Tapioca price up at Rs. 25 a kg on poor arrivals

It was probably the uber-cheap source of calories available around for humans, especially Keralites. But not anymore.

The retail price of tapioca has shot up to Rs 25 a kg in the local market after price rallied for more than a fortnight.

And the ‘root’ cause behind the price surge? Shrinking acreage under cassava cultivation in Kerala. Poor price for the product last year has forced farmers to give up on cassava. Market arrivals have shrunk substantially in June, this being the lean season.

Land under tapioca cultivation had taken a beating from cash crops like rubber, said S. Ramanathan, principal scientist at the Central Tuber Crops Research Institute, Sreekaryam. He said on Monday that tapioca reached its peak in the 1970s when acreage under the crop touched two lakh hectares. Since then it has been downhill for tapioca.

Numbers from the Agricultural Market Intelligence Centre of Kerala Agricultural University (KAU) showed that area under food crops had shrunk continuously between 1980-81 and 2008-09. Acreage ratio (area under a particular crop as percentage of the total cultivated area) of rice and tapioca fell from 27.79 to 8.69 and from 8.49 to 3.24 during the period for rice and tapioca respectively.

Indira Devi, senior scientist at KAU, said area under tapioca fell 40 per cent between 1995-96 and 2010-11. The absolute fall is from 1,13,600 hectares to 72,250 hectares during the period.

But the higher productivity made sure that tapioca reached Keralites’ dining tables despite lost acreage. Productivity during the period rose from 22 tonnes to 32.65 tonnes a hectare, she said.

But for the farmers, it had been a raw deal all these while. Figures from Vegetable and Fruit Promotion Council Kerala (VFPCK) showed that tapioca was selling for Rs. 12 a kg in the retail market in June 2012. The wholesale price was Rs. 8 a kg in Kochi, which means farmers got nothing out of their labour.

K.P. Kuriakose, a farmer in Moovattupuzha, said the prices were so low last year that farmers stopped selling tapioca. Farm gate price of tapioca collapsed to less than Rs. 5 a kg in some areas of the State last year.

The poor prices left a bitter aftertaste that farmers in traditional tapioca growing areas gave up farming this year. Tapioca arrivals were now mostly from border areas such as Meenakshipuram, said P.S. John, professor of agronomy at KAU

However, the price rise has brought a windfall to farmers as they are getting between Rs. 14 and 16 a kg in the wholesale market. Kerala State Horticultural Products Development Corporation (Horticorp) procured tapioca for between Rs. 14 and 16 a kg on Monday from farmers in the Moovattupuzha EEC Market.

Last year’s low price has been described as a cyclical phenomenon common to food commodity. But Idira Devi feels the price of tapioca may have been affected last year by a reduction in the import duty on cassava starch, which in turn may have fuelled imports and killed the hunger for local tapioca. However, she said that there were no figures available on starch imports. Dr. Ramanathan said the lack of an industrial base was one of the reasons for the price swings. In Tamil Nadu, he said, farmers gave a twist to tapioca and made value-added products like sago from tapioca starch. Some crisp-makers have set foot in the market lately. However, the current price level will discourage industry-scale operations.

Tapioca farmers in Kerala may have to look up to farmers like K. Koyu in Palakkad, who sells tapioca only after it is boiled and dried the traditional way. He said that he gets between Rs. 32 and 38 a kg this way even when the price of raw tapioca is much lower in the local market.

More In: Kochi | Kerala | National