As major honey brands were caught using imported adulterated material, Kashmir’s organic honey story could get an instant foothold in major markets if the systems turn supportive, reports Khalid Bashir Gura
At a time when people are finding ways to boost immunity against Covid-19, especially in winters, honey is in demand. But the question that haunts consumers most is how pure is it, especially the corporate honey. People want to be sure that they are not consuming sugar.
The recent report of adulteration by India’s leading honey brands to maximise profits have made people sceptical. Brands that made negative news include Dabur, Patanjali, Baidyanath, and Zandu after Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) investigation revealed that out of 13 brands tested, only three passed the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) test. The testing was carried out in a German lab, perhaps one of the few that has the capacity to offer exact details about the composition of a product at a molecular level.
It is in this backdrop that the honey produced and marketed in Kashmir has an advantage. It is completely natural and lacks any impurity. But the keep-keepers say they lack support in getting their story of purity of product heard.
Umar Mukthar, 27, a resident of Deedkot Kupwara, is one of these bee-keepers who keep the hope alive at a time when the profit drives the corporate to play with the health of consumers. After completing post-graduation in commerce, he followed his father, Syed Mukthar, 61, a government employee and a successful apiculturist.
“I inherited the interest in beekeeping from my father,” Umar said. “Soon after finishing my high school, I kept hovering around the bee colonies.” As schools were shut for winter in Kashmir, he found a pretext for doing what he loved: rearing bees.
Unlike other places, bee-keeping is hectic and challenging in Kashmir because of as cold weather. In order to provide a suitable environment for bees, the apiarists migrate to warmer places along with their colonies in search of blossoms. There is, interestingly, a reverse migration at the peak of intense heat in plains during summers. “I also travelled with bee colonies to other states of India like Rajasthan and Jammu where my father along with his employees reared bees in winters,” Umar said. “I was learning the skill as well as earning and this benefitted and motivated me to take it up as a profession.” He said his early entry into the profession helped him grow faster.
Umar has a decade long experience. “Our season starts in Rajasthan,” Umar said while informing about the migrations that they undertake to help have a better product. “The bees feed on mustard and we get a good production. In March-April we migrate to Jammu and the process of production continues till mid-April.”
Umar said yield is half a ton (5000 kgs) in Rajasthan and Jammu. As the spring arrives in Kashmir and buds bloom, father-son returns home with hundreds of bee colonies to feed them with flowers and herbs like Soli, Kikar in Kupwara and around.
They sell Kashmir honey at Rs 500 a kilogram. His unit produces around a ton of honey a year.
Kashmir honey is considered the best, owing to climate and the flowers on which the bees feed. “We have a huge market,” Umar said. “In winters demand in Kashmir goes up. We are catering to Kupwara but we wish to expand.” His Mukthar Agro Business Company has 152 bee colonies and 10 employees.
Farooq Amin, CEO of the major Kanwal Foods and Spices said the honey production needs to be scaled up on scientific lines to meet the growing demand.
“The quality parameters need to be enhanced and the bee-keeping skills should be upgraded on scientific lines by training them to get more yields to meet requirement and demand,” he said.
There are almost 10 varieties of honey having great export potentials like White Acacia, Kashmiri Saffron and Flavoured honey. “Honey has religious significance for Muslims. It is being consumed like water in the Middle East, Europe and America.” Amin said the variety of flowers and temperate zone of Kashmir makes the honey market-friendly and healthy.
The major threat, Amin says is that the infamous brands should be dissociated with the Kashmir honey. “Most of the honey produced in Kashmir is sold to corporate companies in India and they mix it with other adulteration material,” Amin said. “We may have to explore ways and means to have our brands.”
Amid’s company sells more than 200 tons a year. “Most of the honey that Kashmir produces is locally consumed but the scope is still huge,” he asserted.
The Kikar honey, commercially known as Acacia and Soli that comes from hilly floral sources in peripheral Kashmir is in better demand. Better packaged and branded honey can fetch even ten times better price in the Middle East. Kashmir, however, lacks a systemic will in investing in the processing.
In Kashmir, SKUAST-K’s Kashmir Pollination Centre has done a lot of work through Integrated Beekeeping Development Centre (IBDC) and Centre of Excellence (COE).
“Apart from revolutionizing horticulture sector, the honey production, processing, and marketing can address the unemployment crisis,” Dr Manzoor Ahmad Parray, In charge of the Research and Training Centre for Pollinators, Pollinizers and Pollination Management said. He believes Kashmir alone produces around seven lakh kilograms of honey annually.
This, he insists, is too little as the full potential has not been explored. “Kashmir has 162000 hectares of land under apple cultivation alone and the National Agricultural Commission’s recommendation is that we need to have three bee colonies per hectare for the purpose of pollination during the flowering season,” Parray said. “That means Kashmir needs around six lakh colonies.”
Currently, the apple production in Kashmir is delinked from pollinators like honey bees. In most of the cases, it is a natural process. Addition of beekeeping adds another element to the apple growing.
In Jammu and Kashmir, officials said, there are 105000 bee colonies but owing to weather factors Kashmir has only 36000 colonies and 2900 bee-keepers.
As a part of awareness initiative, 200 bee colonies are being deployed in apple orchards in each district on experimental bases. If the production of apple improves, officials said, it will trigger a demand for bee-keeping.
“Our sole aim is to generate employment and simultaneously help farmers enhance qualitative and quantitative crop yield. We get many calls from farmers asking for beekeepers for their orchards,” Parray said, adding that both the apiculturist and farmer are benefiting in the process. “Besides that, there are various government schemes for unemployed youth with subsidies to set up beekeeping units”.
However, Altaf Aijaz Andrabi, who superannuated as Director Agriculture Kashmir said Kashmir has the potential of maintaining seven lakh bee colonies. “We have only eighty thousand and each colony gives 20 kgs production in a year,” he said, insisting there are 2000 registered apiculturists in Kashmir.