Cashew nut farmers in the top ten cashew producing states of India are a worried lot. “Production costs are going up steadily,” complains cashew farmer Diwakar Nanavare, who has five acres of cashew plantation in Dahanu. “And the yield keeps falling.”
Across the state border, in the Dakshina Kannada district of Karnataka’s coastal region, septuagenarian Shivappa Krishnamurthy of Puttur, too, voices similar concerns. “We have lived off cashew farming for several generations, but with losses mounting, my sons want to give it up.”
Nanavare and Krishnamurthy are not alone. Cashew farmers across Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Goa, West Bengal, and Jharkhand are beginning to voice the same worries over mounting losses because of erratic and poor rainfall, disease, pest infestations, and apathy by agricultural authorities.
“The tropical evergreen cashew nut (Anacardium occidentale of the family Anacardiaceae), native to central and South America, came to India with Portuguese missionaries. Since it favours dry tropical conditions, especially in coastal regions, this fast-growing tree that tolerates dry conditions and is best grown on well drained sandy/sandy loam soils, quickly spread over the Indian subcontinent,” says Ratnagiri-based agricultural scientist Diwakar Awsare, who has researched pest infestation of the cashew tree.
He further explains: “The enticing, juicy, red-yellow fruits (cashew apple) with a strong, sweet smell and taste is actually a false fruit. The true fruit of the cashew tree is a kidney shaped drupe that grows at the end of the cashew apple. This drupe develops first on the tree, and then the pedicel expands to become the cashew apple. Within the true fruit is a single seed, which is the cashew nut.”
Although it is conventionally called a nut from a culinary point of view, botanically it is a seed surrounded by a double shell containing an allergenic phenolic resin, anacardic acid, a potent skin irritant, says Awsare.
Though India’s cashew exports show a slow and steady increase in both tonnage and earnings, this should hardly be any reason to cheer, he says. “Given where we are on the map and our climate, India has the capability to become the world’s top cashew nut producer. But that can happen only if we focus.”
It is a lament which finds resonance in the north Karnataka town of Sirsi. Satish Hegde, owner of a cashew nut processing plant in the region, tells us how progressively the amount of imported cashew coming from African countries has been on the rise. “What began as a trickle in the mid-90s when disease wiped out large amounts of domestic production, has steadily increased to a point where 90 per cent of the produce we annually process is imported.” While admitting that the African nuts are larger in size and a slightly brighter in appearance (“sadly, consumers who don’t know better are preferring these”) compared to the Indian ones, he underlines how the Indian nuts are nutritionally far more superior and can also be stored for longer without going bad.
“African countries lack the infrastructure to process the nuts, increasing their cost; so they export unshelled nuts to India. Once processed, these are then packaged and sold globally,” says Hegde. “But it won’t be long before these countries develop their own capabilities. We must look at boosting our own production instead of becoming a processing hub,” he says.
According to him, improving the cashew producers’ access to agricultural credit will encourage them to plant cashew in a big way. “Since it’s a hardy tree, which requires little care and maintenance, it can be grown in wasteland. Not only will it add to the green cover, but also augment the availability of a nutritional source and further shore up revenues from export,” he says.
A senior official of the Cashew Export Promotion Council of India, admits to these benefits from cashew plantation. “Compared to other crops, cashew requires less funding and the returns are manifold. If a small country like Vietnam can become the world’s top producer, you can imagine India’s potential.”
Now, if only the government listens...
According to Directorate General of Commercial Intelligence and Statistics (DGCI&S), exporting 11,8952 metric tonnes of cashew nuts earned India Rs 5,432.85 crore in revenue in the year 201 4-15, an increase of 7.39 per cent from 2013-14 (Rs 5058.73). Similarly 9,480 metric tonnes of cashew shell oil earned India Rs 38.61 crore in 2013-14, which increased to 10,938 metric tonnes in 2014-15, earning Rs 55.81 crore.