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India tariffs squeeze out U.S. pulse imports

Dried chick peas (Adriana Janovich / The Spokesman-Review)

Pulses such as peas, lentils and chickpeas are a staple of the Indian diet, found in flavorful dishes such as daal and chana masala.

For many years, Indian demand for pulses has outstripped domestic supply, presenting opportunities for growers and processors in the United States, Canada and Australia.

“Traditionally, India was our largest overseas market,” said Pete Klaiber, vice president of marketing for the USA Dry Pea & Lentil Council, a national marketing organization headquartered on the state line between Pullman and Moscow. “As a nation that is predominantly vegetarian and very familiar with pulse products on its own, India was just not producing enough to feed its own population and was buying in large volumes.”

A decade ago, India was taking in more than half of U.S. pulse exports, and the country has remained an important customer even as Americans began selling more pulses to other countries, Klaiber said.

That changed recently.

“India has had two bumper crops in a row, and so their need for imports has gone down,” Klaiber said. “And on top of that is a political element, in that the government wanted to get more money for the Indian farmer.”

In the past several months, India has imposed steep tariffs on pulse imports – as much as 50 percent for lentils and 66 percent for chickpeas – steering away practically all American sellers and creating uncertainty in the market that could last long after the tariffs are lifted. There was also some wrangling over Indian government requirements that pulse shipments be fumigated to kill certain pests.

Klaiber said the trade relationship is so strained that the Dry Pea & Lentil Council canceled an annual post-harvest visit with Indian pulse importers. He and other experts have said India’s pulse tariffs are not retaliatory and are unrelated to the brewing trade war spurred by President Donald Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs.

“India has taken this step against all suppliers, really to protect its own domestic market,” Klaiber said.

India did, however, join the fight against Trump’s tariffs this week with a set of its own tariffs on American products that don’t include pulse crops.

Fortunately for U.S. farmers, countries including Spain, China, Mexico, Columbia, Peru and Pakistan still import large amounts of pulses, and domestic pulse consumption is on the rise, Klaiber said.

“Traditionally, our overseas sales were larger than our domestic sales, but we’re at a tipping point right now,” he said.