No onion, no cryThe recent spike in onion prices, coupled with an impending long-term shortage, should make us re-examine our food habits.
In recent months, onions have been making Nepalis cry harder. The humble crop has turned out to be not so humble after all: This week, a single kilogram of onion reached as much as Rs250—the same price as a kilo of chicken. As onion prices are expected to continue rising, and the ongoing shortage threatens to last for many more months, one has to wonder how Nepalis are going cope without one of the primary ingredients for the kitchen.
The onion, in its many varieties, is found in many kitchens around the country. This is especially true in urban areas, where the alliaceous plant is used as a staple ingredient, as a flavouring agent, or as a dressing. Its ubiquitous nature makes it a challenge to find a substitute. In parts of India, for example, the high prices and shortage have people scrambling for replacements, learning soon that its unique flavour is irreplaceable, especially as all types in the onion family have supply pressures.
For years, much of the world, and South Asian countries in particular, have been relying on onion imports from India to sustain their ever-growing demand for the vegetable. When India faced an erratic and late monsoon, much like Nepal did, farmers lost a bulk of their onion crop. As prices for shallots, onions and other varieties rose, the Indian government put a ban on the export of the vegetable on September 29 and has extended it to February 2020 at least. The current price hike and shortage Nepal feels is a direct effect of Delhi’s export ban.
As countries in South Asia have seen more economic growth, food patterns have changed to reflect it. Nepal has seen meat consumption rise. But such developments have also changed the flavour profile that Nepalis are accustomed to. While all Nepalis would not traditionally use onion in their local cuisine, its easy availability and the increasing popularity of dishes such as curry, sandeko and chaat has brought the bulb to be accepted everywhere, and in nearly every cuisine.
A similar problem has occurred with rice, where adoption of the grain as a staple instead of traditional cereals such as barley, millet and kaguno has created food scarcity issues across Nepal and led to an over-reliance on imports. Until the ban, Nepal used to depend on India for 99 percent of its onions—worth Rs5.62 billion last year.
As Nepal scrambles to import onions from China to offset some of the pressure, the situation remains unchanged. For one, consumers seem to still prefer illegal imports from India over the Chinese product. Also, the trade route with India is much more established than the northern one, making a complete replacement from the north currently impossible. But with prices expected to climb further, it remains to be seen whether consumers can continue to use this expensive commodity, which is currently as expensive as the meat it usually accompanies.
However, the current scenario can also be seen as a signal for the country to re-examine its food habits. The government must support the promotion of multiple import-export channels: the 2015 blockade, the sporadic Nepali ginger barriers and the current onion crisis show that New Delhi will not put its neighbour’s need before its own.
What it also shows is how Nepal is a hostage to a single trade partner. In the long run, Nepal must promote a diverse agriculture basket at home to sustain its food needs. Moreover, the diversity of local cuisine and the variety of regional ingredients must be celebrated. Not everyone needs to have rice as a staple, and neither does every Nepali require onions in their chicken.
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