Dr. Kaushik Shankar
Asafoetida from ferula asafoetida is an integral part of the cuisine and traditional medicine of Bharat. While earliest historical references to the use of this spice can be found from the 12th century onwards, it is possible that the use predates this date by several centuries if not millennia, considering that the home of this herb is Afghanistan or Kandhar. Kandhari hing was a staple in any cook’s repertoire of spices.
India is one of the world’s major users of the spice, with estimates ranging at around 40% of global production in 2017. Indian imports have since then increased, as can be seen below –
Source: F1rst based on import export database, 2021 till August
There are more than 200 importers of this spice, which comes largely from Afghanistan, but the sources have now spread out to other growing countries like Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Sudan. Shipments from these countries are routed through the Chabahar port in Iran.
Of these countries of origin, since 2018, Afghanistan has had the maximum share of India’s imports.
Source: f1rst based on import, export database. Other countries form a minor share and invisible in the pie chart
What is important to note is the overwhelming dependence on Afghanistan for Indian supply, and the price range variation that has happened in just the time since 2018. Maximum shipments have happened around the USD 105/kg range for granulated white asafoetida. 45% of shipment volumes were above USD 100/kg in 2018 which came down to 39% in 2020. As of August 2021, this is back up to 43% and there is concern given the regime change in Afghanistan.
The overwhelming theme as an aftermath of COVID disruptions of supply chains has been the broadbasing of sourcing. The dependency on a single country or region for procuring supplies posed challenges for procurement of many items including food and beverage ingredients. While COVID was a global phenomenon, it is not completely unknown for political disruptions to cause scarcity of or price rise of food ingredients. A case in point would be gum acacia more than a decade ago, majority of which volumes came from the Sudan. With political tensions rising in this region, gum acacia sourcing was deemed to be a problem. The response to this immediately was to try and find replacement ingredients and over the long term to find other sources of gum acacia. Acacia trees require more than 10 years to grow before they start yielding. The Sudan had about 70% share of the market in 2009 with 37.8kt of supply. Today it is estimated that about 70kt comes from the Sudan with smaller countries such as Senegal almost tripling their output to 2.6kt but still a minor competitor compared to the Sudan even after 10 years. Nigeria, which was the most promising alternative source of gum Arabic with estimated reserves of around 490kt and was exporting 12-14kt at the turn of the century has now fallen to less than 750 tons in 2020 (some estimates go up to 24kt, still insignificant compared to the Sudan). The reason ascribed to this is political instability in the growing regions.
The key differentiator in the asafoetida value chain is that the buyer base in India is highly fragmented (more than 200 importers) and little or no political power to influence happenings in Afghanistan. this is very different from the gum Arabic situation where a few European companies have a stranglehold on the supply from Africa, reprocess it in Europe and then export to the rest of the world. Their ability to work even in politically unstable environments cannot be matched by the smaller Indian importers of asafoetida. Government intervention will be required to mitigate this situation.
Another way to mitigate the impending price rise would be to reduce duties for asafoetida from the alternative producers. Currently only Afghanistan enjoys a duty rebate while imports from other countries may have a maximum duty of upto 27%. This will encourage the other countries to improve their competitive offering to India.
Asafoetida yields about 500 gram of resin per plant. I have been unable to get exact details of planting densities and yields thereof, due to large variations in yield/quality and unknown factors in India where cultivation is being attempted recently. But it seems even the 300 hectares targeted for cultivation over the next 5 years may not be enough for India to be either self-sufficient in hing and/or offer competition to the current cultivating countries to prevent price volatility.
Unfortunately, asafoetida cannot be easily substituted in either cuisines or medicines. The closest substitute proffered by chefs is onion and garlic powder, which are the very two ingredients that asafoetida seeks to replace in sattvic cooking. In traditional medicine, asafoetida is irreplaceable due to its properties.
In conclusion a pragmatic approach to preventing an asafoetida shock to India is required. Another comparison with gum Arabic is required here. Gum Arabic is required and imported by almost all world countries and the cumulative political pressure was enough to stabilize the supply of that ingredient. India stands alone in its penchant for asafoetida and hence needs to adopt a different approach to solving this quandary.
A detailed picture and analysis of import statistics as well as published research on asafoetida is available with the author, upon request.
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