Bangalore: The Karnataka horticulture department will soon set up a pilot plant at Mangalore to produce coconut palm juice (neera) and promote the natural product as a health drink in the state, a senior official said.
"The pilot plant will be set up at a cost of Rs.10 million (Rs.1 crore) with an installed capacity to produce about 1,000 litres of juice per day from fruits of the coconut palm," State Horticulture Director N. Jayaram told IANS.
The department will use the technology developed by the state-run Defence Food Research Laboratory (DFRL) and Central Food Technological Research Institute (CFTRI) at Mysore, about 150 km from here, to pasteurise and process the palm nectar as an unfermented beverage.
The plant at Mangalore to produce neera is aimed at promoting the natural product as a health drink.
"We will source the fruits from the 400 coconut trees we have grown in a 29-acre farm near Mangalore. The oozing water will be sapped from the trees before sunrise at the budding stage, pasteurised and processed using membrane technology to preserve it as juice for six-nine months," Jayaram said on the margins of a two-day national conference on coconuts, which began Wednesday.
Each coconut tree is estimated to yield two-three litres of water per day at the flowering stage.
"We intend to transfer the processing technology to coconut growers or farmers in the state after the pilot project achieves standardisation and creates benchmarks for quality and productivity," Jayaram pointed out.
The technology has already been adopted in Maharashtra and Gujarat to extract fruit juice from date palms.
The department plans to market the juice in pouches of 200 ml at Rs.5 per packet through its kiosks and retail outlets across the state.
As the purest liquid second only to water, the juice has many healthy benefits as it is taken from unripe coconuts.
Known technically as the liquid endosperm, coconut juice is a nutritious wholesome beverage for the people living in the tropics to counter the sultry weather.
"It is not only fat free and low in sugar, but also contains organic compounds possessing healthy growth promoting properties to keep the body cool, replenish fluids, raise metabolism, boost immune system, detoxify and fight viruses," he noted.
The department will float tenders for constructing the plant after the state government announces a 'neera' policy, as prohibition on arrack and toddy is in force in the state and an amendment is required to the Excise Act for permitting sale of coconut juice as a soft beverage.
"The amendment will enable the excise department to exempt sale of coconut juice in the state, as the fermented one is considered toddy or arrack and prohibited from consumption," he said.
As the second largest coconut producing state in the country after Kerala, Karnataka has about six million coconut growers with a record yield of 12.8 billion nuts per annum from an area of 1.9 million hectares in the state.
"We have been asking the state government to formulate the 'neera' policy over the last 10 years so that we can have the option of producing coconut juice when trees are affected by pest or disease and nuts are damaged," Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha president A.M. Mahesh Prabhu told IANS.
As a seasoned farmer from Alur in Chamarajanagar district, about 200 km from here, Prabhu said growers have been losing interest in planting coconut saplings and growing coconut trees because of the state government's indifference in protecting these from vagaries of weather and price fluctuations or in providing infrastructure for producing value added products like juice and desiccated powder.
"For instance, unlike other 12 coconut-growing states, including Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka has not been implementing the minimum support price (MSP) of Rs.12,000 per tonne of the central government to protect farmers from variations and distress sale. There is no market intervention by the state government though it has revolving funds at its disposal," Prabhu lamented.
Fortuitously, rates have gone up during the last one year up to Rs.18,000 per tonne of coconuts following shortfall in production due to pest and diseases attacks, rising demand, transportation costs and inflationary pressures.
Globally, of the 90 coconut-producing countries, India ranks second among Asian countries like Indonesia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka, accounting for 76 percent of area (nine million hectares) and 78 percent of production, with 15.73 billion nuts per annum and 8,303 million nuts per hectare.