By Saurabh Yadav – The Hindu Business Line, 5 February 2016
Ghanis, village-level extraction units, have long been a fount of cold-pressed edible oil. Now they find themselves on the wrong side of modern-day food safety regulations
The ghani (oil extraction plant) set up by Mahatma Gandhi at Sewashram in Wardha, Maharashtra, has been a visible and working symbol of a self-reliant community since 1934. This living legacy is now in danger of shutting down.
Ghanis have been around since ancient times. Food historian KT Achaya dates the use of sesame oilseeds to the Harappan civilisation around 2000 BC. The ghani entails a symbiotic relationship between farmers who grow oilseeds and consumers looking for fresh, healthy, cold-pressed oil. This rustic, grassroots enterprise today finds itself on the wrong side of modern food safety regulations.
Under the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006, all oil producers, regardless of size, have to maintain a laboratory and employ two technicians to test samples — a requirement that the small, village-level units can ill-afford, leaving the threat of imminent closure hanging over them.
“Ghanis will stay if the government acts, if it decides not to apply industrial norms to a cottage industry,” argues Vibha Gupta, Director of Magan Sangrahalaya at Sewashram.
In 1998, after mustard oil adulteration killed 60 and poisoned thousands, the government responded with a nationwide ban on the sale of unpackaged edible oils. New regulations made by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) in 2011 are being enforced now, dealing the latest blow to the already ailing ghani. For the teli or oil presser community across the country, this also has a direct bearing on their livelihood. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is probably the most famous member of the ghanchi (oilseed crushers) community.
“Traditionally, villages across the country have had communities of oil pressers, who crush oilseeds to provide oil on demand and also buy produce from farmers to sell to wholesalers,” explains Nalin Kant, a grassroots activist from Jharkhand.
Refined oil manufacturers have been blending vegetable oils with cottonseed oil. According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), a lobby for biotech crops, cottonseed oil makes up 13.7 per cent of edible oil in India. As more than 90 per cent of the cotton grown in the country is genetically modified Bt cotton, the oil is being used in violation of laws. Genetically modified food has not been cleared for human consumption in India.
The FSSAI regulations do not make any distinction between the cold-pressed oil from a ghani and the solvent extraction used by larger oil manufacturers. “A ghani is not a very profitable operation, it is more like a service provider, that helps rural folk,” explains Gupta. In a ghani, oilseeds are crushed to extract the oil, which is markedly different from the chemical solvent extraction method used by most commercial oil manufacturers. A ghani may use electricity for the crushing, although many units still use bullocks to turn a manual crushing contraption, whose simple design has remained unchanged over centuries.
Cold-pressed oil has lately grown in popularity for its perceived health benefits, so it commands a premium price globally. The village ghanis, however, have not gained in any way. Environmental activist Vandana Shiva blames this on the ignorance of the new middle-class and its blind infatuation with the West. “If someone sells cold-pressed oil from Italy, they will flock to it. They come looking for quinoa when we have amaranth, buckwheat and ragi,” she says.
Olive oil manufacturers were the first to market the benefits of cold-pressed, virgin oil. This form of extraction retains the oil’s flavours and nutrients, which are otherwise destroyed in high-temperature refining processes. “Rural consumers have been suspicious of oil that does not taste and smell like oilseeds; the world is learning of its benefits now,” says Gupta.
In 1993, Achaya discovered that from a 96 per cent share at the beginning of this century, ghanis accounted for only four per cent of the oil sold in India. This figure is even lower today. This has also meant a drastic fall in the supply of nutritious oil cakes (residue after extraction) for cattle feed. India today imports more than 60 per cent of its edible oil and oil cakes for cattle feed, losing precious foreign exchange in the process.
Hexane, used to extract oil from soya bean and even oilseeds, is toxic to humans. Subsidies enjoyed by the soy and palm industries in Malaysia and Indonesia make it impossible for ghanis to compete with them.
Navdanya, a non-profit that promotes biodiversity, has launched a nationwide satyagraha on January 30 to save the ghani from a certain death.
Across villages, grassroots activists are raising awareness on the many benefits of locally produced oil. “The support that ghanis need from the government is recognition, that this is a highly skilled work, and this is the purest oil that you can get,” says Shiva.
“We have suffered the village oilman to be driven to extinction and we eat adulterated oils,” Gandhi had lamented at a gathering in Indore in May 1935.
Eight decades on, his words still ring true.