Here’s why scientists are trying to cultivate heeng in the Indian Himalayas

Here’s why scientists are trying to cultivate heeng in the Indian Himalayas

Asafoetida, or heeng, is a common ingredient in most Indian kitchens –– so much so that the country imports Rs 600 crore worth of this pungent flavoured herb every year.

Now, scientists at CSIR-Institute of Himalayan Bioresource, Palampur (IHBT), are on a mission to grow heeng in the Indian Himalayas. The first sapling has been planted in Himachal Pradesh’s Kwaring village in Lahaul valley last week.

What is asafoetida and where is it commonly cultivated?

Ferula asafoetida is a herbaceous plant of the umbelliferae family. It is a perennial plant whose oleo gum resin is extracted from its thick roots and rhizome. The plant stores most of its nutrients inside its deep fleshy roots.

Asafoetida is endemic to Iran and Afghanistan, the main global suppliers. It thrives in dry and cold desert conditions. While it is very popular in India, some European countries too use it for its medicinal properties.

How is India entering into heeng cultivation?

Heeng is not cultivated in India. Government data states that India imports about 1,200 tonnes of raw heeng worth Rs 600 crore from Iran, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan.

Between 1963 and 1989, India once attempted to procure asafoetida seeds, the ICAR – National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (NBPGR), New Delhi stated. However, there are no published results of the same.

In 2017, IHBT approached NBPGR with an experimental project idea to cultivate heeng in the Indian Himalayas.

For research, heeng seeds were imported from Iran and they remained in the custody of NBPGR. There, the seeds were subjected to a number of tests while being kept under quarantine, to rule out fungal or infectious diseases, possibility of pest attacks and other adverse effects to an area if these seeds were cultivated in fields. This process can take up to two months.

After acquiring all regulatory approvals from Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR), six accessions of heeng (EC966538 with Import Permit-318/2018 and EC968466-70 with Import Permit-409/2018) were introduced by IHBT, who have been carrying out further R&D since 2018. At this Palampur institute, the seeds were studied, and then put to test to see if they would germinate under a controlled laboratory set-up.

The challenge for the scientists here was that heeng seeds remain under a prolonged dormant phase and the rate of seed germination is just one per cent.

“Each of the six accessions imported showcased varying degrees of germination,” said Ashok Kumar, senior scientist at IHBT and Principle Investigator of this project.

To tackle this dormancy, which according to scientists is part of the plant’s adaptation technique to survive in desert conditions, they subjected the seeds to some special chemical treatments.

“After about 20 days, the seeds –– all six accessions gathered from various regions of Iran –– germinated under controlled laboratory conditions,” Kumar said.

In June this year, the CSIR institute inked an MoU with the agriculture ministry of Himachal Pradesh. Jointly, the project will be spearheaded over the next five years in the state…Read more>>