Pulse sector optimistic about India

Access to the Asian giant’s market is still restricted, but exporters say they are starting to notice a softening in tone

MONTREAL — The Canadian pulse industry is feeling better about the situation with India.

Not much of substance has changed, but the tone has improved, pulse players were saying during the Pulse and Special Crops Convention held Aug. 21-22.

“They’ve opened the door to us,” Cindy Brown, president of the Global Pulse Confederation, said in an interview.

That was an oft-repeated sentiment in casual conversations around the two-day event, which brought together the main non-farming interests in the Canadian and world pulse export business, from providers of bagging technology to logistics to food production.

The loss of the Indian market, protected now behind a compound wall of tariffs, an import cap and non-tariff barriers, is no longer a shock to the Canadian industry, which expanded acres to supply seemingly permanent Indian demand.

But rather than being resigned to losing that market, many seemed to feel that India will eventually re-open its borders at least sporadically. They feel its current policies might make regular imports almost inevitable regardless of its wishes, and its government is not acting like it has permanently shut the door.

Attending the conference were numerous Indian industry members and representatives.

As well, the attendance of a delegation from India’s consumer affairs department, headed by a senior official, was seen as particularly significant.

In his presentation, the official defended the Indian government’s pulse import restrictions, but Canadian industry people felt his presence said much.

In meetings on the side of the official program, Canadian pulse interests saw reasons to be optimistic that India will eventually have to relax its restrictions.

India’s pulse import restrictions are part of a strategy to boost both Indian pulse production and consumption, described as “grow more, eat more.”The policy appears to be based on the Indian government’s desire to improve the nutritional quality of the poorest Indians’ diets. The Indian government hopes if it can convince Indian farming families to produce pulses, they will end up with a more diverse diet and better health.

In conversations, Canadian pulse officials said boosting Indian pulse consumption would be a benefit for Canada and other pulse exporters, because it will build India’s demand base. While India might hope to become self-sufficient in pulse production, the nation is often beset by bad weather and other crop production problems, so its protection of domestic supply might not survive serious production problems.

World pulse export officials like Brown and Pulse Canada chief executive officer Gordon Bacon recently travelled to India to keep connections fresh, and they felt encouraged by the engagement they experienced.

Canada’s federal agriculture minister, Mari-Claude Bibeau, was also feeling encouraged by the back-and-forth her people have had with their Indian counterparts.

“We keep engaging with the government officials on different levels to reopen the markets and see new opportunities,” said Bibeau in an interview.

For now, the Canadian industry is limping by without India buying significant amounts of Canadian crop. Farmers are getting used to the absence of demand that had come to be assumed, but it’s still a drag on the industry, said Carl Potts, executive director of Saskatchewan Pulse Growers.

“It’s had a huge effect,” said Potts during a panel discussion.

Fortunately, China has stepped up and consumed considerable amounts of yellow peas. However, that market is worrisome right now, in light of the Canada-China diplomatic dispute.

“Certainly, there is business going on,” said Blair Roth, director of special crops for Viterra, who was also on the panel.

“We never know when the next shoe will drop. So far, so good.”

In the long-term, said Potts, it would be good to see the pulse industry rely less on a couple of key players.

“Maybe a few years from now we’ll be less reliant on a few large markets,” said Potts.

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