India may still be in the market for lentils if the price is right

A senior Indian government official thinks there will be strong lentil import demand from that market in 2020-21.

“I think that maybe the lentil import will rise because the domestic situation will be a little tighter compared to last year,” said Sunil Kumar Singh, additional managing director of the National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation of India (NAFED).

NAFED is a government agency that procures pulses and oilseeds from Indian farmers and stockpiles them or distributes them to consumers.

Singh was one of the featured speakers on a recent Global Pulse Confederation webinar about India’s pulse supply chain.

Moderator G. Chandrashekar, senior editor for the Hindu Business Line, agreed that there could be robust lentil import demand as long as the landed price, including the 33 percent import duty, is about US$660 to $670 per tonne.

“Whether the world market is in a position to supply at that price, I’m not very sure,” he said.

India is Canada’s largest lentil customer by far. The country purchased 623,645 tonnes of the crop in 2019, triple the volume of the next biggest customer.

It has bought 179,408 tonnes of the crop in the first three months of 2020, which again ranks first ahead of Turkey’s 155,220 tonnes.

India is poised to harvest a large crop of rabi season pulses but it won’t be the bumper crop officials had been expecting.

COVID-19 has caused harvesting delays, subjecting some crops in northern India to rain and hail damage.

Chandrashekar is forecasting 10.2 million tonnes of chickpeas, which is well below the government’s February estimate of 11.2 million tonnes.

And there will be delays getting the rabi harvest to market because COVID-19 could not have arrived at a worse time for India’s agriculture sector.

“The nation is locked down, markets are closed, transportation is not available and labour is into what I call reverse migration,” he said.

The country has been locked down since March 24 and those restrictions will stay in place until at least May 17.

The government has relaxed some restrictions on agriculture but supply chain problems linger.

The biggest issue is that many labourers have returned to their villages and truckers are reluctant to work, fearing for their safety. Ports are at a standstill and mills are running at about half capacity.

Fortunately, the government had a huge stockpile of pulses. NAFED had 3.6 million tonnes on hand before the start of COVID-19. That has since dwindled to 2.66 million tonnes.

The stockpile will be further depleted by a government program supplying 197 million needy families with one kilogram of pulses per month during the pandemic.

Singh estimates that program will chew through one million tonnes of the government’s supplies. Another 300,000 tonnes will be sold on the open market.

But he anticipates an active summer procurement program with the government buying an estimated 2.5 million tonnes of chickpeas because prices are cheap.

Singh anticipates a rebuilding of the stockpile to 3.8 million tonnes by the end of the procurement season.

The government won’t be the only big pulse buyer in 2020-21. Srivalli Krishnan, senior program officer with the Indian chapter of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is anticipating huge consumer demand for the product.

“Never in the history would you actually have an opportunity so much favourable for the pulse industry,” she said.

India has always had a large population of vegetarians and the COVID-19 scare is causing more people to embrace that way of life.

In addition, families are stockpiling pulses because they can’t source fruits and vegetables.

“People are actually shifting to a diet, which is more pulse-centric because it can be stored over a longer period of time,” said Krishnan.

“Hence, we should be looking at a good year from the demand side.”

She thinks now is the opportune time for the government to be promoting pulse consumption and funding studies on how they can boost immune systems.

Chandrashekar said he helped prepare a proposal on that subject four years ago but the government didn’t come through with the necessary funding.

“(It was) like what Al Gore did for global warming and climate change,” he said.

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