State Of The Onion
Peeling away data behind agri exports brings tears to the eyes
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.