What is syn­thetic men­thol?

Down to Earth - - AGRI­CUL­TURE - @_karnika

In In­dia, syn­thetic men­thol has caused prices of nat­u­ral men­tha oil to plunge from around 1,200 per kg in 2010 to 850 per kg in 2016. This has made Men­tha farm­ing un­sus­tain­able. “Ev­ery­thing has be­come costlier, whether it is labour, fer­tilis­ers or pes­ti­cides. But the price of Men­tha is fall­ing and my in­come has be­come neg­li­gi­ble,” Singh says.

Me­te­oric rise

Syn­thetic men­thol is de­rived from dif­fer­ent chem­i­cals pro­duced as a re­sult of syn­the­sis pro­cesses (see ‘What is syn­thetic men­thol?’). It is be­ing man­u­fac­tured since the 1970s by flavour- and fra­grance-pro­duc­ing com­pa­nies such as Sym­rise and Takasago. But Ger­man chem­i­cal gi­ant basf shook up the mar­ket in 2012 when it launched the world’s largest men­thol-pro­duc­ing fa­cil­ity at its mega chem­i­cal plant in Lud­wigshafen, Ger­many. Pro­duc­tion of syn­thetic men­thol in­creased 150 per cent, from around 5,000 tonnes be­fore basf’s en­try to 12,500 tonnes cur­rently. The In­ter­na­tional Trade Cen­tre, an agency of the World Trade Or­ga­ni­za­tion and the United Na­tions, es­ti­mates that the global pro­duc­tion of syn­thetic men­thol is es­ti­mated to rise to 15,000-20,000 tonnes per year in 2017. Both basf and Sym­rise plan to ex­pand their men­thol pro­duc­tion ca­pac­i­ties and Sym­rise ad­mits that mass pro­duc­tion of syn­thetic men­thol has cost ad­van­tages over pro­duc­ing the nat­u­ral va­ri­ety.

This abun­dant and cheaper syn­thetic men­thol now threat­ens to dis­place In­dia’s po­si­tion as the world’s largest pro­ducer and ex­porter of nat­u­ral men­thol. Pro­duc­tion of men­tha oil in the coun­try tanked 40 per cent from 48,000 tonnes in 2014-15 to around 29,000 tonnes in 2015-16. The area un­der Men­tha cul­ti­va­tion has also fallen from 300,000 hectares (ha) in 2012 to 250,000 ha to­day. Ac­cord­ing to Spices Board In­dia, un­der the Union Min­istry of Com­merce and In­dus­try, the coun­try’s ex­ports of mint prod­ucts have dropped 17.9 per cent year-on-year in 2015-16. Sim­i­larly, rev­enues from ex­ports of mint prod­ucts have reg­is­tered a 34.6 per cent de­cline since 2012-13.

It is dif­fi­cult to cal­cu­late how much syn­thetic men­thol is im­ported be­cause gov­ern­ment data does not dis­tin­guish be­tween nat­u­ral and syn­thetic men­thol. Data from the Di­rec­tor Gen­eral Of Com­mer­cial In­tel­li­gence and Statis­tics shows that the coun­try im­ported 868.87 tonnes of men­thol in 2015, while in­dus­try body Es­sen­tial Oil As­so­ci­a­tion of In­dia states that In­dia im­ports 800-1,000 tonnes of syn­thetic men­thol per year. Ger­many is the largest sup­plier of men­thol to In­dia.

It is also dif­fi­cult to trace the end users of the im­ported syn­thetic men­thol. Devvrat Sharma, spokesper­son for Mint Grow­ers As­so­ci­a­tion, says that ac­cord­ing to in­dus­try in­sid­ers, many con­sumer prod­ucts such as oral care items use the syn­thetic va­ri­ety. Down To Earth wrote to many oral care and cos­met­ics com­pa­nies such as Patan­jali, Col­gate-Pal­mo­live and Emami, ask­ing if they used syn­thetic men­thol. But none of the com­pa­nies had re­sponded to the query till the mag­a­zine went to press. Pro­vi­sions un­der both The Drugs and Cos­met­ics Rules, 1945, and the Bureau of In­dian Stan­dards do not pro­vide clar­ity on whether com­pa­nies must dis­close they are us­ing syn­thetic men­thol on their la­bels.

Pol­icy re­course

The rise of syn­thetic men­thol is likely to af­fect more than 400,000 fam­i­lies that grow Men­tha. More than 80 per cent of the coun­try’s nat­u­ral men­tha oil is pro­duced in Ut­tar Pradesh, fol­lowed by Pun­jab, Bi­har, West Ben­gal and parts of Ut­tarak­hand and Mad­hya Pradesh. Nat­u­ral men­thol-pro­duc­ing com­pa­nies also fear the ad­vent of for­eign chem­i­cal gi­ants. “The day their new fac­to­ries start op­er­a­tions, it will be the end of the busi­ness of nat­u­ral men­thol,” says Arvind

men­thol is ob­tained from the plant Men­tha ar­ven­sis, syn­thetic men­thol is the re­sult of a chem­i­cal process. In 2004, Ger­many-based chem­i­cal com­pany basf started a new process plant for the syn­the­sis of cit­rals which are nat­u­rally oc­cur­ring com­po­nents of es­sen­tial oils. Cit­rals are passed through a process called asym­met­ric hy­dro­gena­tion which yields a num­ber of chem­i­cals. One of th­ese chem­i­cals is used to pro­duce syn­thetic men­thol. It is a con­tin­u­ous process and one of the residues can be re­cy­cled to pro­duce more syn­thetic men­thol. This men­thol is at least 99.7 per cent pure. Nanda, owner of Men­tha and Al­lied Prod­ucts Ltd, a nat­u­ral men­thol com­pany.

Farm­ers de­mand pol­icy in­ter­ven­tions, such as the im­po­si­tion of an en­vi­ron­ment tax on syn­thetic men­thol to dis­suade its im­port and en­cour­age nat­u­ral men­thol pro­duc­tion. “Fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance to farm­ers for in­stalling dis­til­la­tion units and buy-back sup­port for men­tha oil will go a long way in help­ing farm­ers com­pete with syn­thetic men­thol,” says Anil K Tri­pathi, di­rec­tor of Luc­know-based Cen­tral In­sti­tute of Medic­i­nal and Aro­matic Plants (cimap). To pro­tect do­mes­tic farm­ers and in­dus­try, cimap has de­vel­oped two high-yield­ing va­ri­eties of Men­tha that can grow in both sum­mer and win­ter with­out any ad­di­tional in­put. It has also de­vel­oped the “Early Mint Tech­nol­ogy” to in­crease per unit pro­duc­tiv­ity of Men­tha at a lower cost. The Coun­cil of Sci­en­tific and In­dus­trial Re­search has launched the Aroma and Phyto-Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal Mis­sion to boost the cul­ti­va­tion, pro­cess­ing and mar­ket­ing of aro­matic crops such as Men­tha.

But ac­tiv­i­ties un­der the mis­sion and cimap’s in­no­va­tions will be­gin to de­liver re­sults only after a few years. Till then, Men­tha farm­ers such as Singh and Sharma can only hope syn­thetic men­thol does not wipe them out com­pletely.

CIMAP Men­tha grows from the hor­i­zon­tal branches of the par­ent plant. Th­ese branches are used for plant­ing

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