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Explainer - Why is India losing sleep over record high vegetable oil prices?

06/15/2021 | 05:08am EDT
A labourer carries vegetable oil packets on a tricycle as a man stands in front of his shop selling food grains, at a wholesale market in Kolkata

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India, the world's top importer of vegetable oil, will have to spend billions of extra dollars this year to buy more costly cooking oil from overseas and is mulling cutting taxes on those imports to soften the blow to the economy, industry officials have said.

The government is considering reducing taxes on vegetable oil imports after cooking oil prices hit record highs last month as it seeks to make food costs more affordable for its population of over 1.3 billion and keep price pressures at bay.


Problems in the global production of key oilseeds coupled with rising biodiesel use have fuelled the global vegoil rally.

Soyoil futures have jumped more than 70% this year after drought tightened U.S. and Brazilian soybean supplies. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has forecast global soybean stocks will fall to a five-year low of 87.9 million tonnes by September.

Graphic: Global edible oil prices scale record highs on supply woes, juiced up biofuel use

Palm oil prices, the most widely consumed edible oil, also rallied 18% in 2020 after COVID-19 lockdowns curbed output from plantations in Southeast Asia.

Benchmark futures in Malaysia touched 4,142 ringgit ($1,007.30) a tonne in mid-March, their highest since 2008.

Poor rapeseed and sunflower seed harvests in Europe and the Black Sea region further tightened edible oil supplies, helping push global food prices to 10-year highs last month.

Mirroring record global prices, domestic palm oil and soyoil rates have more than doubled in the past year.


As the top edible oil importer, India spends an average of $8.5-$10 billion annually on imported vegoils and the recent price surge will only inflate its bloated import bill further. Vegetable oil is India's third-biggest import item after crude oil and gold.

India's vegetable oil imports have surged to 15 million tonnes from 4 million only two decades ago, according to industry estimates. It could touch 20 million by 2030, trade and industry experts say, boosted by a growing populace with higher incomes and a taste for calorie-laden curry and fried food.

Domestic oilseed production has failed to keep pace with demand, as farmers prefer to grow grains like rice and wheat, the price of which is guaranteed by the government.

Graphic: Global vegetable oil production since 2000

India produced about 10.65 million tonnes of edible oils in 2019-20, less than half of the roughly 24 million tonnes it consumed during that period, according to trade and government estimates.

It imported the rest, buying around 7.2 million tonnes of palm oil from Indonesia and Malaysia, about 3.4 million tonnes of soyoil from Brazil and Argentina, and 2.5 million tonnes of sunflower oil, mainly from Russia and Ukraine.


Soaring vegetable oil prices have further hit people already reeling from record fuel prices and lower incomes due to a devastating second wave of COVID-19 infections.

The government has voiced support for greater domestic production of oil crops in recent years, and had been expected to unveil incentives for farmers willing to expand oilseed output in its latest annual budget plan.

But the government has yet to come up with a viable plan to raise oilseeds production.

India grows several oilseeds - mainly peanuts, soybeans and rapeseed (mustard) - but their prices are not guaranteed by the government like grain prices are. As a result, Indian output of rice and wheat is nearly six times greater than total oilseed output on average.

Graphic: India main grain and oilseed production

The local vegetable oil industry has argued that the government, which earns about 350 billion rupees ($4.79 billion) from levies on edible oil imports, should set aside some of that to incentivise farmers to switch to oilseeds.

But the government has not taken any such measure so far in 2021, and is relying on adjusting import tax rates to try to control volumes and prices.

($1 = 4.11 ringgit)

(Reporting by Mayank Bhardwaj and Rajendra Jadhav; additional reporting by Manoj Kumar in New Delhi and Fathin Ungku in Singapore; Editing by Gavin Maguire and Ana Nicolaci da Costa)

By Mayank Bhardwaj and Rajendra Jadhav

© Reuters 2021
Stocks mentioned in the article
ChangeLast1st jan.
CORN?FUTURES (SETTLEMENT ONLY) (ZC) - CBR (FLOOR)/C11 0.00%End-of-day quote.0.00%
CRUDE PALM OIL -0.08% 968.75 End-of-day quote.14.36%
EURO / ARGENTINE PESO (EUR/ARS) 0.11% 114.7691 Delayed Quote.11.61%
EURO / BRAZILIAN REAL (EUR/BRL) 2.66% 6.188 Delayed Quote.-5.00%
LONDON BRENT OIL -0.82% 75.16 Delayed Quote.46.69%
S&P GSCI SOY BEANS INDEX -2.03% 535.6818 Delayed Quote.5.05%
SOYBEAN MEAL FUTURES (ZM) - CBE (ELECTRONIC)/C1 -1.09% 352.6 End-of-day quote.-17.93%
US DOLLAR / ARGENTINE PESO (USD/ARS) 0.00% 96.68 Delayed Quote.14.71%
US DOLLAR / RUSSIAN ROUBLE (USD/RUB) 0.02% 73.138 Delayed Quote.-0.78%
WTI 0.53% 73.659 Delayed Quote.52.09%
ZR (ZR) - CBE (ELECTRONIC)/C1 -0.04% 13.675 End-of-day quote.10.28%
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