Syn­thetic influx

Syn­thetic men­thol threat­ens the liveli­hoods of 400,000 fam­i­lies of farm­ers who grow


VIREN­DRA SINGH, a 48-year-old farmer from Bara­banki district of Ut­tar Pradesh, is a proud father. His son, San­deep, re­cently com­pleted his Masters de­gree, an im­pres­sive achieve­ment for a fam­ily that has never been to col­lege be­fore. Singh dreams of ask­ing his son to join the fam­ily pro­fes­sion, but fall­ing in­come from their farms may force San­deep to look for other sources of liveli­hood.

A farmer of tra­di­tional crops such as paddy, black gram and peanuts, Singh started grow­ing Men­tha (Men­tha ar­ven­sis, a species of mint) in 2005 af­ter the de­mand for its oil be­gan to soar in the mid1990s. Men­tha oil is used to man­u­fac­ture men­thol, a “cool­ing” in­gre­di­ent used widely in food, oral care, phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal and cos­metic prod­ucts. The crop brought Singh in­stant suc­cess. “Af­ter I started grow­ing Men­tha, my in­come in­creased about 150 per cent. My eco­nomic con­di­tion im­proved and I was able to send my son to Rae Bareilly to do his Masters,” he says.

Many farm­ers jumped on the Men­tha band­wagon, set­ting up dis­til­la­tion units to ex­tract the oil and sell­ing it di­rectly to traders and com­pa­nies. “We grow Men­tha be­cause it brings us in­stant money,” says Birja Sharma, an­other Men­tha farmer from the district. “In­stead of go­ing to the bank and wait­ing in queue for hours to with­draw cash, we just take the men­tha oil to the mar­ket.”

But this fi­nan­cial safety net of farm­ers is los­ing out to its ar­ti­fi­cial sub­sti­tute. Syn­thetic men­thol has flooded the mar­ket, sell­ing at US $13 per kg in­ter­na­tion­ally against $16 per kg for the nat­u­ral ver­sion, mak­ing it the pre­ferred in­put for con­sumer goods com­pa­nies.

Men­tha oil means in­stant cash for farm­ers. In Ut­tar Pradesh, farm­ers have set up dis­til­la­tion units to ex­tract the oil

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