MERCED — California walnuts will start heading to India, potentially a big market, under an agreement announced Wednesday.
The nation's Ministry of Agriculture approved the shipments after determining that they would not carry two pests of concern from the Central Valley orchards.
The exports will help meet demand from India's growing middle class, said Dennis Balint, chief executive officer of the California Walnut Commission in Folsom.
"I think it has the potential to become one of our top five markets in the next few years," he said.
India already gets about 10 percent of the valley's almond crop. Both nuts are widely grown throughout the valley and are among the state's top farm exports around the world.
Balint said the opening to India was delayed while officials worked out concerns over the coddling moth and navel orangeworm, which can infest walnuts.
He said the industry needed to ensure that it would have enough volume to serve India. Strong demand elsewhere has absorbed the increasingly large harvests, thanks in part to research suggesting that the nuts could help ward off cancer, heart disease and other illnesses.
About 250 million of India's nearly 1.3 billion people are in the middle class, a commission news release said, and the number is expected to reach 400 million by 2020.
A similar trend in China has boosted its imports of walnuts, almonds, wine and other farm products from California.
"India will play an important role in developing the industry's future consumers," said commission Chairman Donald Norene, a Sutter County grower, in the release.
India has walnut orchards but is not among the world's top producers. The commission said the California nuts could help solve a deficit of alpha-linolenic acid considered essential to heart health in the nation's vegetable-heavy diet.
Balint said the exports could start with small amounts from last year's crop, then pick up as the 2013 harvest gets going in September.
Another news release Wednesday told of a recent study indicating walnuts could help in the fight against prostate cancer.
Researchers at the University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio found that the cancer occurrence dropped about 60 percent in mice fed a walnut-enriched diet compared with mice that did not eat the nuts.
The study also found that the tumors in the walnut-eating mice were one-quarter the size of those in the other mice.
Professor Russel Reiter, the lead investigator, said the proportion of walnuts in the mice's overall diet "was the equivalent to a human eating about 2 ounces, or two handfuls, a day, which is not a lot of walnuts."
CALIFORNIA FARM EXPORTS (2011)
1. Almonds $2.83 billion
2. Dairy $1.42 billion
3. Wine $1.23 billion
4. Walnuts $1.06 billion
5. Rice $877 million
6. Pistachios $778 million
7. Table grapes $733 million
8. Oranges $666 million
9. Processed tomatoes $574 million
10. Cotton $435 million
TOP WALNUT MARKETS
1. European Union 30 percent
2. China/Hong Kong 16 percent
3. Turkey 10 percent
4. South Korea 8 percent
5. Japan 7 percent
6. Canada 6 percent
Others 23 percent
It was the seventh-largest market for California farm exports in 2011, with $360 million in sales. Almonds were first, followed by cotton, oranges, pistachios, table grapes and dairy.
Source: California Department of Food and Agriculture