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