domestic cultivators, decentralized expellers and small traders. Thousands of oil industry clusters vanished in the country .The 95% reliance on domestic edible oils maintained in the 1960s and 1970s, fell down to 70% since 1980 for few years which has currently dwindled to 30-35%.

To reverse this import dependence, in the year 1977 the then finance minister, H M Patel in the Morarji cabinet had advised Amul cooperative federation for an “Operation Flood” like project for edible oils via a farmers cooperative network based on Amul model for self-reliance in edible oils through NDDB, for improved farmer livelihoods for oil seeds growers, local producers and traders. The Dhara brand was introduced and it brought the prices of domestic oil at par with cheaper imported edible oils. NDDB and GCMMF worked together and launched several varieties of filtered and refined mustard oil, cottonseed oil, and double filtered groundnut oil etc. The well established Amul distribution network facilitated marketing of domestic oil. So, by 1991-92, Dhara attained sales of 1, 32000 M T pa, which was around 50% of the organized sector. 

The area under oilseeds cultivation which has stagnated between 15-18 million hectares between1970-85, increased to 25 million hectares by 1991 and the oilseed production which had stuck at around 10 million tonnes between (1970-85) had went up to 18 million tonnes in 1991. India once again begun to produce 98% of its edible oil requirement by 1990-91. The oilseed growers also begun to revive and thrive. The period between 1990-94 was been for the Indian oil seeds growers and decentralized edible oil industry, as well as for the domestic trade in edible oils. 

This self-sufficiency continued till the Narsimha Rao government signed the agreement forming WTO in 1994 and brought edible oils under OGL (Open General License) list for imports with lowered import duty of 65%.  By 1998 we again started importing around 30% of our edible oil when the duty was lowered to 15%. This move obliged the foreign suppliers and facilitated dumping of palm oil into India, leading towards a death knell for conventional domestic edible oils sector.

Conspiracy of Aulteration of Mexican Poppy Oil

Soon, a conspiracy played ‘havoc’ when mustard oil was found to be adulterated with Argemone Mexicana (Mexican Poppy) oil. This caused spread of deadly dropsy disease across the north India. The government then banned the open sale of edible oils and imported huge quantity of palmolein and other oils. It led to the closure of hundreds of thousands of oil expellers and wiped out indigenous edible oil clusters and discouraged oil seeds cultivation. Consequently, today India has to import 65-70% of its edible oil requirements.

Way Ahead

The way ahead to curb the disease burden, being caused from edible oils and to promote oil seed cultivation and growth of decentralized edible oils sector for more job creation with participatory economic growth, the conventional and healthy oils like sesame, mustard and ground nut oils should be promoted.  Hence, now instead of promoting oil palm cultivation, production and consumption of palm oil, government should promote healthy conventional oils like sesame, mustard, groundnut etc. in a mission mode, as it had done to promote self-sufficiency in pulses. High Yielding varieties of conventional oil seeds with higher oil content can also be planned. Cultivation of conventional oil seeds need to be incentivized in the same way as was done in case of pulses through bonus price over the MSP.  It would also promote greater employment generation in the decentralised oil expelling sector. Whereas palm and soybean oils facilitate only large scale solvent extraction plants for extraction of palmolein and soybean oil along with raising disease burden for masses in the country.

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