Basmati rice, one of the country's key agriculture exports, is under a cloud. The tightening of the pesticide residue norms by the European Union (EU) has reduced the export volume by 58 per cent in January to July, 2018.
The prospects of Iran, another major consumer of basmati, compensating for the loss of exports in the EU is also not too bright, primarily because of payment issues faced by exporters as well as the recent US sanctions on the country. Saudi Arabia also appears to be watching EU developments closely, though no final official notification has been issued yet.
India produces approximately 8.7 million metric tonne of basmati from an area of 5.8 million hectare. Of this, approximately 4 million metric tonne of rice is exported to Saudi Arabia and Iran, besides the EU that account for around 7-8 per cent of the total exports.
Some of the leading basmati exporters have taken cognisance of the developments and are proactively focusing on backward integration programmes with the growers to minimise pesticide residue contents as per the EU and US markets.
However, there are many practical challenges coming in the way of meeting the stringent guidelines. Frequent changes in the EU Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs) and limited crop protection products to manage various pests and diseases are making it increasingly challenging to meet the norms.
Another problem is with respect to production geographies, which are widespread and scattered, making follow-up and monitoring of the fields a difficult task, especially for companies in backward integration programmes, which account for not more the 3-4 per cent of total production area.
Moreover most basmati export companies suffer from sound technical expertise with respect to MRLs as well as pests/disease management. They depend on external experts like agrochemical companies or government agencies.
Because of the competition, most of these companies run individual backward integration programmes rather than working on a common platform. The purchase happens at the mandi level and the produce of different farmers is mixed together, thereby making traceability difficult. With the produce piling up in mandis, the testing of residue too is not foolproof. In order to save cost, the sample is drawn from a composite sample from an area of 50-60 acres.
The uncertain global demand and supply situation only make the situation more difficult. Growers face fluctuating price with little incentive for quality production. Of late, only some exporters with background integration projects have started paying incentives for following the recommendations/ guidelines to reduce MRLs.
There is also limited awareness about food safety and very poor understanding regarding Pre Harvest Interval (PHI) that is crucial when the duration of the chemicals on the plant breaks down through the biological process and the crop is free from any chemical residue. Often, during the higher incidence of pests and diseases, like Brown Plant Green Hopper or Blast attacks, farmer preference is for protecting the crop rather than following the export recommendations. Increasing cost of cultivation is also proving to be a major disincentive. The lack of uniform communication, among various stakeholders, also creates confusion among growers.
There is a need for all stakeholders to come together to bring the sheen back in basmati exports.
Designing a spray protocol, which will meet export requirements backed up with data, particularly for EU/US markets, will be very useful. Some companies undertaking backward integration have already initiated the value chain collaboration targeting EU exports. The spray protocol is designed on the basis of past experience and data support. Following up with residue tests, which will give the results regarding the residue compliance of the spray protocol helps and this should be a dynamic activity and needs continuous revision based on the changes in MRLs as well as residue tests. Collaborative projects with value chain companies (with dedicated field resources) to monitor fields and guide farmers about recommendations have already started and will go a long way in addressing the situation.
Farmers can be provided with recommended products, aligning with the basmati exporters, which will prevent the influence of agriculture input retailers for non-recommended products has been a major obstacle in regulating MRLs.
Alignment with other key stakeholders like APEDA, exporters’ association, basmati exporters, pesticide retailers etc. to promote awareness among farmers for using the right products with the right applications, awareness of food safety, pests and disease management and proper stewardship is the need of the hour. Greater penetration of application technologies will also help as traceability tools as well as knowledge source and record management. Taking a leaf from grape growers in addressing the MRL issues will also help.
— The writer is Vice-President, Business Sustainability, South Asia, Syngenta. Views expressed are personal