Cinammon, cloves, cardamom, peppers – the spice jars that line our kitchens remind us of how much spices and its trade has changed the course of history. As early as 3000 BC, a major spice trade centre had established itself – the Muziris port in Kerala, southwest India. Kerala, India’s spice garden, was where all the explorers and hopeful spice traders were headed; and they held the power to make or break civilisations. The hegemony of the Arabs as the main spice traders was challenged when Vasco da Gama reached Calicut in 1498, with spice trade shifting in Europe’s favour. Expanding European nations fought over spice trade in the Indonesian islands too. But what really began democratizing spice trade was the United States’ entry into it, as they began to directly deal with Asian growers. By the beginning of 1800s, spice trees had been sent all over the world, people had figured out how to transplant spice plants, and trading routes and stations were set up everywhere.
When monopolies crumbled and spices became common, their value fell. But even today, Kerala is the famed home of spices. And because of this, Indian spices are still sought after globally, owing to its exquisite aroma, texture and medicinal value. Traditionally, Indian spices have been grown in small landholdings, with organic farming gaining prominence in recent times. India remains the largest producer, consumer and exporter of spices, growing 75 of the 109 varieties listed by the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) and accounting for half of the global spice trade.
There are certain factors challenging India’s prime position, though – such as fluctuating international demand, competition from existing markets in Southeast Asia, and the entry of Latin American and African countries into the fray. To keep the buoyancy up, the Spices Board was set up develop and promote Indian spices worldwide, and has installed various programmes to improve quality and grading methods, as well as upgrade processing techniques and storage facilities. The Indian Institute of Spices Research, set up in 1995, has a mandate to extend services and technologies to conserve genetic resources of species, as well as soil, water, air of spices. With all these efforts, the going remains good for Indian spice trade, which has been growing at an average of 8.8% annually between 2009-10 and 2014-15. Some spice traders in India even reported a 30% increase in exports in 2015.
Another issue that both spice traders from India as well as the Spices Board is working towards is reducing the export rejection rate to zero over the next two years. Currently, samples are routinely sent to labs overseas and the results compared to tests in India. Such a scenario holds ample opportunities for Indian spice traders to utlilise certification systems, in order to ensure that contamination does not occur at any stage in the value chain. Consolidate all these efforts; and Kerala could yet stay on top of the world spice map!