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Troubled pulse trade generating lots of headlines

Tariffs, fumigation, and prime minister’s India trip have put the crop into the media spotlight

The politics of pulses haven’t reached White House levels yet, but the unassuming legumes are generating headlines like never before.

The latest ones include another hike in India’s tariffs, a pledge to resolve a long-running dispute over fumigation, and a new attempt to shield Indian farmers from falling prices.

Justin Trudeau appeared to have ended a much-derided visit to India with a win on the fumigation issue, but that soon turned into another controversy for the prime minister. (He was also ridiculed for repeatedly wearing traditional Indian clothing for photo ops and also came under fire when Jaspal Atwal, a Sikh from B.C. convicted of attempting to assassinate an Indian cabinet minister three decades ago, was invited to an official reception.)

The fumigation issue has been ongoing for more than a decade. India insists pulse imports being fumigated with methyl bromide to ensure the shipments are free of nematodes. But Canada has won a series of exemptions on two grounds — the fumigation process doesn’t work well in cold weather and the nematode pests India is worried about aren’t present here (and therefore not in Canadian pulses).

A meeting between Trudeau and India Prime Minister Narendra Modi produced a pledge to permanently address the issue and was hailed by Canadian pulse industry reps who were also in India as part of the prime ministerial visit.

The agreement was hailed as “real progress” by Chris Chivilo, president and CEO of pulse processor W.A. Grain & Pulse Solutions, which is headquartered in Innisfail.

“The prime ministers have recognized the importance of food security and science-based approaches to plant protection policy,” Chivilo said in a news release issued by Pulse Canada. “We will need to continue this collaboration and finalize solutions that will work for both Canada and India.”

But days later, the Indian government raised its import tariff for chickpeas, hiking a 40 per cent duty imposed in early February to 60 per cent. The opposition Conservatives blamed the move on a tit-for-tat retaliation for a government security adviser suggesting Atwal’s presence in India was orchestrated by the Indian government in order to embarrass Trudeau.

However, Pulse Canada said it was told by Agriculture Canada officials that the duty won’t apply to Kabuli chickpeas — and that variety accounts for almost all of the chickpeas grown on the Prairies.

Also making news earlier this month was the Indian government’s decision to double state purchases of pulses and oilseeds from farmers in a bid to boost local output and prevent distressed sales. The move was described as part of a government plan to reach self-sufficiency for pulses (although most deem that to be unlikely as production pivots on variable monsoon rains).

However, poverty among farmers is an ongoing major issue in India — one that regularly makes headlines because of suicides. The vast majority of Indian farmers have less than five acres and have to take on high interest loans if there’s a crop failure or plunge in prices. Many can’t repay their debts and kill themselves — there were 8,007 farmer suicides in 2015, The Hindu newspaper recently reported, citing the latest government figures.

While moves to help its farmers are understandable, the Indian government needs to realize that destabilizing the pulse trade has long-term consequences, argues Pulse Canada CEO Gordon Bacon.

“Domestic price support for farmers must be undertaken in a manner that is both transparent and predictable,” Bacon wrote in a column in Alberta Farmer last month.

“Without this balance, the uncertain future of domestic policy in India will continue to negatively impact the global pulse market, leading to reduced plantings by farmers in regions such as South Asia, Africa, North America, Eastern Europe and Russia.”

Statistics Canada is predicting pulse plantings will drop by a million acres this year because of the Indian situation.

“This policy shift in India has had an enormous impact on the Canadian pulse trade,” Bacon told CTV News. “We have about a billion dollars a year of pulse exports to India and that trade has virtually come to a complete halt.”

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