Slump in Agricultural Exports a Threat for Government’s Vision for Farmers

The government wants to double farmer incomes by 2022, a feat that it cannot achieve without seriously tackling the current slump that has a direct impact on the sale of farming products.

A farmer spreads fertilizer in his wheat field on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, January 13, 2016. Credit: Reuters/AMIT DAVE

A farmer spreads fertilizer in his wheat field on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, January 13, 2016. Credit: Reuters/Amit Dave

As part of its recent budget, the central government announced its aim to double farmers’ incomes by 2022. To this end, the state of agricultural exports is an important factor which needs attention, as it creates an additional demand for farming products, directly leading to higher incomes for farmers. A look at recent trends in Indian agriculture exports shows that they reached a peak at $33 billion in 2013-14, and have subsequently fallen, reaching a five-year low of $24 billion during the fiscal year ending in March 2016. Although exports are an external demand, both external as well as domestic factors affect the overall performance of the sector.

Short-lived wheat exports 

The sharp fall in global agricultural commodity prices – including wheat – has had a direct impact on Indian wheat exports, which plummeted to $151 million during April-March 2016 from the peak of $1.93 billion achieved during the period April-March 2013. High domestic prices aided by high minimum support prices and a shortfall in local production have made the Indian stint on the global wheat trade a short-lived one. The reluctance of the government to subsidise exports due to the local requirement of the commodity for public distribution purposes may keep India away from global markets for years to come, or at least until there is another boom in international prices.

Turning to maize imports

Indian maize exports have fallen to a ten-year low due to high domestic prices caused by a shortfall in production as well as lower international prices. The situation turned worse toward the end of the fiscal year, with the country having to import maize. Unlike wheat and rice, a lack of government support for maize for public procurement purposes has created a dependence on exports for additional demand, which forces domestic prices to align with global markets. A year ago – in 2014-15 – a sharp fall in global prices and the subsequent threat of a fall in external demand have pushed local prices well below government-set minimum support prices. However, the situation reversed a year later, with a sharp fall in domestic production pushing prices well above international markets, thus making exports unviable. Unless there is a significant increase in the domestic production of the crop, India may not return to the maize export trade anytime soon.

Roadblocks to rice exports

India is a dominant player in the global rice export trade, a position it has maintained in recent times, despite a complete ban in exports between October 2007 and September 2011 due to India’s huge volume of production and price advantage over other countries. However, exports of the commodity fell sharply in the recently concluded fiscal year, with the two most important importers, i.e. Bangladesh and Nigeria, imposing restrictions on the trade. Bangladesh imposed an import duty of 20% where none had existed before.

Nigeria, one of the world’s largest rice importers and a major destination for Indian non-basmati rice exports has imposed trade restrictions on rice, in line with its long-term policy of attaining self-sufficiency by the year 2017. Starting in May 2014, the country introduced a new rice import policy, with a differential tariff regime for merchandise importers (who pay the higher duty of 70%), and for those importers who have verifiable domestic investments in the local rice milling industry (who pay a lower duty at 30%).

Although it is a considerable reduction compared to a flat duty of 110% that was imposed earlier, the differential duty along with a ban on rice import through the land border has had an impact on Indian exports to the country. (Indian rice is reportedly being routed through Benin via land borders to Nigeria, avoiding duty payments). The situation was further aggravated when the Nigerian central bank banned access to the formal forex market for dollar purchases for importers of rice and 40 other commodities in June 2015. Because of this, Indian non-basmati rice exports to Nigeria fell by 85% in the April 2015 – February 2016 period. Exports to Benin also declined, as the resultant shortage of Nigerian currency in informal forex markets adversely impacted payments.

The Indian government seems to have made no effort to sort out this issue, either at the international or bilateral level, despite the potential threat of permanently losing Nigeria as a rice export destination. This is despite the fact that Nigeria is one of the top five sources for the import of oil and gas products into India and that it has maintained this status during the April 2015 – February 2016 period. A significant increase in volumes of oil and gas products has been seen during this period, even though lower prices led to a decline in their value. In other words, while Nigeria has had free access to “Indian dollars”, Indian rice exporters have had to face restrictions – a situation which Indian government should have intervened into and resolved.

Fall in oil meal exports

Indian oil meal exports predominantly constitute soybean meal, which is mostly exported to Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern countries. The sharp fall in domestic production of soybean during the past couple of years owing to drought conditions has led to a reduction in soymeal supplies and pushed up local prices. A sharp fall in the international prices of the commodity in the same period has rendered Indian soy meal uncompetitive even in neighbouring countries like Sri Lanka. As a result, exports have fallen to the 14-year low pf $535 million during the recently concluded fiscal year, as opposed to peak exports of upto $3.04 billion achieved in 2012-13.

Soy meal is a widely traded commodity, and with India being a minor exporter, the sharp fall in global prices and the subsequent erosion of Indian exports should have pulled down local prices and made exports competitive. However, two factors have prevented this from happening: a reduction in soybean production and a strong demand for animal feed, for which soy meal is an ingredient. The latter has been a result of an increase in the number of cattle because of a ban on slaughter, leading to high domestic prices for the commodity. A much steeper increase in prices can be observed in other oil meals like cotton seed oil cake.

Drop in guar gum demand

Guar gum, which is used as an ingredient in hydraulic fracturing in order to extract oil and gas from shale rocks, mostly in the US, has seen a sharp reduction in export volumes from India. This is because the sharp decrease in oil and gas prices has made production from shale rocks unviable, thus reducing demand for guar gum. Although some low cost rigs are still operating, profit margins have reduced greatly, so much so that high revenues from guar gum exports may well be a thing of the past as far as India is concerned.

Decline in buffalo meat exports

India is the world’s largest exporter of buffalo meat. After an unrelenting rise in buffalo meat exports for the past 13 years, a decline of 15% to $4.1 billon was registered in the fiscal year which ended in March 2016. Although global trade in beef has declined during year 2015, with trade restrictions by Russia, one of the world’s largest importers, the decline in Indian exports seems have more to do with domestic factors (India is not a traditional exporter to Russia and in fact increased exports to the country during the period). A shortage of supplies due to the ban on animal slaughter has affected Indian exports even in traditional markets like Vietnam, as can be seen from an increase in Brazilian exports to Vietnam at India’s expense.

Slowdown in spice exports

Despite a sharp rise in pepper, turmeric and chilli exports, there is an overall slowdown of export in spices from India, owing to a decline in cumin and mint exports. A shortfall in the domestic production of cumin and the weak currency of the main importer, Vietnam, have both affected Indian cumin exports. This is despite the fact that the Syrian conflict has removed a competitor from the market.

Weak global currencies, especially that of China, have affected exports of Indian mint products such as menthol and mint oil. Additionally, there is a long-term threat to the menthol industry in the form of existing and impending bans on menthol cigarettes in several countries across the European Union, as well the USA and Canada.

While the exports of most products have experienced a decline, sugar exports remain high, thank to a government subsidy.

Although it may be difficult to double farmer incomes in such a short span of time, this is not entirely impossible. As experts have pointed out, this feat was achieved in 2004-05 and 2009-10. During these periods, a boom in global prices led to a strong external demand for agricultural exports, which grew at a similar pace.

With both internal and external factors affecting the performance of Indian agricultural exports, the government needs to look for ways in which to eliminate impediments. The surplus production achieved by expected increases in production levels needs to be absorbed by an external demand, without which the government will have to resort to stock-building. In fact, this is already happening for wheat and rice.

Sudhakar Gummula is an agri-business consultant.