State Of The Onion

Peel­ing away data be­hind agri ex­ports brings tears to the eyes

The Times of India (New Delhi edition) - - An Ecstasy Of Ideas - Chi­danand.Ra­[email protected]

The hum­ble onion, with­out which In­dian kitchen and its cui­sine is in­com­plete, is in­duc­ing tears across the coun­try on ac­count of short­age (due to in­clement weather) and con­se­quent high prices. For a change, it is also prov­ing to be a tear­jerker in the neigh­bour­hood. Word out in the global mar­ket and in­ter­na­tional me­dia is New Delhi has banned export of onions in or­der to sta­bilise prices at home – where it is recog­nised as a po­tent elec­toral is­sue – lead­ing to heart­burn across the re­gion and be­yond. Bangladesh premier Sheikh Hasina joked that she had asked her cook not to use onions.

China, not In­dia, is the world’s largest pro­ducer of onions. China grows some 20 mil­lion met­ric tons of al­lium pro­duce (a genus that in­cludes onions, scal­lion, shal­lot, gar­lic, chives, leek etc) com­pared to In­dia’s 13 mil­lion met­ric tons. How­ever, Chi­nese onion has few tak­ers in South Asia be­cause it lacks the pun­gency of In­dian onions, which the re­gion prefers for cook­ing. But In­dia can export onions only in good years (it raked in nearly $500 mil­lion in ex­ports in 2018), and it ends up con­sum­ing most of what it grows dur­ing bad years, as is hap­pen­ing in 2019.

In fact, even in a good year, In­dia is not the top onion ex­porter. Nor is China. That hon­our goes to tiny Nether­lands, an agri hot­house that has found the most bril­liant ways to grow enor­mous quan­tity of food pro­duce in a coun­try that is about the size of Ker­ala. The Dutch knocked up $676 mil­lion in onion ex­ports in 2018, ac­count­ing for nearly 20% of world onion trade, ahead of ex­ports by China, Mex­ico, In­dia, and the United States, all onion ma­jors.

Go­ing Dutch on ex­ports: Now why would Nether­lands end up as an onion pow­er­house? For a brief mo­ment, you won­der if it is be­cause onion is a bulb that also yields flow­ers; af­ter all, the Dutch top in export of tulips and other flow­ers.

But a quick look at the coun­try’s export data throws up some sur­prises. The Dutch dom­i­nate not only the world’s cut flower/bou­quet trade (not count­ing al­lium, they take in $4.5 bil­lion in rev­enue, ac­count­ing for 50% of the world’s flower ex­ports), but they are also among the world’s top ex­porter of toma­toes ($1.9 bil­lion), pep­pers/chill­ies ($1.08 bil­lion), cu­cum­bers ($565 mil­lion), and pineap­ples ($265 mil­lion) among a host of other agri prod­ucts that they do not con­sume do­mes­ti­cally in great quan­tity.

Nether­lands also ex­ports a lot of milk/ milk prod­ucts ($8 bil­lion) and beer ($2 bil­lion), sig­na­ture items that it does con­sume in co­pi­ous quan­ti­ties. But just to give a sense of scale and num­bers, In­dia’s export of its sto­ried spices was less than Dutch export of its beer in 2018. In fact, In­dia ex­ported less tea and cof­fee ($1.3 bil­lion com­bined), nei­ther of which is well branded and mar­keted, than Nether­lands ex­ported tomato. The Dutch ex­ported more milk prod­ucts than In­dia ex­ported rice, in­clud­ing its famed bas­mati. Hell, In­dia ex­ported more seafood and meat (mainly beef) than it ex­ported rice.

You don’t have to be a large coun­try to be a ma­jor grower or ex­porter; ask Nether­lands, Bel­gium, and Is­rael rak­ing it in with high-ef­fi­ciency, hot­house-driven growth. In­dia grows poorly, and con­sumes most of what it grows

All the data yield some broad con­clu­sions: First, there are few bet­ter metaphors for glob­al­i­sa­tion than food and agri­cul­tural pro­duce, de­spite bar­ri­ers and hic­cups erected all too of­ten di­rected at poorer, de­vel­op­ing coun­tries. Sec­ond, you don’t have to be a large coun­try to be a ma­jor grower or ex­porter; ask Nether­lands, Bel­gium, and Is­rael among others rak­ing it in with high-ef­fi­ciency, hot­house-driven growth. Third, In­dia grows poorly, and con­sumes most of what it grows.

Fourth, in­ef­fi­cient In­dia sells it­self cheap when it comes to many of its sig­na­ture pro­duce. It is hard to stom­ach the fact that In­dia’s export of pep­per, a spice that once led com­mer­cial brig­ands to In­dia and which was once called “black gold” and was used in Europe as gift, bribe, and even to pay taxes, ac­counted for a mod­est $772 mil­lion im­port rev­enue in 2018; the Dutch earned more ex­port­ing pota­toes ($807 mil­lion).

China, In­dia, and the US are the world’s three largest food and agri­cul­tural pro­duce gen­er­at­ing na­tions. The US is the largest ex­porter be­cause of its vast area, ef­fi­cient pro­duc­tion, and smaller pop­u­la­tion. China too ex­ports far more than In­dia, and be­cause of im­proved ef­fi­ciency, its to­tal out­put is dou­ble that of In­dia’s. But coun­tries such as Nether­lands are the real export su­per­pow­ers, even more so than China, mainly on ac­count of ef­fi­ciency. Its over­all $723.3 bil­lion export in 2018 trans­lates to roughly $42,100 in rev­enue for ev­ery res­i­dent in a coun­try of 17 mil­lion peo­ple. Even the US does not come any­where close. And In­dia? Its $ 331 bil­lion export last year trans­lates to less than $300 of export per capita for its 1.3 bil­lion peo­ple. Call it small pota­toes, or small beer – or small onions.

Western ef­fi­ciency, ex­per­tise, and con­se­quent hege­mony also en­able it to beat In­dia and the de­vel­op­ing world on the head in mat­ters of food and agri­cul­ture trade. Hav­ing pum­meled In­dia into im­port­ing its ap­ples and al­monds, the United States is now bear­ing down on New Delhi to dump Amer­i­can chicken legs – pro­duced with metro­nomic in­dus­trial ef­fi­ciency in a grotesque trade – af­ter hav­ing failed to im­press In­dia into mak­ing van­ity pur­chases such as Har­ley David­son mo­tor­cy­cles. Mean­while, while In­dian elites em­brace US bas­ket­ball and the NBA, In­dian farm­ers have to jump through Amer­i­can hoops to export their low-yield, in­ef­fi­ciently grown man­goes. Be­yond shed­ding tears over onions, New Delhi has a big­ger fight on its hand on var­i­ous fronts – do­mes­tic and for­eign – to get a level play­ing field.

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