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The Great Onion Fail


​The leading onion producers of the world are China, India and the US[1] with India having the largest area cover under onions (13 lakh hectares) with a yield of around 17 tonnes per hectare[2]. But still in Nov 2019, Govt. of India approved import of 1.2 lakh metric tonnes of onion to manage the retail price hike of onions which touched Rs 180 per kg[3] from Rs 12-15 per kg. Why this price hike? Where did we go wrong? Let us understand few things before we find out the “why?” Ideal conditions for growing onion Onion is a temperate crop which requires a mild, gentle weather which is ideal for its growth. However, it can withstand extreme weather conditions at the budding stage. The crop needs lower temperature and shorter day light (photoperiod) for vegetative growth while during the period of bulb development and maturity it needs a higher temperature and longer day light. The temperature required for growing onions during vegetative phase is 130C-240C and 160C to 250C at the bulb phase. Relative humidity of 70% along with avg. annual rainfall of 650-750mm is also ideal condition for its growth. The crop grows in heavy, clayey and sandy loam soil. However, red to black loamy soil with good drainage capacity is ideal for onion cultivation. Soil with neutral pH (6.0 to 7.0) is also optimal for onion cultivation. It also cannot tolerate alkalinity where pH is beyond 7.5 or below 6.0[4]

Largest onion producing states in India[5]

How do we store onions?

The rabi crop accounts for 60%[6] of India’s production and hits the markets between March to June. The same crop continues to meet the consumer demand till October-November every year before the kharif crop is harvested. Hence, successfully storing the rabi crop is important to meet demand throughout the year. Since the crop is semi-perishable in nature, 30-40% of it is lost during storage. The losses go beyond 40% in times of natural calamities creating a gap between demand and supply.

The three majorly common ways of storing onions are of the following

  1. Naturally ventilated structures: Made of low-cost thatched roof bamboo without any control of temperature and relative humidity. The roof made up with sugarcane leaves. This is easy to construct, but leads up to 42% losses of onion during four months of storage.

  2. Bottom and side ventilated storage structures: These results in increasing the losses up to 46% in four months storage.

  3. Cold storage structures: Stores onions at 0-5°C and 60-65% relative humidity that leads to much lesser losses as compared to traditional storage. The cold storages are an expensive solution to farmers along with being energy intensive. Also, the onion bulbs start sprouting immediately after they are removed from the cold storage

Why the sudden price hike?

Maharashtra followed by Karnataka and Gujarat contribute to the maximum share of onion production in India. The major spike in prices in 2019 is majorly due

  1. Late, prolonged and heavy rainfall Just the five districts in Maharashtra – Nashik, Jalgaon, Ahmednagar, Solapur and Pune – that account for 50% of India’s production have been badly affected due to late and unseasonal rainfall. Delayed kharif planting has also lead to 7% less area under plantation (as per ministry of agriculture report of October). The total production in the country stood at 52 lakh tonnes (26% less than last year).

  2. More than 50% of buffer stock – Lost To manage crisis of this kind, National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation of India (NAFED)[7] had managed a buffer stock of 57.3 MT of onion and stored it in Maharashtra and Gujarat under the Price Stabilisation Fund (PSF). However, almost 53% of the onions procured to ease shortage and manage inflation was spoiled or wasted as it was stored in using traditional methods. The crop was stored due to heavy rainfall and water stagnation for 2-3 months leading the spoilage to 25% leading to a loss of of 39 MT.

What can be done?

  1. Change in agriculture pattern Spreading the production of onions across the country (currently Maharashtra, Gujarat and Karnataka) and move it closer to the places of consumption. According to Major Singh, Director, ICAR Pune (DOGR), sandy loam of the Indo-Gangetic Plain is just right for onions as it drains well. Since flooding is an issue, he recommends raised-bed planting. Better agronomic practices and switching from local variety to high yielding variety (like Bhima Dark Red, Bhima Super, etc) is also recommended.

  2. Storage Technology Storing onions at a temperature of 27 ± 2 °C and relative humidity of 60 to 65% with air circulation system can reduce wastage. All other physical conditions need to be maintained that are necessary for significantly reducing physiological weight loss, unwanted sprouting and rotting in stored onion bulbs. Low cost, simple, decentralized, energy efficient cold storage systems are needed.

  3. Use of hybrids varieties According to Anil Khar, an onion breeder at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), New Delhi, yields can be increased with hybrids. Developing hybrids can help in faster breeding through marker-assisted selection, an agri-biotechnology tool, for higher yields, longer shelf-life, processing quality (more solids, less water) and resistance to pests, diseases and climate stresses. Hybrids with along with best practices such as like planting on raised beds (ridges), use of drip irrigation, maintaining moisture during dry spells, controlled irrigation before harvesting, and disinfecting the storages will increase the shelf life.

Sources:

[1] https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/the-top-onion-producing-countries-in-the-world.html

[2] https://www.financialexpress.com/opinion/mirzapur-could-wipe-away-indias-onion-tears/1799228/

[3] https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/as-onions-touch-rs-165-a-kilo-centre-banks-on-imports/articleshow/72391586.cms

[4] https://www.farmingindia.in/onion-cultivation/

[5] https://theprint.in/india/nafed-wasted-over-30000-mt-onions-more-than-half-of-its-buffer-stock-amid-soaring-prices/323545/

[6] https://icar.org.in/content/onion-cold-storage-potential-stabilize-price-fluctuation

[7] https://theprint.in/india/nafed-wasted-over-30000-mt-onions-more-than-half-of-its-buffer-stock-amid-soaring-prices/323545/