Where’s the Ghee? India’s Olive-Oil Plan May Not Win Over Local Consumers

The South Asian nation will start commercial olive-oil production. Apart from offering an innovative program for farmers, the government-supported project also has the grander design of countering India's diseases of affluence

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Kuni Takahashi / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Olive oil and almond oil are displayed for sale at a grocery store in Mumbai on May 7, 2013

Correction appended: Aug. 19, 2013

The Indian and Mediterranean diets may not seem easy bedfellows, but there has been a certain convergence in recent years. Wine production has already taken off in India; 65 vineyards currently export to 22 countries around the world. European cheeses such as mascarpone, mozzarella and ricotta are being produced outside New Delhi. And now the home of pungent curries is trying its hand at that other great Continental staple — olive oil. Next month, the South Asian nation better known for cooking in clarified butter, or ghee, will start commercial olive-oil production across 180 hectares of land in the arid western province of Rajasthan. It’s a commercial venture, but those in charge say Indians should also take the health benefits of olive oil to heart.

Twenty-five farmers, all previously unfamiliar with olive cultivation, have so far planted more than 80,000 trees. The government has subsidized 75% of the cost of each olive sapling, provided free consultancy and a 90% subsidy on drip-irrigation equipment to bring farmers in the area on board. The first harvest, from one of seven initial groves, is expected in October and should reach a modest 30 metric tons. A second grove is also showing signs of fruiting this year. But this is just the beginning. When others see “a real commercial yield, then I’m sure there will be a boom of farmers,” says Gideon Peleg, technical manager and consultant for Rajasthan Olive Cultivation Ltd. (ROCL), one of the companies involved. With potential yields of $6,000 to $7,000 per hectare, the attraction for farmers is clear, even if olives take some getting used to. Olive cultivation in India “must be adapted — it is not something that automatically can be copied, it is not something that’s written somewhere,” Peleg tells TIME.

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As well as being an innovative program for the region’s farmers — perennially hampered by droughts and substandard irrigation — the project has the grander design of countering India’s diseases of affluence. By 2015, current trends suggest that a third of Indians will be overweight. The World Heath Organization estimates over the next seven years the economic impact of premature deaths due to heart disease, diabetes and metabolic disorders nationally will be a staggering $237 billion. But these deaths, it says, could be reduced by 80% through the adoption of a better diet. Almost 10% of the Indian population suffers from heart disease, the highest rate in the world. “The situation is already a national emergency,” says V.N. Dalmia, president of the Indian Olive Association.

Getting Indians to switch to olive oil will be no easy feat. It currently makes up a nanoscopic 12,000 tons of India’s 17 million ton cooking-oil market — but demand is growing. Imports rose 66% over the last year, according to Dalmia, whose company is also the nation’s largest importer of olive oil. The prototypical Indian olive-oil consumer earns $10,000 or more a year in a country where per capita income is just $1,530. But even for these relatively well-off buyers, price matters. And since a drought hit Spain last year, olive-oil costs have soared. “If you are competing as a cooking oil, the only way you are ever going to compete is on price,” says olive-oil consultant and advocate Alexandra Kicenik Devarenne.

And then there is that other great barometer of demand: taste. Indians are renowned for their fiery gastronomic tradition and palates accustomed to ghee. “You can’t take an Indian dish, which is made with a normal oil, [and instead use] olive oil and expect it to taste the same,” renowned Indian food critic Vir Sanghvi tells TIME. Cooking with expensive oil while having to devise elaborate ways to hide its taste may be an obstacle too far, he adds. “Indians don’t seem to have created a palate that appreciates the finer qualities of olive oil.”

Market factors aside, observers say, commercial success of the ROCL project hinges on more than just pressing oil. “My experience in the olive-oil industry leads me to believe that making olive oil is not easy, but it’s not that hard compared to selling it at a profit,” says Devarenne. “That really is where the hard work comes in.”

Dalmia too, while “enthused” about the initiative, is skeptical about the state government’s nonexistent packaging, marketing, distribution and sales plan. It looks like some oil needs to be poured on troubled waters, even before the first harvest is in.

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An earlier version of this article misstated the name of Gideon Peleg’s employer. It is Rajasthan Olive Cultivation Ltd., not Rajasthan Oil.