Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Water management in agriculture-New technology

Agricultural productivity is closely linked to efficient water management and optimum utilization of nutrients by the plants. In a tropical country like India water loss through evaporation and run off can deprive the plants of water required at the desired levels. There are farm technologies like drip irrigation, spray irrigation etc which are used by well to do farmers for high dividend crops but they are beyond the means of most of the farmers who depend on rain water to manage just one crop in an year. As water is a scarce natural resource, it is imperative that it is conserved as much as possible preventing avoidable losses. It is in this context one has to appreciate the innovative technology developed under the ICAR aegis which uses a type of hydrogel to retain water without allowing it to evaporate over a long time making water available to the plants regularly. Here is a report from the NRDC of India which has made this technology available for commercialization recently hoping it will help the farming community to manage their water resources more efficiently.  

"National Research Development Corporation (NRDC), under the Department of Scientific & Industrial Research (DSIR), and Reliance Industries Limited (RIL) have signed an agreement for commercialisation of a novel superabsorbent hydrogels technology. This involves a novel hydrophilic super absorbent polymer indigenously developed by the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, New Delhi, to meet the requirements of water productivity in agriculture. "The scientists had successfully demonstrated the potential of resolving the problem of poor water use efficiency in agricultural crops. Besides, improved nutrient use efficiency, an array of other benefits have been achieved by using this product," said DSIR in a press release. NRDC is about to execute another agreement with a Chennai based company for the transfer of the same technology. NRDC has already executed agreements with five companies. Hydrogel absorbs a minimum of 350 times its weight of pure water. It exhibits absorbency at high temperatures suitable for semi-arid and arid regions. Besides, low rate of application it also improves physical properties of soil such as porosity, aggregate stability and hydraulic conductivity. "No undesirable effect on the crops raised in the fields treated with hydrogel has ever been observed or reported by the experimenters or the end users, the farmers," added the release."    

How far this technology can help the farmers under field conditions is not clear now. But in principle the hydrogel technology has the potential to revolutionize the farming sector if products are manufactured and made available at affordable cost. Also to be seen is the type of adjustments farmers will have to make in their normal operations to use hydrogels. If government is convinced that the new technology can revolutionize water usage pattern in the country, no effort should be spared to support its use nationwide. Of course this not going to be a panacea for solving the water problems in the agricultural sector, especially in drought affected areas but it will reduce unnecessary water loss in areas where water is available in lesser quantities.  


Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Prosperity, thy name is "nemesis"-Great food inflicted health crisis staring us!

Umpteen number of treatise emphasize the uncomfortable truth that an average a denizen, living in any part of the globe with high income, consumes a diet that is drastically different from that consumed 50 years ago. The catch here is that the quality of the diet has taken a beating with more and refined foods, low quality carbohydrates, less and less of fibers, fruits and vegetables, more of fats of lower quality, predominating the food that is consumed day in day out. The result is there for every one to see. Diseases like obesity, CVD, blood pressure, diabetes, kidney ailments, liver problems, cancer etc have become common and billions of dollars are being spent to treat them, the only beneficiary being the drug industry. Here is a telling commentary on this vicious situation in a super rich country like the US which is revealing.

"Today, novelty dominates American food. Those yellow arches are now golden arches and we are now a nation addicted to sugar, fat and drive-through windows. Food is mere fuel, and we eat more of it in our family car than at our family table. For proof, look how we — you and me — have changed our food patterns in the last 40 or so years.
• In 1960, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, we spent 26 cents of our food dollar on restaurant meals; in 2013 it was 50 percent.
• In 1950, the standard soft-drink bottle contained 6.5 ounces; in 1960 it grew to 12 ounces and, in the 1990s, 20 ounces became the norm.
• In 1970, according to numbers in a 2011 article published by Grist, the U.S. "churned out 2,168 calories per day per person, 402 of which came from added sugar and 410 from added fat ... or, combined, about 37 percent of the total."
• In 2008, the U.S. produced 2,673 calories per day person (" ... powerful evidence that [America's] cheap food policy ... succeeded ... ") of which "added fats and sugars [grew] to 459 and 641 calories, respectively, a 35 percent jump over the 1970 level ... "
• In 2013, according to Harvard University, Americans spent "an estimated $190 billion treating obesity-related health conditions."
• Also, in 2013, U.S. organic sales (which USDA does not track) totaled an estimated $35.1 billion, an 11.5 percent increase from 2012 but still only 18.4 percent of the amount spent we spent to treat obesity-related health problems that year. 
What's it all mean, fellow foodies? According to that brief survey, most of us ate less sugar and less fat when we ate more fresh, local food at home 40 or 50 years ago than what we buy and eat (mostly) in town today. Also, most of us were skinnier and healthier (as were our parents in comparison to us today) and all of us had more neighbors and more "community" — local banks, medical care, grocery and clothing stores and the like — than almost any of us have anywhere in rural America today. In short, we had it very, very good — despite Grandma pushing the pickle beets and lima beans every chance she got. Little wonder, then, that a new food culture, a foodie culture, is taking root across the U.S. now."

Though the above study, analyzing the hard data is considered reliable, there is no cogent answer as to what can be done to redeem the world from the curse of bad food and distorted food culture which are slowly but surely making the quality of life progressively deteriorating. While many blame the industry for this sorry situation, some blame will have be apportioned to the government regulatory agencies who have allowed this situation to develop by shirking their bounden responsibility to protect the lives of the citizens. Where does the consumer come in this complex scenario? Of course it is the weak will power and weakness for tasty foods abandoning the health concerns (similar to tobacco and alcohol) on the part of the consumer that is driving this insane rush towards health catastrophe staring at them! Unless consumers, regulatory agencies, health experts and the food business get together to deal with the crisis, this sordid "death dance" will continue unabated!

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Soda market moving to India? Latest investment on soft drinks in Hyderabad

When we are being bombarded with the Prime Minister's pet theme of "Make in India", day in and day out, there was great hope that products identified for manufacture, both for domestic and export consumption would be highly relevant to the country's needs. Of course the relevance of a product is determined by factors like consumer demand, environmental hazard, health implications, employment generated, water exploitation, farmer linkages etc. By no stretch of imagination manufacture of soft drinks can fit into this bill but if current trend is any indication foreign investors will invest only if they have a market for their products, rightly so.  Is soft drink an item of consumption that must be encouraged in our country when world over these products are being condemned for their empty calories and vulnerability of consumers to a host of diseases including CVD, blood pressure, kidney ailments, obesity, diabetes etc ? Recent report coming from Andhra Pradesh claiming that an MNC is investing in that state on a piece of land measuring 85 acres of government land for setting up a mega bottling plant is indeed disturbing. Should India be rolling red carpet to such investors who have very little regard for the well being of the citizens in this country? It is difficult to justify or rationalize this industry as the highly automated plant is unlikely to provide much employment or earn any foreign exchange! Here is a take on this paradox that is happening in front of our eyes with all and sundry paying obeisance to the dollar lord!   

"For the past 25 years, PepsiCo has been investing in the Indian economy and its people. As we move forward into our next 25 years, that commitment is stronger than ever. This plant is an investment in India's bright future," said Nooyi. Spread across 86 acres, the first line of the plant started manufacturing on Friday. When it becomes fully operational, it would benefit nearly 33,000 farmers thanks to local sourcing of mangoes and other fruits, Nooyi said. Speaking on the occasion, Naidu said local sourcing of mangoes would immensely benefit the region economically. Complimenting the Sri City management for attracting dozens of companies to set up shop there, Naidu said it could become India's largest industrial park in 10 years. The PepsiCo plantwill manufacture fruit juice-based drinks, carbonated soft drinks, and sports drinks, among other beverages. PepsiCo has deployed state-of-the-art technologies with an emphasis on production efficiencies, environment protection and safety. The plant will be PepsiCo's most water-efficient beverage plant in India and the firm aims to procure LEED certification for this facility, company officials said. a LEED, or Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design, is a set of rating systems for the design, construction, operation, and maintenance of green buildings, homes and neighborhoods. It is developed by the US Green Building Council. PepsiCo has a large manufacturing facility, with seven production lines in Telangana to cater to the markets of the undivided Andhra Pradesh and parts of Karnataka. The company, which has 22 brands in its product portfolio comprising food and beverages, has annual retail sales of about $1 billion. Sitting on a land bank of 8,000 acres, Sri City currently houses 106 companies employing 25,000 directly The GVK group plans to set up a hospital, medical college and a research centre at Sri City with an initial investment of Rs 100 crore, according to officials."

Andhra Pradesh government which is bending backwards to please the MNC seems to be forgetting what happened in Kerala years ago when the people of Plachimeda, a small hamlet in that state where a similar bottling plant was allowed to be set up led to one of the most virulent opposition campaigns India has ever seen against the corporate investor. Besides over exploiting water resources, the spent water polluted the area heavily causing many problems to the local population and thanks to people's power the bottling plant was forced to be shut down once for all. Interestingly the investors in A.P are using sugar coated words like employment generation, benefiting the farmer, high technology, research and innovation etc to mislead the government. It is difficult to imagine how farmers are going to benefited if the major product made is flavored sugary water, though there is a sprinkling of fruit based but sugar sweetened drinks containing traces of natural fruit solids! Unhealthy products like potato chips, fried and heavily salted extruded snacks etc are going to be the major part of the turn over expected from this factory. There is not even a single healthy product in the portfolio of products churned out by this company justifying conferring so much favors on it. If this is the forerunner of things to come under the "make in India" slogan, where is this country going to end up? God save the country!


Monday, March 30, 2015

How does Indian food safety vigilance compare with that of USA?

If number of violations and indictments for the same in the food safety area is compared between the US and India, probably we may get some solace that this country is in a better position, especially if health damages from such foods are kept in view. But scratching the surface further, we can realize that such solace is totally out of place because of massive deficiencies in our data base and relatively tough "bellies" Indians have, practically immune to many infectious food borne pathogens. There are neither regular inspections, nor massive product calls nor fast indictment of violators in our country. Can we say with any degree of confidence that any food or water consumed in our country is safe as measured by international standards? Take for example our water supply systems in metro areas. There is no city or town in the country which can assure its citizens that its so called protected water delivery system can pass the safety test where as in a country like the US even water from a toilet tap is relatively safe! Recently there has been some move by the law makers in the US to bring about further improvements in the safety vigilance system there which is commendable. Here is a take on this new initiatives being attempted to overhaul the food inspection machinery that is operating in that country.

"U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) is asking the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to increase the number of food facility inspections it performs and deal out greater fines to facilities found to have unsanitary conditions. He also called for an "easily accessible, real-time" source of information for restaurants and consumers who want to know about the conditions of the facilities that produce or warehouse their food.According to a press release from Schumer's office on Monday, in 2014, FDA cited more than 90 food warehouses and other facilities around the country for unsanitary conditions, including rat infestations. Food from those facilities could pose a public health threat, Schumer said. The press release cited a number of examples of facilities that received warnings, including a Brooklyn-based food warehouse containing rodent carcasses and feces, as well as insects at a rice producer and dead mice and rats at a cookie-production facility.FDA currently inspects "high risk" food facilities once every three years, while other facilities are inspected even less often. Even facilities with minor problems should be inspected more often than once every three years, he said.
Schumer outlined a three-part plan he feels would rectify seemingly widespread problems with food facility sanitation:
    1. More inspections. Any facility with problems that merit a warning letter from FDA should be immediately categorized as "high risk." FDA should also increase the number of inspections for high-risk facilities. When facilities provide evidence that they are no longer high risk, they return to a lower classification.
    2. Searchable database of problematic facilities. Restaurants and consumers need a clearer way to tell whether or not they're receiving food from clean facilities. "The FDA should provide an easy to find, search and navigate database of these facilities and their violations on their website or through another forum FDA believes can most effectively inform consumers," the press release stated.
    3. Increased penalties for violations. For fiscal year 2015, the fees associated with re-inspections of problematic facilities were estimated at $217 per hour. That's not a heavy enough fine to encourage strict compliance with food safety regulations, Schumer said."

What is very interesting is the relatively high level of awareness about the problems of consumers vis-a-vis food safety among the law makers and the extent of their involvement in consumer protection programs of the country. In contrast our law makers, if we go by their standards of behavior in the Lok Sabha or Rajya Sabha or state legislatures, have no time for any thing but shouting, demonstrations, personal fights and many non-issues of total irrelevance to the needs of the citizen. Bills are enacted into law with hardly any discussions and implementation details are rarely worked out. To day's Food Security Act is nothing but a sham, "managed" wholly by the hardened bureaucrats with very little commitment or honest objective. In a country of scarcities in every food category and high prices, probably people may have to build dedicated temples for the "Food God" to protect them from food fraudsters and criminals with very little concern or value for the lives of ordinary people and offer prayers regularly!


Sunday, March 29, 2015

A park for street foods? Odissa steals the show!

Whoever has thought of the latest "street food park" concept, being planned in Orissa deserves full marks for addressing an issue that poses multidimensional challenges to the civic authorities all across the country ever since India became an independent country. If reports are to be believed the Cuttack Municipal Corporation (CMC) in Orissa is "set" to launch such a park in the city within a month by providing some minimum infrastructure to enable street vendors to serve safe foods to the citizens there without affecting the pedestrian cross walks or the traffic nearby. CMC is also promising to provide necessary facilities like potable water supply, adequate cleaning water, lighting, toilet rooms and waste disposal system. It was not long ago that this Blogger suggested in one of the blogs about setting up a series of food plazas in almost all cities in the country away from busy thoroughfares within the city with suitable infrastructure so that city centers are not cluttered unnecessarily, adversely affecting smooth flow of both vehicular as well as the pedestrian traffic. Unfortunately such constructive suggestions never reach the ears of our politicians who have their own agenda and -priorities when it comes to spending public funds. There fore the developments in Cuttack should gladden the hearts of many progressive people in the country. Here is a take on this new development happening in one of the backward states of the country. . 

"The civic body has decided to set up the exclusive food park on Baliyatra ground, adjacent to the Mahanadi river bed, where food lovers can enjoy delicious and mouth-watering delicacies of the Millennium City such as dahibara, aludum and gupchup without being worried about falling ill.  The infrastructure of the street food park will be set up at a cost of Rs 10 lakh. Besides lighting arrangements, the CMC will ensure supply of safe drinking water to the park and some beautification work of the area. Toilet facilities and a garbage disposal system will also be put in place. The civic body officials said licences would be issued to the street food vendors to do business in the park and food inspectors will regularly monitor the quality of food. "We will start work on the street food park project within a month. The ground is used only during Baliyatra so we can easily accommodate the street food hawkers on it by creating the necessary infrastructure," said Gyana Ranjan Das, CMC commissioner.  Das said the food park would be made to look attractive to ensure footfall of food lovers and tourists. "Ensuring hygiene and cleanliness at the food park will be our priority," said a senior CMC officer". 

While appreciating such new initiatives especially in the government sector, one has to bear with some skepticism regarding the practicalities of such a revolutionary proposal. For example the place identified for setting up the Park is already being used by some sections of society for different activities and whether the new proposal will elicit protests from them remains to be seen. Similarly providing food inspection arrangement by frequent visits by the food vigilance officers is indeed a good thought, though how far in practice such inspections and action against defaulters will happen is uncertain. In stead it will be more effective if at least one dedicated food inspection officer is posted permanently to look after the quality and safety of products as well as the services offered by the participating vendors. Licensing must be hassle free and affordable to the micro entrepreneurs who come forward to invest in the Park. In stead of initiating legal proceedings against defaulters, it is worth trying for settling quality complaints within the park premises amicably through a committee system represented by the vendors and the CMC officers. Training program included in the plan is commendable as most violations take place out of ignorance and persuasive efforts can bring rich dividends.All said and done, here is a model being attempted in Cuttack and if successful deserves to be replicated throughout the country. .  


Monday, March 23, 2015

Healthy foods Vs unhealthy foods-A contrasting marketing landscape

Considering all the factors that have contributed to the progressive deterioration of health among people, the most important is the way food marketing environment is changing every where in the world. Food technology developments are boosting the capability of food processing industry to create foods tailor made to "trap" the consumers, with no concern about their well being. There is a qualitative transformation of the food "environment", that includes food retailing and eating places, where proportion of healthy foods to the total number of products offered to the consumers has been decreasing alarmingly resulting in more and more people sucked into the unhealthy food trap. Added to this the cost difference between healthy foods and junk foods is widening with the former some time costing more than double that of junk foods. Why is this happening? Does the market place play a part in this cost escalation vis-a-vis health foods? Or does the consumer attitude is responsible for this phenomenon? Probably this is a complex issue on which it may be difficult to arrive at a consensus. Here are some observations made by one of the study groups concerned about the deteriorating food environment that may drown this planet in agony and despair soon if some thing drastic is done to arrest the trend.

"Last December, researchers at Harvard published a paper scientifically examining a complaint common among conscientious eaters -- that healthy food is more expensive than junk. That paper, published in British Medical Journal, found that eating a healthy diet costs approximately $1.50 more per day. Today, researchers in the United Kingdom published a study in PLOS ONE that gives yet more insight into this topic: not only is healthy food more costly than unhealthy food but the price gap between them has grown significantly over a 10-year period. The researchers, led by Nicholas Jones from the University of Cambridge, used data from the UK Consumer Price Index to track the cost of 94 foods and beverages from 2002 to 2012. They also used  a technique called "nutrient profiling" to determine which foods might be considered healthy and unhealthy, based on information such as the amount of saturated fat and sugar per 100g. What they found: in 2012, 1000 kcal of "healthy" food cost approximately $12, while 1000 kcal of unhealthy food cost only $4. And while the mean price of all foods rose 35 percent over that 10-year period, the researchers found that "the price of more healthy foods was consistently greater than that of less healthy foods over the period 2002–2012, and that the absolute price gap between healthy and less healthy foods has grown over this period. "Food poverty and the rise of food banks have recently been an issue of public concern in the UK," Jones said in a statement about the research," but as well as making sure people don't go hungry it is vital that that a healthy diet is affordable."

One of the mysteries associated with the working logistics of modern food industry is how it is able to offer foods considered desirable, but not necessarily healthy, at such low prices and still make money? Mass production and bargaining muscle probably enable it to bring down production cost significantly. On the other hand insufficient demand for healthy foods make the manufacture some what less profitable making it a necessity to increase their price. Is it not paradoxical that when awareness about health and its relation to food is rising fast among people creating more and more demand for such foods in the market place, industry is unable to offer such products at prices comparable to that of junk foods? What justification industry can offer in making a whole wheat bread almost 50% costlier than white flour based bread? Technological limitation cannot be trotted out as an excuse because technology is relatively a minor component in the costing exercise. Considering these facts there is an urgent necessity for governments world over to bring in more regulations to compel the industry to manufacture more healthy foods and offer them on par with regular products now being churned out. The situation can become alarming if the present trend is allowed to continue with unhealthy foods overwhelming the portfolio of healthy foods, consumers can lay their hands on in the market place.    


Calorie counting in foods-Uncertainties regarding label declaration!

Why should the food industry print on the label the so called nutrition information? Those who came up with the idea of nutrition labeling were honest in their intention that such information would help the consumers to select the best foods from the market from the health point of view. But does it really happen the way it is intended to be?  Probably not! Why? The human biological system varies from person to person and the efficiency of utilizing the nutrients also will also vary. Therefore the figures printed on the food pack can at best indicate maximum efficiency without taking into consideration the individual variations or the extent of processing the food has undergone. Calorie values exemplify this paradox. The calorific value of food declared is based on the estimates arrived at through the Bomb calorie meter test where food is burned under controlled conditions to find out the calorific value. Unfortunately the human system cannot be expected to be as efficient as a bomb calorie meter with the digestion system depends on the compliment of enzymes and the microbiome that inhabit the GI tract. As a thumb rule more the food is processed or cooked more efficient is the digestion efficiency. Why this factor is important can be understood in the context of the critical role played by food calories in leading to over weight and obesity. Here is an interesting expose regarding the role of processing and cooking in calorie generation once the food is ingested and their fate within the system   . 

"Unfortunately, of course, in today's overfed and underexercised populations, nature's way is not the best way. If we want to lose weight we should challenge our instinctive desires. We should reject soft white bread in favor of rough whole wheat breads, processed cheese in favor of natural cheese, cooked vegetables in favor of raw vegetables. And to do so would be much easier if our food labels gave us some advice about how many calories we would save by eating less-processed food. So why are our nutritionist advisers mute on the topic? For decades there have been calls by distinguished committees and institutions to reform our calorie-counting system. But the calls for change have failed. The problem is a shortage of information. Researchers find it hard to predict precisely how many extra calories will be gained when our food is more highly processed. By contrast, they find it easy to show that if a food is digested completely, it will yield a specific number of calories. Our food labeling therefore faces a choice between two systems, neither of which is satisfactory. The first gives a precise number of calories but takes no account of the known effects of food processing, and therefore mismeasures what our bodies are actually harvesting from the food. The second would take account of food-processing, but without any precise numbers."

Ideally a healthy person must derive full benefit from the food he consumes and the nutrition guidelines do not make a differentiation between cooked foods and raw foods, the values of the latter being used universally in all guidelines across the world. If calorie needs are determined based on the theoretical calorie yield and if the calories contained in the diet are not absorbed, naturally the question arises whether man really needs so much calories as being recommended? Obviously consumers looking for 2000 kC from the food they consume will go by the theoretical values presented to them in the label. While a consumer eating minimally cooked or refined food will not derive the theoretical values because of the digestion inefficiency, those consuming highly processed foods will get almost 100% of the calories declared on the label. Another dimension to this paradox is that refined foods require less energy expenditure for the biological digestion system, eating minimally cooked foods calls for comparatively higher energy input by the body leaving very little for conversion to fat and consequently to weight gain. Sounds confusing? Well that is the reality and that is why health pundits universally condemn highly refined and over cooked foods because of their higher energy mobilization and fat deposition potential. No wonder consumers are realizing this "unpalatable" truth and shifting towards whole cereals and pulses and raw fruits and vegetables to avoid many life threatening health afflictions and improve the quality of life.