Sunday, July 24, 2016

Water "Biome"-A peep into the world of bacteria in water and its significance

Water borne diseases are known to cause havoc in human society since long and some of the diseases caused by them can prove to be fatal. It is this concern which is driving an entire industry called water purification industry that offers many technologies and equipment for supposedly making water potable. A new study questions the rationale of such an approach in using chemicals to purify water and hypotheses that natural water supply containing millions of bacteria is capable of purifying itself needing no elaborate treatment through intervention of any technology. It sounds crazy and may even be scary to believe such a claim though scientists may have their own rationale to come out with such a finding. In today's world even a child may not accept untreated water from a tap as is the case in most parts of India because of fear of serious diseases like cholera, dysentery and jaundice. The report of a scientific group on this issue can be seen below and it is very difficult to understand the logic of such an argument. 

"A glass of clean drinking water actually contains 10 million bacteria. But that is how it should be - clean tap water always contains harmless bacteria, researchers said. These bacteria and other microbes grow in the drinking water treatment plant and on the inside of our water pipes, which can be seen in the form of a thin, sticky coating - a so-called biofilm. All surfaces from the raw water intake to the tap are covered in this biofilm. These findings show that the diversity of species of bacteria in water pipes is huge, and that bacteria may play a larger role than previously thought. Among other things, the researchers suspect that a large part of water purification takes place in the pipes and not only in water purification plants. "A previously completely unknown ecosystem has revealed itself to us. Formerly, you could hardly see any bacteria at all and now, thanks to techniques such as massive DNA sequencing and flow cytometry, we suddenly see eighty thousand bacteria per millilitre in drinking water," said Catherine Paul from Lund University in Sweden. At least a couple of thousand different species live in the water pipes. According to the researchers there is a connection between the composition of bacteria and water quality. "We suspect there are 'good' bacteria that help purify the water and keep it safe- similar to what happens in our bodies. Our intestines are full of bacteria, and most of the time when we are healthy, they help us digest our food and fight illness," said Paul. Although the research was conducted in southern Sweden, bacteria and biofilms are found all over the world, in plumbing, taps and water pipes. This knowledge will be very useful for countries when updating and improving their water pipe systems, researchers said. "The hope is that we eventually may be able to control the composition and quality of water in the water supply to steer the growth of 'good' bacteria that can help purify the water even more efficiently than today," said Paul.

Though most people to day, educated on a staple diet of science may question the logic of the above findings, anecdotal episodes regarding millions of people in India living healthy by drinking water from natural resources in village area defies our understanding. In most metropolitan regions, it is hardly possible to find any people without a bottle of packed water in their hands because of the common perception that municipal water supply cannot be trusted for its safety. Under such a contradictory scenario what to believe or where lies the truth defy an answer.  Are we to believe that the multibillion dollar water purification industry has been taking us for a ride for decades by insisting on installing domestic purifiers or the large scale urban water purification systems working across the world are redundant?  Why is that health experts advise people to boil water before consumption? If the water pipes, storage tanks and water taps have biofilms of friendly bacteria, where is the need for any elaborate processing to make such waters potable? WHO of UNO must intervene to make the record straight for common man across the world to adopt a living practice that ensures safe water for drinking.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

"Cosmetic" food standards-Major causative factor for food wastage

If one can recall the words of late Dr HAB Parpia, doyen of food technology in India,  during sixties food wastage in the country amounted to more than 40% and according to him most of this wastage was taking place at the post harvest phase of the produce when it is transferred to the markets under none too ideal conditions. Probably many sceptics did not subscribe to this view though every one concedes there is "significant" loss of valuable foods in the food chain of the country. Is it not unfortunate that even to day ministers and bureaucrats conveniently quote this figure for food losses in their sterile speeches targeted at the gullible public? The tragedy is compounded by the reluctance or insensitivity all around to study this problem nation wide and arrive at consensus figures regarding wastage in different sectors like perishables including fruits, vegetables, spices, meat and poultry and so called durables like cereals, pulses and oil seeds that take place across the entire spectrum of food handling. It is against such a background that the following publication brought out the scenario in the US where food is wasted consciously by the citizens because they can afford it if not satisfied with the quality as represented by color, shape, size, appearance and texture. Here are further details about the whims of an entire population which has built up a "cult for perfection" in their every day life and throw away precious food that can feed almost a quarter of world population!.

"Americans throw away almost as much food as they eat because of a "cult of perfection", deepening hunger and poverty, and inflicting a heavy toll on the environment. The demand for 'perfect' fruit and veg means much is discarded, damaging the climate and leaving people hungry
Vast quantities of fresh produce grown in the US are left in the field to rot, fed to livestock or hauled directly from the field to landfill, because of unrealistic and unyielding cosmetic standards,according to official data and interviews with dozens of farmers, packers, truckers, researchers, campaigners and government officials as reported by the Guardian "It's all about blemish-free produce," says Jay Johnson, who ships fresh fruit and vegetables from North Carolina and central Florida. "What happens in our business today is that it is either perfect, or it gets rejected. It is perfect to them, or they turn it down. And then you are stuck." Food waste is often described as a "farm-to-fork" problem. Produce is lost in fields, warehouses, packaging, distribution, supermarkets, restaurants and fridges. By one government tally, about 60m tonnes of produce worth about $160bn (£119bn), is wasted by retailers and consumers every year – one third of all foodstuffs. That lost food is seen increasingly as a drag on household incomes – about $1,600 a year for a family of four  and a direct challenge to global efforts to fight hunger, poverty and climate change. Globally, about one-third of food is wasted: 1.6bn tonnes of produce a year, with a value of about $1tn. If this wasted food were stacked in 20-cubic metre skips, it would fill 80m of them, enough to reach all the way to the moon, and encircle it once. Food waste accounts for about 8% of global climate pollution, more than India or Russia. "There are a lot of people who are hungry and malnourished, including in the US. My guess is probably 5-10% of the population are still hungry – they still do not have enough to eat," said Shenggen Fan, the director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington. "That is why food waste, food loss matters a great deal. People are still hungry."
That is not counting the waste of water, land and other resources, or the toll on the climate of producing food that ends up in landfill.
This results in formation of methane gas contributing to climate change due to greenhouse effect."

Looking from another angle, every denizen has a "right" to buy whatever is offered for a price and what they do with it is their business. But can an interdependent global society  hide under such a narrow legal excuse to justify enormous waste of food,  especially in rich countries like the US just because these foods do not satisfy their aesthetic sense? If the above report is to be believed at a global level more than 30% of food is wasted advertently or other wise. While developing countries like India may be helpless to some extent in controlling food wastage because of lack of access to right types of agricultural and post harvest technologies, essential to save foods from the predators, they cannot be exonerated completely because most of them do not have visionaries and humane politicians at the helm of affairs to implement policies that can help prevent or reduce food wastage. This is nothing but callousness and indifference. While food wastes in wealthy countries can be understood because of the high buying capacity of the consumers there, same cannot be justified in poor countries where millions of people are reported to be going to bed every day on empty stomachs because of lack of accessibility to food due to improper cultivation and conservation practices. Why an agency like FAO of the UNO has not been able to do much in this area is baffling in spite of its existence for several decades. Present concerns about global warming and focussed international actions contemplated may be alright but same concern must be evident in ameliorating the hunger conditions of millions of people under starvation of different degree across the five continents through international cooperation. 


Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The GMO labeling sham in the US-A fraud on consumers!

If the recent proposal to dilute the compulsory labeling of GMO ingredients on the food pack labels become law, (as it  is likely to be soon) a crucial question that will be asked by the citizens in that country ia whether whether their cherished democracy is really working.? The elected representatives in the law making bodies there seem to be more interested in serving the industry to the detriment of the consumers rather than serving them! Billions of dollars food industry is paying for financing the election of these law makers compel them to serve their financiers than the citizens as reflected by the hectic haste with which this new toothless law is going to be enacted soon. This move is also for negating the wishes of majority of Americans who feel strongly with conviction that transparency in labeling is a must for informed choice in the market place. Read further about this disgusting behavior of the law makers in the US in protecting the industry instead of serving their true masters who are the honest citizens of that country who elected them.

"After several months of bargaining which resulted in backroom arguments, the Senate decided to vote for a new national standard set for labeling food that are made with ingredients derived from genetically engineered crops.  The purpose of the deal is that companies will be required to reveal their GMO ingredients (though they will not be required to put that information on the label). Most food companies are opposed to the existing type of GMO label because they feel consumers will view them (incorrectly) as a sign or warning that the products are either nutritionally inferior or unsafe to eat. If the new bill becomes law, food companies will be allowed to disclose the GMO ingredients used through a QR code that will be found on the package. That is the type of square barcode usually seen on an airline boarding pass. Consumers can scan the code to retrieve the information using their Smartphone. Smaller companies can print a Web address or a phone number where consumers can find out whether or not a product contains GMOs. Many who advocate for GMO labeling have attacked the bill. The executive director of Food and Water Watch, Wenonah Hauter, released a statement branding it "a slap to the face for all of all activists" who worked to pass compulsory GMO labels. Senators representing Vermont have opposed the bill as it strikes down Vermont' law that requires GMO labels right on a package. Despite these setbacks the Senate's proposal has endorsed support from the OTA (Organic Trade Association) an organization that represents major organic food enterprises and has been in support of labeling GMOs. The leaders of the Organic Trade Association sent a message explaining why they supported the bill to their members. They argued that the proposal contained key benefits for the organic industry."

The argument that GMO foods are safe is relevant in the above context because by the declaration on the label that the packet contains GMO ingredient does not make it lesser safe and therefore the demand by the consumers should have been honoured by the law makers if they had any sense of shame. A state like Vermont has already promulgated laws to make such label declaration mandatory for any foods manufactured or marketed in that state and it is not certain whether this law will be musseled by the new national one. If so it will be a sad day for the country that boasts itself as the strongest democracy on earth! Denizens world over can only pity the citizens in the US for their tribulations on this count.


Saturday, July 2, 2016

Indian organic food industry-A free for all situation!

Organic food industry globally is growing rapidly because of the dangers posed by the so called modern agriculture which uses a number of man made chemicals that include growth hormones, fertilizers, crop protectants and weedicides, many of them with doubtful safety credentials. Though organic foods cannot be considered as more nutritious or healthy as measured by well accepted yardsticks, their preference by many consumers is due to dramatic reduction of chemical residues in these crops giving some confidence that they are much more safer than their counterparts raised conventionally in many countries. When it comes to India the organic food industry is offering opportunity for many producers to compromise on their global standards and lull the consumers into apparent sense of safety though no one knows whether these products will pass muster if analysed as per global standards. After all Indians are more concerned about the acceptance of their organic products in the export markets while least bothered about domestic consumers. The fact that India's share of export in the international market is practically negligible because foreign buyers are not convinced about their reliability and credibility. The pitiable export figure of hardly 0.5% of the global market place speaks for itself. It is against such a bleak scenario that a report appeared recently in the media in India that government of India is "contemplating" setting in motion a "policy" to address this problem. Here is a take on this "information" from a "government source" about its "intention".

"ndia is creating its own organic products policy with clearly defined safety standards, traceability norms, soil certification guidelines and good agricultural practices.  The aim of the new policy is to boost exports of agricultural products and processed food from the country. The good agricultural practices (GAP) followed by countries such as the US, Brazil, the Netherlands and France are being studied by trade experts and officials to generate adequate inputs for the policy, a government official told BusinessLine. The Commerce Ministry is framing the policy in collaboration with the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI). "The idea is to have one uniform policy for the organic products sector so that domestic consumers as well as foreign buyers gain confidence that the items that are being sold to them as organic meet certain laid down standards," the official added. While the global organic food market is estimated at an annual $72 billion, exports from India are a mere $298 million. India exports mostly to the US, Europe, Korea, Australia, New Zealand and countries in South East Asia. In India, organic products for exports are certified by various certifying agencies accredited by the National Programme for Organic Production (NPOP), India, under Agriculture and Processed Food Products Export Development Agency (APEDA). For organic products sold in the domestic market, the certification process is largely voluntary, but FSSAI and Agmark are taking some steps to regulate it, the official added. Certification of organic soil in the country is a problem as there are no domestic certification agencies for that and the services of foreign certifying agents is use to certify the soil. With a proper policy in place, the process of cross checking guidelines by importing countries would become smoother. The same guidelines would also apply on items for exports, imports and domestic market. Traceability of inputs, especially in case of processed food to determine if all ingredients in a certified organic product are also organic, is also expected to improve once the policy is in place, the official added. India produced around 1.35 million tonnes of certified organic products which includes all varieties of food products such as sugarcane, oil seeds, cereals & millets, cotton, pulses, medicinal plants, tea, fruits, spices, dry fruits, vegetables and coffee."

How credible is this information? Looking at the past record of the successive governments, one is not inspired by such reports because such statements are more political in nature with very little possibility of any follow up action. The monolithic organization set up to ensure food safety and standards in the country has already proved to be a damp squib and except for grand standing from time to time and frequent photo op conferences and press briefings from the corridors of power, the pathetic situation vis a vis food safety  continues unabated in the country with adultererators and fraudsters having a roaring time in fleecing the citizens as they please with very little fear about any deterrent action by the government. One really gets flabbergasted by the news that another agency will be created to "oversee" production of organic foods in the country  which will help a few retired bureaucrats to find refuge in fancy offices and derive immense pecuniary benefits from the tax payers' money! While international standards do exist for almost all organic foods, the present attempt to evolve "Indian" standards is nothing but a ploy to rehabilitate a few scientists under government patronage under the excuse of a "technical committee" to "reinvent the wheel"! With government's resources stretched to the limit, a number of private players with doubtful credentials may get the opportunity to "certify" organic products made in this country for the benefit of the domestic consumers. Probably it will end up like the ISO certification system presently working in the country with every "Tom, Dick and Harry" claiming the expertise for providing the certification! A more practical approach could be to license established foreign certifying agencies with impeccable credentials to work in India along with Indian partners to overhaul the industry and build trust with the consumers, domestic as well as international. 


Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Changing face of agriculture and food-An encouraging trend

Agriculture provides bread and butter for the sustenance of population in this planet and every country strives to be self sufficient as far as food is concerned. But with limited land availability all countries cannot produce all their food needs without resorting to imports from surplus producers. Fair enough. What is galling however is the strategy, approach and practices indulged by those surplus producers to coax their land to produce more and more, year after year. The so called industrial agriculture, unlike the small farmer based economies that struggle in many developing countries, produces food that are patently unhealthy and possibly dangerous and most of the health disorders that plague the population in wealthy countries like obesity, CVD, blood pressure, cancer, diabetes etc have been attributed to the reckless way food is raised in these countries. Though dispassionate and well respected critics were crying hoarse about the direction in which agriculture has been moving during the last 3-4 decades, there is hardly any audience for them, the industry behaving as a law into itself without being checked or moderated by governments vested with the power of the people to ensure their welfare. Though there have been some minor changes in the attitude of the industry, still these changes were not considered significant enough to make any serious dent in the already deteriorating health of the denizens. Ultimately citizens are realizing that they cannot depend on the governments totally to protect them and being the consumers who sustain the industry they can have a sobering influence in the market place. According to some experts perceptible but significant changes are taking place in the food front in countries like the US where the influence of big agriculture is declining significantly and more healthy foods are providing options for them, mostly driven by consumer pressure. Read further about this epoch making changes in the food front.

"There are now more than 8,000 farmers markets in America, an increase of 180 percent since 2006. More than 4,000 school districts now have farm-to-school programs, a 430 percent increase since 2006, and the percentage of elementary school with gardens has doubled, to 26 percent.  During that period, sales of soda have plummeted, falling 14 percent between 2004 and 2014.The food industry is rushing to reformulate hundreds of products to remove high fructose corn syrup and other processed-food ingredients that consumers have made clear they will no longer tolerate. Sales of organic food have more than doubled since 2006, from $16.7 billion in 2006 to more than $40 billion today.
The kind of grass-finished beef and pastured eggs that Joel Salatin produces at Polyface Farm were so exotic in 2006 that national sales figures for them didn't exist; now, you can find these foods in many supermarkets, and both categories are growing by double-digit percentages each year. (Carl's Junior, the fast food chain, introduced a grass-fed hamburger in 2014.) From California to Georgia, there are now hundreds of farms modeled on Polyface's intricate choreography of animals. And Salatin himself has become an international celebrity farmer, a social type I don't think existed in 2006. In fact one of the most encouraging developments of the last few years has been the rising prestige of farmers, who, as Salatin pointed out, used to be the butt of dumb hick jokes. One of the most popular internships among college students today is to work on an organic farm. Most of these aspiring farmers will no doubt decide farming is not for them, but even those will emerge from the experience with a keener appreciation for what it takes to be a farmer and a greater willingness to pay a fair price for the important work farmers do. But some of these novices are evidently sticking it out: The total number of farmers in America, which had been in free fall for most of the 20th century as agriculture industrialized, has begun to rise again for the first time since the U.S. Department of Agriculture began keeping track. This is encouraging news, since it's hard to imagine creating a more sustainable and diversified agriculture without a great many more farmers on the land."

In a country like India green revolution and white revolution during the latter half of last century did bring about dramatic increase in the production of rice and wheat but the fortunes of millions of small farmers did not see much change. Thousands of small farmers are finding farm life unbearable and committing suicides to escape from misery and sufferings because the small landholdings, most of them being less than an hectare, cannot provide enough to elk out an honorable existence without heavy debt burden. The land scenario as it exists now does not lend itself to application of modern farming technologies and the financial wherewithal for adopting them is sorely missing. It is no wonder that rural farmers are shifting in hordes to urban regions looking for a livelihood as laborers and their number is dwindling fast. India is thus in a dilemma as to how it can feed its 1.2 billion plus population in the coming years having neglected agriculture for so long. The new emphasis by the present regime on agriculture needs to be translated into a mission based ground level action to save the farmers from extinction and spare the country of famine in future. Fortunately the much hated industrial agriculture has not been able to take roots in the country, in spite of the attempts being made by large MNCs and if healthy food is to be ensured this has to come from millions of small farmers who must be organized into modern cooperative organizations for large scale application of new indigenous technologies developed by our own varsities suited to small farmers. India must not repeat the mistakes of countries like the US in promoting powerful agricultural private corporates who eventually become too powerful to be controlled or moderated for the welfare of the citizens.. 


Ethics of food advertisements-Are the celebrities promoting unhealthy foods?

In a unique study in the US where consumers depend very heavily on processed foods and beverages, advertisements provide the most powerful tool for the food industry to persuade the consumers that their products are good and desirable. Interestingly industry has struck a gold mine by tapping the popularity of celebrity stars to endorse their products. Consumers seem to be accepting the words of these celebrity stars as truth though latter do not have any idea about the quality, healthiness or the safety of these products. The unique study carried out in the US as reported in the following report brings out clearly that most food products promoted through this route are unhealthy and one of the reasons for the US to become the capital of obesity is such unethical promotion of sugar sweetened and other unhealthy products by these stars. They make enormous fortunes by putting the lives of their admirers into danger by endorsing such products with least reservation! Reading this story makes on sad about the reckless way the processed food industry is coning the consumer. Read further:

The investigators then catalogued every endorsement between 2000 and 2014 using AdScope, an advertisement database that contains all forms of ads, including television, magazine, and radio. They also searched for official commercials or endorsements on YouTube and in media sources. Endorsements were defined to include a celebrity's participation in a concert sponsored by a product. After sorting the endorsements into different marketing categories, the authors found that 65 of 163 identified pop stars were associated with 57 different food and beverage brands. Food and nonalcoholic beverages were the second-largest endorsement category, comprising 18 percent of endorsements and ranking after consumer goods at 26 percent and ahead of retail at 11 percent. To assess nutritional value of the endorsed food products, the investigators analyzed nutrition information on food labels using the Nutrient Profile Model (NPM), which has been used in other food marketing research studies and provides a score that represents nutrient content. Twenty-one out of 26 food products -- or 81 percent -- were deemed "nutrient poor." The investigators determined a beverage's healthfulness by looking at calories from added sugar. Of 69 beverages endorsed, 49 or 71 percent were sugar-sweetened. Full-calorie soft drinks were the most commonly endorsed in the category. In contrast, water-related endorsements appeared only three times. Food & beverage companies spend $2 billion a year on youth-targeted ads, with American children seeing approximately 4,700 ads each year and teens viewing 5,900 ads per year, according to Institute of Medicine research. There were about 313 million views of the YouTube video versions for food and beverage endorsements associated with celebrities in this study's sample, although unique views could not be counted. Celebrity food endorsements promote higher product preference, and exposure to any kind of food advertising is linked to "excessive consumption," according to research. "These celebrity endorsement deals are often worth millions of dollars each, suggesting companies find them critical for promoting products," said Dr. Bragg. Food and beverage marketing has been identified in a variety of epidemiologic and psychology studies as a significant environmental contributor to childhood obesity. In 2012, over one-third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Public Health Service. Although many food and beverage companies have taken voluntary pledges not to target children under 12 years old with certain marketing, teens are not included. "Given the heavy targeting of adolescents and the amount of money they spend on foods and beverages, voluntary food marketing reduction pledges should expand to include teens," said Dr. Bragg. "This also would be consistent with American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations, which encourages pediatricians to support local and national efforts to reduce food marketing while also counseling patients to limit screen time." Celebrities also should use their influence to promote more healthful marketing and encourage consumption of healthy foods, the authors suggest. "The popularity of music celebrities among adolescents makes them uniquely poised to serve as positive role models," said Alysa N. Miller, MPH, study co-author and research coordinator in the Department of Population Health. "Celebrities should be aware that their endorsements could exacerbate society's struggle with obesity -- and they should endorse healthy products instead."

Is this true in India too? Of course such practices are more rampant in India than in any other country because the industry knows that Indians adore almost all the cinema artists and for many of them these stars are demi-Gods! Where else in the world one can see temples being dedicated to popular cinema stars except in India? Is it not unfortunate that these so called mega stars never pause for a moment to think about the health risks associated with many products they endorse so enthusiastically for a few quick bucks? While there is reasonable restrictions on dubious claims being printed on a label of a food packet, there does not appear to be in place any credible mechanism to book the culprits making false claims in the electronic media, allowing them to get away scot free. Look at the kids food scenario in India where many big manufacturers promote their patently unhealthy products on television media targeting the kids with tempting toys to attract them. It is time we take corrective action now to stop the industry from indulging in such "corrupt" and unethical practices for improving their bottom line by putting the lives of kids in danger in the long term. Cine artists must evolve a code of conduct for their members in patronizing industry products based on the healthiness of the products as recommended by the food health authorities in the country. This is a social responsibility from which they should not shy away.