Friday, November 30, 2012


Urban migration that is taking place in many countries has adverse implications on food security of the world. This is especially true in many developing countries where agricultural activities are concentrated in rural areas where a majority of the population reside. If the past trend in a country like USA is taken into consideration, a time will come when less than 10% of the country's population will have to raise foods for the rest. How can this be done? Land consolidation is bound to take place for making agricultural activity economically more viable and with fewer hands available for carrying out field operations, more and more mechanized contraptions will come into play to sustain food production. Mechanized cultivation so far involved preparing the land, sowing, de-weeding, harvesting, threshing, storage and milling. In all these operations some human involvement is absolutely necessary to operate the machinery. But according to some visionaries even humans will be eventually replaced with advanced robots with multiple functions and versatile capabilities. Here is a take on this exciting future scenario.

"David Dorhout currently works in the biotech industry, but his side project and passion for the last few years has been robotics. Built as the test platform for a larger robotic farming system, Prospero is just one of what will eventually become a swarm of planting, tending, and harvesting robots made to optimize every inch of arable space in a given field. Prospero is a prototype for robotic organism that Dorhout is currently developing. Right now, he's got a small fleet of six-legged robots capable of working together to optimize the planting of a given piece of farmland using swarm technology and software running game theory. The robots communicate with each other via infrared, marking places that have already been planted and signaling to each other when one needs help seeding a particular plot. Prospero is just the beginning, Dorhout told He aims to build a robot that can plant, maintain, and harvest an entire crop all autonomously and, more importantly, in the most efficient way possible. Swarms of Robo-farmers could work around the clock to help keep a field in optimal conditions, fighting pests and other invasive plants without chemicals and increasing both crop yield and crop health. His current six-legged robo-farmer is the first step in what might radically change our approach to agriculture. See Prospero in action, as well as Dorhout's robo-centric vision of the future of farming, in the video below".

While robots are extensively used these days for operating in unbearable working conditions and in non-food manufacturing operations, they have not made any significant impact on the food processing floor. There are a few advocates of use of robots on the processing floor for better safety of products but their use in the field for agricultural operations is some what far fetched, though not impossible. This is an age where robots are replacing man in many endeavors and agriculture is bound to succumb to the versatility of robots  one day or the other. Wait and see.



Any industry will always try to maximize its profits through many honest way and it is to be admitted that input material invariably forms a sizable component in the end product price. This is no exception to flour milling industry also which uses wheat as its raw material. Unlike Chakkis, modern Roller Flour Mills process the wheat into consumer products like Suji and Maida while Bran and Germ are by products. With slow disappearance of Chakkis in many parts of the country, big flour mills have entered into the Atta market with their own brands and to day branded Atta costs any where from Rs 35-40 per kg while the raw wheat sells at Rs 18-20 per kg. Naturally the industry can be expected to have comfortable margins in the manufacture of Atta, Maida and Suji. However the stand being taken by the flour milling industry that they are all incurring heavy losses is some what puzzling. Recent GOI modification of wheat pricing with uniform prices across the country seems to have gladdened the hearts of the millers probably because their profitability is bound to go up under the new policy. Here is a take on this issue.

"Roller flour mills in the northern region are gearing up to step up capacity utilisation after the Central government revisited its decision on the price of wheat under the open market sales scheme to provide a level playing field to flour mills across India. Flour mills in the north — particularly in the states of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh — had been keeping their capacities idle, as wheat in the producing states was available to them at a higher price than in the consuming states, making business unviable. Under the latest guidelines, wheat prices (per quintal) in the producing states have been fixed at Rs 1,403 in Uttar Pradesh, Rs 1,417 in Madhya Pradesh, Rs 1,446 in Haryana and Rs 1,484 in Punjab. In the consuming states, the price of wheat will now be the price in the state from where it is imported, plus freight charges. Earlier, freight charges and state taxes in the consuming states were subsidised, making wheat dearer in the producing states. The president of the Madhya Pradesh Roller Flour Millers Association, Sunil Aggarwal, said, "About 50 per cent of India's flour mills are located in the producing states, as it makes business sense. The state has close to 50 flour mills with an installed capacity of 200 tonnes per mill per month. All of them were running at 30-40 per cent capacity. This will now increase substantially." Adi Narayan Gupta of the Roller Flour Millers Association of Uttar Pradesh said wheat is available in Delhi at Rs 1,328 per quintal and in Uttar Pradesh at Rs 1,403. The state has over 140 flour mills and all are battling for survival. The new price has created a favourable climate for mills in Uttar Pradesh, which can now sell in Delhi. Taxes are the highest in Punjab and Haryana. These taxes come in the form of VAT (value-added tax), mandi fee, arhtiya commission, labour charges, handling charges and rural development fund. The taxes are close to 15.5 per cent in Punjab and 13.5 per cent in Haryana. In Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, they are slightly lower than in Haryana, but small flour millers were finding it difficult to compete with millers in other states in the wake of differentiation in wheat prices. The Food Corporation of India pays these taxes to the state on procurement of wheat over and above minimum support price of wheat, which is Rs 1,285 per quintal. The president of the Roller Flour Millers Association of Punjab, Naresh Ghai, said wheat products (wheat flour and refined wheat flour or maida) were coming from other states (Rajasthan, Delhi, Chandigarh), and this would now get discouraged. Wheat is sold to millers through the open market sales scheme. Punjab's millers did not participate in the tenders for wheat under the scheme, as the prices were unviable for them (the neighbouring states were offering wheat to their millers at lower rates). Now they will have better access to wheat at a viable price, Ghai said. Millers in Haryana are hopeful, as they expect sales to double now. Close to two dozen mills have shut down in the past few months due to the Centre's unfavourable policy, said C P Gupta, the president of Roller Flour Millers Association of Haryana. "Of 65 mills only 40 were functional and had been operating at 15-20 per cent of capacity. The amendment in the policy will help us revive operations."The country has a buffer stock of wheat, and there are no supply constraints. Consistency in government policy, millers said, was imperative for the growth of small and medium flour mills".

It is alleged, probably with some justification that wheat that is siphoned off from the leaky PDS often ends up in flour mills and that may be the reason why the mills were working at lower capacity to just process the quantities received through back channels. Other wise it is difficult to understand why these mils are still working at all incurring losses! Normal economic sense tells that lower the margin higher should be the volume of production through higher capacity utilization. Good days can be expected for the industry in the coming days under the new policy! The recent announcement by the Prime Minister about rolling out the government's newly discovered Direct Cash Transfer alternative to PDS may still upset the apple cart of this industry.


Thursday, November 29, 2012


Taxation and other financial impositions by governments all over the world are borne by the citizens believing that the money so collected goes for developmental activities beneficial to the citizen. But this does not happen, especially in an over democratic country like India where silent tax players never ask the government about lack of development in spite of paying taxes at rates unbearable to many. On top of it natural resources like spectrum, coal etc are distributed at throw away prices creating huge financial scams, depriving the government the much needed financial inputs for various developmental activities. Added to this a small percentage of citizens, that too mostly from the salaried class who pay income tax while a bevy of taxes are "innovated", like sales tax, value added tax, excise duty, import duty, service tax, wealth tax, road tax, property registration fees etc to fleece the citizens. While all these are understandable, what is reprehensible is the tax levied on food and drugs by state governments making them more expensive. How can any one justify taxing a basic food like food grain which is the essential for any human being to lead a normal life. Here is a critique on this subject.

'High taxes, levied by major food grain growing states of Punjab and Haryana, have made the Centre's task of selling wheat at low rates in the open market difficult. The taxes, ranging from 4.7 per cent in Madhya Pradesh to 11.5 per cent in Haryana and still higher at almost 14.5 per cent in Punjab, are incurred by the Centre while procuring grains from farmers every year at a fixed minimum support price (MSP). It is difficult for the Centre not to pass on these taxes to consumers at the time of selling grains in the open market as then its food subsidy burden will further inflate. According to some estimates, around 10 per cent or Rs 7,000 crore of the total food subsidy in 2011-12 was due to state taxes and levies, which the Food Corporation of India (FCI) paid by way of levies and taxes to different states".

Government of India generates inflation index periodically and one is not sure how reliable these figures are. Still a major contributor to inflation is the taxes levied on every conceivable consumer material the government can set its yes on! How can the private vendors and shops can be faulted if they also indulge in raising the prices on their own. Look at the hotel sector which has seen price hikes to the extent of 100% during the last two years as they are not covered by the rule of compulsory MRP declaration. Even those covered under MRP regulations consumers have learned long ago that the MRP declaration does not serve much of a purpose because, till recently, consumer products industry has been practicing fraudulent means in keeping the price line steady but progressively reducing the quantity within a pack! A honest government if it has any consideration for the sufferings of its people must exempt all foods, especially the basic ones, from the purview of punitive taxation!  The excuse that federal government in India cannot prevent the states from imposing tax on foods is just an excuse which the citizens cannot accept.



It is most unfortunate that in India decisions which can be taken by the executive authorities often end up in judicial courts for orders and directives. Latest case to knock on the doors of the Court pertains to the safety of soda. When there are hundreds of food products, some of which are not even edible, are sold in the market with no proper overseeing, time of the Courts and the government is wasted on silly issues like safety of soda made by the industry as per the standards laid down by the concerned authorities. The observation of the court that consumer must be educated regarding the undesirability of consuming synthetic drinks touches the very core of the problem. Assuming that such education process is a long drawn affair, why should any one suspect that all soda products are dangerous? If so world over these products would have been banned by now. Here is a take on this issue as reported recently. 

"Justice KS Radhakrishnan and Justice Dipak Misra called for the records of the FSSAI's technical committee after counsel Prashant Bhushan said the authority's Sep 12 order was given by its committee on advertisement and labelling, not by the scientific panel on food additives. As Bhushan focused on the health hazards of carbonated beverages, Justice Radhakrishnan observed that the "best course is to educate people not to consume beverages." "All cricketers are promoting soft drinks on television," he said. Assailing the order which was submitted to the court, Bhushan said the order, issued Sep 12 by FSSAI assistant director Kamal Kumar, was like affixing the authority's stamp on a report by soft drink manufacturers. Bhushan, appearing for petitioner Centre for Public Interest Litigation, told the court that the order said benzene residue in carbonated beverages was formed only under certain conditions when agents like benzoates and ascorbic acid were present together with heat, ultraviolet light and metallic ion mixture."However, in the absence of benzoic acid and ascorbic acid together, benezene residues are not generated (in carbonated beverages)," the order said. It said that according to studies by Indian Council for Medical Research, the consumption pattern of the beverages was only 500 ml per day in a "worst case scenario which do not appear to pose any health hazard." The order said Indian Beverage Association had confirmed to the FSSAI that in India, benzoic and ascorbic acids were not present together in the beverages. Seeking the minutes of the technical committee which had a hearing for eight days, Bhushan asked if the FSSAI had itself done any test to determine the presence of benzoic acid in carbonated beverages. Bhushan told the court that the FSSAI was not accepting the findings of its own lab in Ghaziabad."

One may recall the pending proposal in New York, to limit the size of soda products sold in the market to 16 oz or less, is still mired in controversy while in India the very safety of the product is being questioned. If some body is using non-permitted chemical preservatives in a beverage product there is adequate reddressal mechanism in the statute books and those breaking the law can be hauled up for punishment. Regarding the issue of Benzene the traces of this chemical coming from thousands of Petrol Bunks located all over the country and being inhaled by those residing near these outlets and those using fossil fuel based transport must be more dangerous than a sip of soda! Probably not many are concerned about this danger while industry as a whole is being made a whipping boy! Consumer activists do serve a purpose but there should be some balance in accusing the industry day in and day out for things they cannot be blamed.


Wednesday, November 28, 2012


A former minister, in his new avatar as the latest  President of this country recently had a chance to say some thing about Indian agriculture which is interesting to hear. It is a pity that after practically wasting 65 years since independence, now comes the realization that the country's agricultural situation is not good and the farmers in this country are not well off! Being a part of the so called planners for almost 5 decades, now turning around to blame the very same planners for not achieving prosperity through more farmer oriented programs with significantly visible impact is some what far fetched which may sound hollow. Still the fact uttered by him is 100% correct and the country must introspect as to why farmers are committing suicide in droves in spite of trillions of rupees pumped into the economy in the name of farm subsidies. Every government with a tenure of five years does not take seriously long term needs of the country, being busy managing day to day chores that will not precipitate any immediate crisis! Here is the statement of the President in a conference in Ludhiana which tells its own story.  

President Pranab Mukherjee on Tuesday underscored the need for a rethink on the agriculture policy to ensure food security in the country and meet key challenges in the farm sector. Addressing an assembly of academia and experts at the international conference on 'Sustainable Agriculture for Food and Livelihood Security' organised by Punjab Agricultural University to mark its golden jubilee, the President sought to know why despite an overall improved growth scenario in the country, economic viability of agriculture sector continued to be a challenge. He asked policy planners to ponder as to why prosperity eluded a large part of the agriculture sector despite government programmes and schemes that were backed by efforts of the scientific and corporate community. "We must have in place a coherent and comprehensive policy that has synergy among its elements. Government initiatives are of little use without efficient system for their implementation. Equally important is the necessity for collaboration between the state and Central governments on monitoring and appraisal of various schemes. A coordinated and integrated approach should start at the grassroots," he said.

if politics were not injected into the rural sector, especially in a country considered grossly under developed viewed from literacy angle, it takes lot of dedication, hard work and commitment to develop rural agriculture. A prospective but dynamic policy frame work with clear cut long term goals and mode of action must be evolved that will keep in view country's food needs while farmer prosperity is not jeopardized. If the farmers are happy the country will be well off without any foreign prop. What prevents succeeding governments from formulating such a policy is still a mystery. Funds are available, land is plenty, farmers are hardworking, consumer demand is high, private entrepreneurship is commendable and modern technologies are continuously being developed but still the country is just limping along with mediocre performance in farm sector. If President's words are sincere he must energize his government in evolving a dynamic farmer driven agricultural policy that will bring further prosperity to this country.



In an alarming report food-drug interaction is claimed to be a serious concern that deserves much more attention and focus in future. Who ever will suspect that Grapefruit consumption can cause problem to those who take regular medications for managing life style diseases like blood pressure which can even pose life threatening risks in some cases? After all citrus fruits in general are considered a valuable source of Vitamin C and many health boosting phyto chemicals and if the reports are true, there is an urgent need to open up investigations for bringing out such dangers with regard to other foods also. Here is a gist of the findings of some scientists which deserve serious attention by nutritionists and medical community alike.

The fruit can cause overdoses of some drugs by stopping the medicines being broken down in the intestines and the liver. The researchers who first identified the link said the number of drugs that became dangerous with grapefruit was increasing rapidly. They were writing in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. The team at the Lawson Health Research Institute in Canada said the number of drugs which had serious side effects with grapefruit had gone from 17 in 2008 to 43 in 2012. They include some drugs for a range of conditions including blood pressure, cancer and cholesterol-lowering statins and those taken to suppress the immune system after an organ transplant.Continue reading the main story "Start QuoteOne tablet with a glass of grapefruit juice can be like taking five or 10 tablets with a glass of water" Dr David Bailey. Chemicals in grapefruit, furanocoumarins, wipe out an enzyme which breaks the drugs down. It means much more of the drug escapes the digestive system than the body can handle. Three times the levels of one blood pressure drug, felodipine, was reported after patients had a glass of grapefruit juice compared with a glass of water. The side effects are varied depending on the drug, but include stomach bleeds, altered heart beat, kidney damage and sudden death. Dr David Bailey, one of the researchers, told the BBC: "One tablet with a glass of grapefruit juice can be like taking five or 10 tablets with a glass of water and people say I don't believe it, but I can show you that scientifically it is sound. "So you can unintentionally go from a therapeutic level to a toxic level just by consuming grapefruit juice." The report said: "We contend that there remains a lack of knowledge about this interaction in the general health care community." They added: "Unless health care professionals are aware of the possibility that the adverse event they are seeing might have an origin in the recent addition of grapefruit to the patient's diet, it is very unlikely that they will investigate it." Other citrus fruits such as Seville oranges, often used in marmalade, and limes have the same effect. Neal Patel, from the Royal Pharmaceutical Society said: "Grapefruit isn't the only food that can cause issues, for example milk can stop the absorption of some antibiotics if taken at the same time. "Although some of these interactions may not be clinically significant, some may lead to more serious outcomes.

Inter disciplinary interactions among scientists are increasingly becoming more and more relevant in the light of the above findings. Already mankind is facing a health crisis due to shifting dietary habits with predominance of calorie rich foods, over use of antibiotics and use in feeds to animals, emergence of more and more virulent pathogens resistant to most antibiotics known to day, wide scale food contamination episodes linked food and environmental deterioration. If drug-food interactions become a serious concern, a total rethinking may be necessary on future life styles, if a major calamity is to be averted.


Tuesday, November 27, 2012


India is the only country where citizens, especially poor in terms of income, are showered with subsidies for every thing to the tune of trillions of rupees, whether they are justified or not. The leaky Public Distribution System (PDS), supposed to deliver the basic needs of food grains and sugar to all families below the poverty line bench marked by the government, entails almost one lakh crore every year though it is an open market secret that a significant portion of the grains earmarked by the government is siphoned of by unscrupulous and lumpen elements, many beneficiaries short circuited in the process. Time and again the ruling government had shown their incapability or apathy in curtailing such colossal misappropriation of public resources to such a staggering extent. Against such a back ground comes the declaration from no less a person than the Prime Minister of the country who declared that in stead of subsidized food grains each beneficiary would be paid cash directly under the electronic Direct Cash Transfer policy being implemented soon. Here is a take on this grandiose plan of the government.

"Singh summarised the challenges at the meeting. "This is a programme in which the implementation capacity of our government will be tested. We must ensure at all times that there is no duplication of effort and technology is used to the fullest for efficiency gains. The timelines we have set for ourselves are ambitious. Fifty one districts are to (have a) roll out from January next year and 18 states from April. And, the rest of the country later in 2013." All ministries and departments engaged in transferring benefits would be quickly moving to the electronic Direct Cash Transfer (DCT) system, based on the Aadhaar-payment platform. Schemes are identified for movement to this system. The road map for each scheme will follow a schedule under which 51 districts will be covered from January 1, 2013, a full 18 states from April 1, 2013, and the rest of the country from April 1, 2014, or earlier. The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) has set up a cell of technical experts to facilitate Aadhaar-enabled DCTs and help individual ministries. The department of financial services is helping in the movement to universal financial inclusion through individual bank accounts for all. The PM stressed the funds meant for direct benefits, such as pensions, scholarships and healthcare benefits, must reach the intended beneficiaries without delays. "Apart from these direct benefits, the government also provides an amount of over Rs 300,000 crore in subsidies, which, too, must reach the right people," he added. The PM also called for coordinated effort between the finance ministry and UIDAI. "The twin pillars for the success of the system of DCTs that we have envisioned are the Aadhaar platform and financial Inclusion. If either of these pillars is weak, it would endanger the success of the initiative. I would expect the finance ministry and the Unique Identification Authority to work in close coordination to achieve a collective goal," he said.

It is difficult to understand the boldness of a government, especially towards the end of its term to indulge in such massive distribution of cash to millions of people using the electronic Identity system of Aadhar. If one looks at the working of Aaadhar itself during the last two years, there are thousands of citizens who have been left out and even those cases already processed are waiting to receive their ID cards indefinitely. Assuming that every citizen is covered by Aadhar ID system, how can the banking infrastructure at present cope up with millions of new accounts needed to be opened by beneficiaries? What happens if bank facilities are not available nearby? What about delays that may be caused by an inefficient bureaucratic set up in processing the papers? What if the bank account holder misuses the funds credited to his account for drinking and gambling which is a major social curse in Indian society? With illiteracy prevalent widely what happens to those who cannot operate bank accounts? Is it not opening the flood gates of corruption in a country which is seeing huge financial scams taking place under the very nose of the citizens? Like these there are going to be hundreds of issues which need to be sorted out before rolling out such a difficult scheme all over the country. Impending elections should not the driving force for changing the existing PDS which, in spite of its many deficiencies, has stood the test of time. Probably this is a fit case for judicial intervention which only can stop this reckless policy of the present government in squandering tax payers money!


Monday, November 26, 2012


There are two ways to make food industry behave in a style that will ensure safety and well being of consumers. One is to impose through harsh measures safety standards by putting in place well reasoned and technically feasible measures which all manufacturers are bound to abide by. Another option is to persuade the industry to exercise voluntary restraints on practices that can adversely impinge on consumer health. In most Western countries a combination of the above two approaches is in vogue. However past experiences show that voluntary restraint based model guidelines do not work very satisfactorily with some segment of the industry not following the guidelines and progress is relatively slow. Many impartial observers believe that the self constraint mode can be made more effective if appropriate incentives are provided to the industry for bettering their performance. One such incentive involves providing recognition of good performers through friendly competition which hopefully will motivate others to further their efforts to match the leaders. Here is an example of such a system that seems to be working in California, USA.

"Few things can spoil an evening like finding a hair in your pasta, a roach swimming around in your soup or that awful feeling in your gut when you realize something was wrong with the pork chops you just ate. On Tuesday, the Tulane County Board of Supervisors will honor more than 90 restaurants and other food vendors that have done better jobs than most of ensuring their food is stored, handled and prepared in ways that meet state health and safety standards. All will receive Excellence in Food Safety Awards as part of a program started in 2010 by the California Restaurant Association's Central Valley Chapter. The awards go to food businesses that score 95 percent or higher on at least three consecutive county food business health inspections. The winners range from restaurants to markets to a hotel".

Restaurants, besides providing nice tasting food preparations, offer a change for millions of people from their routine chores and the ambiance that exists in many eating establishments is stimulating and relaxing. Eating out is a phenomenon that is becoming an integral part of the modern life and in many countries such foods make up as much as 15-25% of the food consumed. If this trend is recognized, food safety authorities will have to increase vigilance to safeguard the health of the consumers through frequent inspections and deterrent action to ensure that preparations are made under strict hygienic and sanitary conditions. But in a country like India it is easier said than done as the infrastructure and personnel for inspection of facilities and testing restaurant foods are grossly inadequate. A voluntary scheme by the catering industry association in each area to promote safety of the foods by  its members through a systematic inspection and grading has the potential to augment the efforts of mandated authorities. Government must encourage such voluntary efforts through helping the association by providing grants for setting up facilities for simple testing and training for frequent assessment of the the catering environment. It should even be possible to institute a program for the customers to express their opinion about the cleanliness and other safety parameters through a well structured system which can help the association to factor them into eventual grading or awarding marks on a sound measuring scale. 


Saturday, November 24, 2012


Milk is considered the most valuable nutritive food available to all those not consuming meat, egg and fish in their daily diet and as per the dreams of Mahatma Gandhi, "Milk and Honey" must flow in his ideally conceived "Ramarajya"! Till the arrival of that Titan late Dr Varghese  Kurien on the scene, milk availability ad libitum to Indian citizens always remained a distant dream. Now that what was considered not achievable once has been achieved through the well lauded Operation  Flood program ushered in by Dr Kurien, the country seems to be faced with a new challenge-the "problem of plenty"! Look at the report from Andhra Pradesh where over 1.7 lakh liters of excess milk collected by the state milk federation find no buyers putting the authorities in a dilemma regarding disposal of this milk. Is it not strange that in an age when technological solutions are on the table for solving any food related problems, the federation is throwing up its hands not having any clue as to how this contingency can be handled. Here is a take on this ironical situation.   

"Usually there are problems with shortages. But in the case of A.P. Dairy Development Cooperative Federation (APDDCF) the opposite is true. It is faced with the unique problem of glut of milk so much so that it doesn't know where to store all the milk that is coming its way.Everyday the Federation is left with an extra 1.70 lakh litres to handle which it simply can't. Therefore, it is toying with the idea of declaring a 'milk holiday' once in a fortnight.The idea is not to procure milk two days in a month so as to take care of storage problem and also the rising cost of procurement. The proposal will be placed before the APDDCF board to get its nod. The last time the Federation declared a milk holiday was in 1993. The APDDCF has been flooded with surplus milk from September onwards. The per day procurement shot up from 3.90 lakh litres in August to 4.69 lakh litres in September. It touched 5.27 lakh litres in October and 5.93 lakh litres in November. In December, milk procurement is projected to be 6.29 lakh litres. Faced with this unusual phenomenon, the Federation has started converting the excess milk into skimmed milk powder (SMP). "We are doing all this only to not inconvenience farmers," says Mohammed Ali Rafath, managing director and vice chairman, APDDCF. Unlike private diaries, the APDDCF is procuring milk beyond its requirement to help the farmers. Its factory has a capacity to handle only 4 lakh litres a day, including 30,000 litres of by-products such as flavoured milk, butter, khova, lassi. In the last few months it has been getting an extra 1.70 lakh litres milk per day. Of this, 1.02 lakh litres is buffalo milk and the rest cow. To procure this excess milk, it has to shell out Rs.41 lakh per day. To tide over the problem, the APDDCF has started converting the milk into powder and now it has a stock of 1,000 metric tonnes of butter and 800 metric tonnes of skimmed milk powder. To clear this stockpile, the Federation has asked the Women Development and Child Welfare Department to use its powder milk in its programme of supplying cooked food to pregnant and lactating mothers. "This way we hope to supply 100 tonnes of skimmed milk powder per month", says Mr. Rafath. The excess milk production is the result of milch animal induction programme wherein the government provides 25 per cent subsidy on purchase of cattle and also reimburses transport charges. Another factor is the vigorous artificial insemination programme taken up by the Animal Husbandry Department. Why can't the APDDCF push up its sales? It cannot because there are no takers for its Vijay brand of milk. While Hyderabad has a liquid milk market of 12 lakh litres a day, APDDCF accounts for just 3.60 lakh litres a day. Now the APDDCF is planning to develop forward linkages by strengthening its district market where the sales are very dismal".

One of the objectives of Operation Flood was to create a milk grid with the avowed intention of helping to create a linkage between the production hubs and consumption centers. Why the Andhra milk federation is not able to make use of this to send milk to those places suffering from shortage or sending it to milk processing centers having powder making facilities is not clearly understood. It is unfortunate that the country is failing again its farmers after the food grain fiasco for which the Supreme Court had to intervene to stop rotting of procured grains, improperly stored. The federation boast that after all it is procuring all the milk offered by its farmers, cannot justify its incompetence in anticipating such a glut and making contingency arrangements to handle the surplus. Look at the sorry situation in the market where major milk powder consumers are frantically running around for securing their requirements of milk powder when country is the top most producer of fluid milk in the world!. What prevented the Federations in the states from building adequate powder making capacity to meet such eventualities? Apathy and callousness? In stead of taking fluid milk to far away villages why it is not possible to create a supply channel for milk powder at affordable prices to consumers located at such places. It is time National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) is mandated once more by Government of India, this time to deal with the surplus and bring some sanity to the sector.


Friday, November 23, 2012


Way back in 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, milk was a shortage commodity priced heavily as it was being imported. Skim Milk Powder (SMP) being donated by charity organizations abroad invariably found its way to the market at some what lower prices. In fact many hotels used to depend on such illegal powder supply to stay in business as the then production was grossly insufficient to meet the demand. Under the Operation Flood program, pioneered by late Dr V Kurien was supposed to have overcome the milk shortage and it is another story that India went on to become the top milk producing country in the world. With many dairying units coming up in the cooperative and private sectors, milk availability, 24/7 became a reality. Under such a condition it is not understandable why there should be shortage of milk powder in the country in recent years? The frantic efforts being made by the down stream users of milk powder in stocking this precious commodity, as being reported in the media, provide a sad reading about the working of Indian dairy sector. Here is a take on this issue.  

'Food, beverage, milk and ice cream companies, from NestleBSE -0.60 % to Vadilal, have started purchasing skimmed milk powder (SMP) six months in advance to beat the shortage that usually hits the market in summer. Current prices are 10% to 15% cheaper than the previous year at Rs 140 a kg owing to a huge stock in the country. However, with international prices firming, the domestic players expect to see prices being bullish in the coming days.  "Compared to the previous year the prices are cheaper by 10%. We have started making small purchases," says Rajesh Gandhi, MD, Vadilal IndustriesBSE -4.12 %. The icecream manufacturer whose peak capacity reaches 3.75 lakh litre in summer is set to procure 1,700 tonne SMP in the coming months. The SMP prices have fallen to Rs 140 a kg from Rs 160 a kg in the month of February this year.  As per the industry estimate there is close to 80,000 tonne of SMP lying with both milk co-operatives likeMother Dairy, Gujarat Co-Operative Milk Marketing Federation (GCMMF) and Karnataka Co-operative Milk Producers' Federation and private players like Sterling Agro, VRS Foods, Bhole Baba, HatsunBSE 1.58 %and so on. Apart from milk co-operatives, major SMP purchasers include companies such as GlaxoSmithKline India, Nestle, Cadbury, ITCBSE -0.09 % and Parle. "With prices moderate compared to the previous year, the purchases have begun in advance, though we anticipate a hike in the coming days," says Mayank Shah, group product manager Parle Products. Parle-G is the glucose biscuit brand from the country's largest biscuit manufacturer Parle Product. On Thursday, the Animal Husbandry & Dairy Department while reviewing the stock position in the country, felt that there were ample stock in the country. "Unlike the previous year we don't need to import SMP this year," says Rajni Sekhri Sibal, Joint Secretary in Union Agriculture Ministry's Department of Animal Husbandry and Dairying. Rajni added that with SMP prices gaining by 3.9% on Wednesday at the Fonterra's Global Dairy Trade online auction at $3,449 a tonne, the domestic prices might firm. The Rs 11,668-crore Gujarat Co-Operative Milk Marketing Federation (GCMMF) that markets dairy products under Amul brand is getting orders of over 2,000-3,000 tonne of SMP per month from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and other middle-eastern countries, unlike 2011 when exports were banned said GCMFF, MD, RS Sodhi".

Considering that value added products from milk are limited in range and volume, why there should be panic in the market is not understandable. After all there is no restriction on the price or import of milk powder and those needing it can always get it from any where in the world. It is unfortunate that the powder sold in the market to bulk buyers at Rs 140-150 per kg is offered in the market to retail consumers at double this price. To further fleece the consumer many companies are selling skim milk powder blended with powdered sugar at prices even higher, ostensibly as coffee whiteners. As for the consumer milk powder can be a valuable raw material for making fluid milk as well as other traditional products if available at affordable prices. After all one should not forget that milk powder is made from surplus milk when supply is more than the requirement and most dairy units in the country reconstitute it into fluid milk for sale during summer season when there is supposed to be a production dip. There is no two opinion that skim milk powder must be made more affordable and offered to the consumer at reasonable prices either through the milk distribution net work or in retail shops. It should not be forgotten that for a predominantly vegetarian population milk is the major source of good quality protein and a host of other vital nutrients like calcium. 


Thursday, November 22, 2012


At a time when India is debating about the merits and demerits of "inviting" multinational retail giants to do business in the country the old perception that "small is beautiful" seems to be gaining some traction, that too in a country like the US. After all Americans are the greatest practitioners of big scale operations in all spheres of their activities. Whether it is in the meat sector or the dairy sector Americans appear to be yearning for their past when every thing was in the small scale domain with higher quality products available unlike the present day commercial food dominance. With tremendous advance in food engineering and equipment design areas, mechanization and automation have reached great heights in recent years. Added to this, scarce and costly man power have facilitated such a transition in no small measures.  Whether this development has been good for the country is another matter. As most motive power which drives automation and large plants are heavily dependent on fossil fuels, it may be difficult to justify the trend. Added to this, centralized processing and distribution create a large carbon foot print considered the most causative factor in global warming. Here is an interesting critique on the effect of large scale displacement of small dairy players in the economic scenario in a state like New York which is worth studying for getting an insight into the consequences of mindless capitalism.    

"The report also found that the number of milk-processing plants in New York fell almost in half, from 61 in 1992 to 37 in 2007, and that other large dairy product manufacturing plants closed over the past decade. The declining number of plants made dairy farmers more dependent on fewer milk-processing companies and fewer, larger milk handlers, the study says. However, the report only focused on New York state, one of five separate case studies that show how the concentration of economic power can harm both farmers and consumers in different agricultural sectors. Other studies dealt with poultry production on Maryland's Eastern Shore; organic soy milk production and organic soybean farming; and the California processed fruit and vegetable industry. "The consolidation of the food and farm sector is sucking the economic vitality out of rural America and shipping it off to Wall Street,"Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter said. "These findings shine a much-needed light on the negative economic impact that farm and agribusiness monopolies have on farmers, consumers and rural communities."

In India there was a time when succeeding governments since independence singing a familiar tune of encouraging and protecting small investors and for a number of years government had reserved over 700 manufactured  items exclusively for the small scale sector, barring big players from producing the same. Mahatma Gandhi's vision of using small scale players to achieve prosperity has been thrown to winds and India has the dubious distinction of courting crony capitalism from abroad in preference to the domestic players in almost all fields including food processing. Day in day out citizens are being bombarded with the slogan that FDI in retail sector would help Indian  millions of small farmers without any iota of logic or reality. Large behemoths have no relevance in a country like India where there are millions of small farmers and entrepreneurs eking out a living and it is only wise to adopt the old maxim "a bird in hand is better than two in the bush" when it comes to taking reckless risks!  


Wednesday, November 21, 2012


A major advantage for big food processing companies is their deep pocket and their ability to innovate using in-house R&D facilities and experienced food professionals. In sharp contrast a small entrepreneur with limited cash in hand faces a huge risk in setting up a venture even under best of the conditions. In a country like India bank financing may be some what easy provided banks are convinced that one has a viable project with low risk. But most entrepreneurs find it difficult to get either the appropriate technology or some minimum hands-on experience for ensuring success after establishing the venture. Here is where the concept of an Incubation Center becomes relevant for the growth of food processing industry. In many countries of the West there are specialized incubation centers catering to diverse interests and food processing incubation centers are also working successfully escorting the entrepreneur till the venture starts production in its own facilities. For an incubation center to be successful there are several pre-requisites which include state of the art equipment and supporting facilities, a good knowledge about food processing, experienced food experts with networking background, closeness to a major food industry cluster and above all a commitment to stand by the entrepreneur till success is achieved. Here is a critique on the importance of incubators in the development of industry.

At many specialty incubators, the goal is more about economic bootstrapping than building the next technology blockbuster. Encouraging entrepreneurship among the poor is a common theme. For instance, La Cocina, a culinary incubator in San Francisco, helps immigrant women with low incomes get food businesses off the ground. First-time entrepreneurs need plenty of guidance with the intricacies of opening restaurants and packaged food businesses. Azalea Perez Olivares, events coordinator and spokeswoman for the food nonprofit, said that the reality check comes during regular informational orientations held before anyone can submit their applications. The message is deliberately sobering. "We try to be realistic—that the majority of food businesses fail," she says. Staff and food industry volunteers mentor those who are selected for the program. Participants almost invariably have to rewrite business plans after better researching the competition and learning about the financing needed to turn their idea into a business. After getting the basics in order, the would-be food entrepreneurs can use the incubator's shared kitchen, which has eight work stations over 4,400 square feet. Food-safety regulations require all food businesses to use a professional kitchen, rather than cook at home. The women who go through the program come out with contacts in the food industry that they would probably never otherwise have been able to get. Additionally, buyers from Whole Foods (WFM), the specialty grocery chain, visit to take a look at the food coming out of the program. So far, 13 businesses have graduated, including a pickle maker and a baker of Irish shortbread that's covered in chocolate. A handful have opened restaurants, such as a graduate who originally sold his Japanese rice balls from a cart.

Who can set up incubation centers and are they viable as a stand alone activity bringing reasonable returns on investment are questions for which there are no clear answers under Indian conditions. Will the large industry cooperate with such incubators for providing hands-on experience for new entrepreneurs wanting to take advantage of the facilities? Are the research institutions in public funded universities and under CSIR, ICAR and others are "fit enough" to undertake the challenges? It may be recalled that way back in early 1990s Ministry of Food Processing Industry (MFPI) provided a grant of Rs 5 crore to Central Food Technological Research Institute at Mysore for setting up a Food Engineering Center which could be eventually converted into an incubator but till to date no one knows the fate of this "Center"! If GOI is serious about development of food industry in the country, it has to create a SPV for setting up such incubators in all the states, preferably in areas where knowledge about food and food processing corridors exist side by side. Institutions like CFTRI, DFRL, NIFTEM, Universities where training facilities exist and others involved in food related developmental work, must join hands and pool their resources to set up a number of food business incubators for creating a new generation of small time entrepreneurs that will boost the role of food industry in the national economy..  


Tuesday, November 20, 2012


With green house facilities becoming important for producing many plants of economic importance. billions of dollars are being invested world over in establishing huge facilities, especially for high value plant crops including herbs. Since sun light is available only for limited time each day, it was but logical for the green house set ups to use artificial lighting using electricity. During the last few years the lighting industry has seen a dramatic shift from incandescent lighting to LED system because of many positive reasons, the most important benefit being energy saving. World over there are concerted efforts to wean away energy consumers from traditional light sources to LED system through a variety of incentives. The percolating effect of LED lighting has touched the green house facilities also and thanks to recent innovations, LED lighting in green house plant production facilities have been found to have dramatic advantages, especially in terms of energy saving and improved plant growth benefits. Here is a take on this new development which may revolutionize the economics of green house production system in coming years.

"Traditional growth chambers use power-hungry fluorescent and incandescent lighting or high-pressure sodium and metal-halide. Bulbs often have to be replaced yearly at a high cost. The excess heat from these less-efficient sources has to be removed from the chamber by built-in compressors, and research data was often lost if this equipment turned off for even an hour. Industrial light sources for growth chambers are pretty standardized, and this study examined a totally new approach. The experimental protocol was straightforward. The team retrofitted a growth chamber with LED lighting and ran growth tests with a second "stock" chamber as a control. All aspects of the chamber performance were evaluated, including electricity, heat, cooling, watering, humidity, maintenance and plant growth. The team anticipated and found great potential savings for both Penn State operations and research. LEDs not only provided substantial lighting savings but also reduced the need for compressor cooling, associated maintenance and watering. Since the chamber lighting runs cooler, there is less evaporation and less stress on the plants. LEDs also will last five to 10 years and need far fewer replacements than the old high-intensity fluorescent and incandescent bulbs. Even though plants evolved in full sunlight, they don't actually utilize all the wavelengths that sunlight provides. Depending on the plant species, they like blue, medium-red and far-red wavelengths. LEDs can focus the spectrum energy and intensity where it is most beneficial to plant growth. Conventional lighting provides a full spectrum and generates a lot of excess heat, especially in a small growth chamber. Since LEDs can supply only the wavelengths needed, the excess heat is minimized. Additionally, LEDs are ideal for research purposes because each wavelength can be controlled independently".

The debate about the economics of LED lighting system is still going on with the consumers resisting large scale adoption because of the fact that LED bulbs are far more expensive than the conventional incandescent or CLF counterparts. But technological break through happening at a frenetic pace can certainly bring down the cost dramatically within this decade. As far as its use for green house gardens, the cost may not be a barrier considering the enormous versatility inherent in using LED technology. If the results are confirmed, LED lighting may find faster use in the agriculture sector than at domestic level.


Monday, November 19, 2012


The issue of food fortification is a complex one and authorities world over are pulled between the desire to improve the health of their population and apprehension regarding the adverse effect of universal fortification. In a case like iodization of salt there was irrefutable data that even those having adequate iodine level in their system are not adversely affected by iodine coming from fortified salt. However this is not true with fluoridation of water because fluorides in excess can cause problem in many cases. In a country like the US most processed foods are fortified, obviously to restore part of the nutrients lost during manufacturing process but the over all effect of such fortification is still uncertain, some even claiming that such fortification improves only the financial health of the pharma industry which makes these nutrients for supply to the food industry! Latest controversy comes from New Zealand where animated discussions are taking place to make fortification of bread with Folic acid vitamin mandatory. The obvious basis is that such fortification prevents birth of children with neural tube defect (NTD). Like other cases this is also a complicated issue that can have multiple dimensions. Here is a take on this.

"Plans to introduce mandatory folic fortification in a bid to reduce the number of babies born with neurotube defects have been rejected by the Government. Minister for Food Safety Kate Wilkinson said today bakers will be able to decide whether or not tofortify their bread products with folic acid, as they have done for the last two years. "Folic acid plays an important role in reducing NTDs in babies, but fortification of bread is only one part of a wider package of initiatives," said Wilkinson. The plan has been advocated by the Paediatric Society in a bid to see a reduction in neural tube defects which can cause conditions such as spina bifida. However, the food industry has advocated to keep the status quo, saying any change reduces consumer choice and exposes the entire population to folic acid. Food & Grocery Council (FGC) chief executive Katherine Rich said it made no sense to effectively expose every man, woman and child to high levels of a folic acid in an attempt to reach a small number of women. "There is enough evidence to suggest our folate levels have increased considerably under voluntary fortification and that with more time to continue this work that trend is expected to continue. "The food industry supports the Government's aim of improving folate levels in women of child-bearing age." Rich said the last report to the Ministry for Primary Industries showed there were 34 lines of packaged fortified breads already available for consumers".

The argument that to target a small percentage of population vulnerable to NTD, it is not justifiable to force the entire population to consume higher level of Folic acid is indeed valid. Besides the economic cost involved in fortification, no one knows the long term effect of consuming higher levels of Folic acid in humans than that recommended for sound health. Probably voluntary efforts by the industry to target pregnant women only through special Folic acid enriched products may be more logical than making such practices mandatory. Besides it is normal for pregnant women to take additional nutrient supplements during pregnancy as per the advice of their doctor. After all it must be remembered that a normal balanced diet based on a variety of natural foods like whole cereals and pulses, fruits, vegetables and spices may not need any supplementation at all at any time in life. For those eating meat and fish regularly the question of Folic acid deficiency may not arise at all.


Sunday, November 18, 2012


World over environmental pollution is an area, well recognized as a potential way of courting disaster for this planet. However very little organized efforts, here and there, do not make any meaningful impact on pollution. Global warming and its consequent impact on the denizens in the form of hot weather, uneven rainfalls, gigantic floods and unbearable drought conditions have not received adequate attention in wealthy countries like the US where people do not want to scale down their comfort levels in day to day life through even small sacrifices. Euphorically called "food scraps" that emanate from the dining tables of millions of house holds and food service organizations are enough to feed many hungry people in most under developed countries provided they are salvaged in time through systematic efforts. However for this to happen, such operations have to be be feasible technically or economically. Next best thing is not to allow these scraps to be a nuisance to the community around through age old composting process. Though theoretically it should be possible to do this by every player in this saga, there are practical constraints that come in the way of such practices being adopted by all. Here is a take on this problem from an American perspective.

"But composting your lunch isn't like recycling a pop can. Early tests of potential interest are mixed. Even some avid recyclers balk at recycling table scraps, which can bring smells and insects to their kitchens. And the environmental benefits are debatable. Skeptics don't think curbside food-scrap collection is worth the expense and extra pollution. "If it does not save money and doesn't do much for the environment, why are we doing it?" said Winston Porter, president of the Waste Policy Center in Virginia and a former assistant administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. "We are not exactly running out of mulch in this country." 
If there is a will there is a way, so goes an old saying and for people with determination can still set up small composting units in areas slightly away from the kitchen, provided the house is a villa or a bungalow with some open space in the premise. A better approach could be community composting units collectively operated by volunteers which need a collection network that will clear the scraps at least twice a day on a predetermined schedule. It is praise worthy that some civic bodies are operating composting plants, selling the mulch for use in small gardens but the scale of operation is too small to make an impact as desired. This is where government must step in for creating an infrastructure in each urban settlements for scientifically processing food scraps and other biodegradable organic matters. The incentive based schemes such as the one reported from South America where families are given fresh vegetables grown in gardens maintained by the civic body in return for their garbage, can be considered by all countries for solving their urban garbage problem.


Saturday, November 17, 2012


Industry's ways to fob of the consumer are mind boggling indeed! After the universal front of the pack labeling practices were introduced a few years ago, it was no more possible for the manufacturers to hide what each product contains in terms of its ingredients and nutrients. At least this was the thinking of the policy makers. This was supposed to have ushered in an era of transparency the consumers could feel comfortable. However those who designed the labeling policies did not reckon with the ingenuity of an industry which has least concern for consumer well being and more interested in boosting their financial health. There are hundreds of instances where industry uses devious ways to mislead the consumer, some contravening the rules and others using loopholes in the statute book. Here is a latest case of mislabeling of a product, though legally it might be difficult to take the manufacturer to task. It concerns suppressing the information regarding the sugar ingredient in a product by using the scientific alternative terminology that can confuse an ordinary consumer to no end. Here is a take on this latest labeling "circus".

"While the name thing may sound like mere semantics, the stakes for the food industry are actually pretty high. FDA issued a guidance three years ago suggesting that manufacturers shouldn't use the term evaporated cane juice to describe sweeteners made from sugar cane syrup because the term hides the fact that ultimately it's sugar. Of course, because it's a guidance, and a draft one at that, the agency technically can't enforce it. Earlier this year, northern Californian Katie Kane sued the yogurt company Chobani in federal court, claiming its use of the term "evaporated cane juice" misled her into buying the company's Greek yogurt. Her class-action suit is seeking unspecified damages, and she relies heavily on FDA's guidance in her argument. We contacted Chobani. It wouldn't comment on why it uses the term "evaporated cane juice" instead of sugar. But a Chobani spokesperson told The Salt in an email that its labels are not misleading and that it plans to "vigorously defend" itself against Kane's charges. While some folks appear to be distancing themselves from the name "sugar," corn refiners have been on a longstanding quest to put on the sugar mantle. Alas, for them, the FDA ruled earlier this year that the makers of high fructose corn syrup could not change the name of their product to corn sugar. Either way, it might be best to keep in mind a version of the famous Shakespeare line: Sugar by any other name tastes just as sweet — and has just as many calories".

It is true that cane sugar is made from sugarcane by extracting the juice, cleaning it up, concentration and crystallization leaving behind the molasses. Technically evaporated cane juice and a sugar syrup has a vital difference in that the former contains all the natural ingredients which include minerals, vitamins, phytochemicals and waxy substances which were originally present in the cane. But a larger question is whether the manufacturer has really used the natural concentrate which has a characteristic brown color and chlorophyll small, making it an untenable ingredient in a product with snow white color! In the statute book there is no additive by name evaporated sugar cane juice and therefore no standards of identity for such an ingredient. For those watching out for sugar containing products it can be misleading as they may not be aware that the product contains sugar. If such leeway is given to industry next move may be to use the expression "extracted juice from peanut" in place of peanut oil to hide the fact the product contains fat! It will be interesting to watch the outcome of the legal proceedings against the industry which camouflaged the use of sugar by expressing the term evaporated sugar cane juice.



As per the recommendations of nutrition experts, in order to maintain a good health one must eat large quantities of fruits and vegetables which supply many micro nutrients besides dietary fiber. This has created an opportunity to the fresh produce industry to offer fresh salad preparations in super markets which boast of tremendous convenience to the consumer. Preparing fresh vegetables for making salads is an involved process requiring time and lot of care which most modern families do not have and this situation has led to massive patronage of "Bagged Salads", ready to be consumed on the dining table or at any time. However countless recalls of salad products made by reputed manufacturers  due to suspected contamination with pathogenic bacteria during the last few years have literally created a panic in the American market with more and more consumers hesitating to buy them due to fear of contamination by virulent E.coli and similar disease causing bacteria. If such fears are not removed from the minds of consumers, there may be a possibility of significant reduction of intake of these health protecting foods in that country. Here is a take on this unfortunate development.

"Bagged salad is easy to open, great on a hot summer day and a super easy dinner. Is it safe to eat? Let's see what the experts say. I eat bagged salad and unless I am reporting a bagged salad recall will buy the Dole and Fresh Express products. I am careful and if there is a bagged salad recall, I check what's in my frig. This week, Fresh Express had a recall of 8,000 cases  of Hearts of Romaine. I have Fresh Express at home but it's Iceberg Lettuce. Apparently, I am not alone, a contributor of US Food Safety, Doug Powell, a professor of food safety at  Kansas State University, was quoted on, "We call it faith-based food safety,"and most of it is faith-based." Powell and Christina Bruhn, a researcher in food science and technology at UC Davis, say that while figuring out what fraction of the lettuce may make you sick is a gamble, they still place their bets on the bagged stuff. "I go to the biggest grocery store I can find," he said. "They have requirements for what they put on the shelf." Even the crisp heads of lettuce in a farmer's market stall can be suspect, said Powell. They may be fresh and local, but that's no guarantee of safety. "The lettuce was sitting swamped in water for days," he said. "If I go to a farmer's market, I don't want to know that it's lovingly grown. I want to know you've taken steps for microbiological safety. If you can't answer those questions, I don't want to buy your lettuce." I will take my chances".

It is not understandable as to how greens can get contaminated if proper agricultural practices are used in producing them in the farms. Why such contamination problems are more prevalent in the US is also a mystery. Whether contamination takes place in the field or during handling, packing, distribution or retailing is also not clear. The industry has to take full responsibility for such a situation as contaminated products should not have come out of their premises unless tested rigorously by quality testers. The irradiation technology which has an answer for decontaminating tainted foods needs to be deployed more extensively if a fool proof distribution system is to be put in place. Consumers must realize that any technology used can have marginal influence on quality and it is trade of between safety and absolute eating quality! Safety authorities in the US must consider mandatory irradiation of products like bagged salads in the interest of consumer safety.


Monday, November 12, 2012


Fast depleting fossil fuel resources is raising alarms all around with private and public funded research efforts striving to evolve alternate sustainable energy sources. While tapping solar energy, wind energy, wave energy, geothermal energy, etc can help to fill the gap to some extent after the era of easy and cheap fossil fuels, still there is no clear solution to this vexing problem. One of the areas where fossil fuels have contributed enormously is in the manufacture of a variety of plastics for packaging consumer products including food and it is an irrefutable fact that both production and disposal of plastics pose technical, environmental and economic challenges. There are alternate technologies for production of plastics from basic chemicals produced by the plants and some microbiological sources though they have not yet gained universal acceptance. Recent break through in research studies to convert carbon dioxide, the very villain of peace to day in the global warming debate, are considered exciting and here is a critique on this development with some far reaching future potential to clean up the Globe.

Today, the world consumes 120 million tons of the chemical ethylene to make the world's most widely used plastics. Almost all of that ethylene is derived from fossil fuels. Between 1.5 to 3 tons of carbon dioxide is released for every ton of ethylene produced, which is why plastic has such an enormous carbon footprint. Now, researchers have inserted a gene into bacteria that turns it into one of the world's most efficient factories for ethylene by eating carbon dioxide, instead of releasing it into the air. On the opposite end of the plastic production line, a newly discovered fungus in the Amazon eats plastic, finally giving us a way to get rid of the stuff. The new cyanobacterium works in the opposite way of traditional plastic production: Its photosynthetic capabilities means it harnesses today's photons from sunlight (as opposed to old photons stored in the energy of chemical bonds in petroleum) to add carbon from the air to ethylene molecules. This saves six tons of carbon dioxide emissions for every ton of ethylene created: Three tons are absorbed by bacteria and three are avoided from the usual fossil fuels, says the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. "Our peak productivity is higher than a number of other technologies, including ethanol, butanol, and isoprene," said NREL principal investigator, Jianping Yu, in a release from the Lab. "We overcame problems encountered by past researchers. Our process doesn't produce toxins such as cyanide and it is more stable than past efforts. And it isn't going to be a food buffet for other organisms."

The new genetically modified bacteria offers exciting possibilities if harnessed properly. The fact that it can create the basic building blocks of plastics by absorbing atmospheric carbon dioxide has future repercussions for both the packaging industry as well as environmental managers since it will considerably reduce the green house effect due to carbon dioxide while providing an inexhaustible source for making plastics for consumer use. The commercial feasibility part of the research has to be established in no uncertain terms and if technical feasibility is confirmed all countries in this Universe must join hands to evolve this technology further to the point of global use. The technological developments for optimizing the production of ethylene by the bacteria and exploitation of the Amazon fungus must be a common property of the mankind and there should not be any reservation on the part of NREL to share this with the world community at large.



Can drinking water be considered a food? Do the FSSAI provisions apply to this material? A section of the packaged drinking water manufacturing community seems to be holding the view that no safety authority restraints can apply to them and they have the freedom to put any muck in the market without being questioned! Ii is interesting to note that more than two thirds of the water processing units in the state of Karnataka have no ISI certification from Bureau of Indian Standards (BSI) because of their perceived feeling that it was not mandatory. While the state administration was not able to bring to books these delinquents, it was left to the judiciary to compel them to seek the quality certification from BIS without which consumer safety is compromised. Here is a take on this consumer protection ruling from Karnataka High Court for which people of the state should be grateful.

'Holding that packaged drinking water comes within the purview of Food Safety and Standard Act, 2006, the Karnataka High Court on Friday said that certification from the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) is mandatory for packaged drinking water. The court also directed the State government to take action to prohibit and prevent the manufacture and sale of packaged drinking water without BIS certification. A Division Bench comprising Chief Justice Vikramajit Sen and Justice Aravind Kumar passed the order while disposing of a public interest litigation (PIL) petition by Lochamesh B. Hugar of Hubli complaining inaction by the authorities against manufacturers of packaged drinking water operating without BIS certification, and a batch of petitions filed by the manufacturers claiming that certification from BIS was not necessary. The Bench also directed the authorities to take action against the manufacturers if they found them operating without certification from BIS. However, noticing that there are 564 packaged drinking water manufacturing units without BIS certification as against 224 with BIS certification across the State, the court has given an opportunity for those operating without BIS certification to apply for certification. The Bench said that all manufacturers will have to submit applications for BIS certification in the prescribed format within 15 days. It directed the authorities concerned, including the BIS, to process the application within three months and notify the deficiencies, if any, in these units. The Bench said that entire exercise will have to be completed within four months. Meanwhile, the court has given liberty to the authorities to initiate action against those manufacturers who fail to adhere to the directions and comply with conditions for manufacturing packaged drinking water".

While on paper, products with ISI mark give some confidence to the consumer regarding their quality and safety, in practice BIS is not an organization best known for its efficiency. It is common to see many products in the market place with ISI markings either spurious or sub-standard as this quality certification  agency has neither the required personnel nor the infrastructure to implement their standards. Some times it is not clear why there should be a separate certification requirement for only water which after all is a part and parcel of the food system and hence the onus of ensuring safety of drinking water must be on FSSAI which has the wherewithal to prosecute offenders more efficiently than a toothless agency like BIS. Those who went to court questioning the operation of BIS in drinking water quality management, has a valid point in that FSSAI already covers water also and ISI certification is therefore redundant. Same is true with others like AGMARK also and it is time that country's food quality and safety enforcement agencies are integrated leaving the entire function to a single agency.


Sunday, November 11, 2012


It sounds far fetched when a whiskey manufacturing company proclaims that the waste products from his distillery can save precious food and help the world to meet future food problems! Before outright ridiculing of this claim it is rational to look into the basis of the claim and see whether there is some substance in it. According to these innovators, the industrial waste generated during the manufacture of whiskey has sufficient residual energy left, to make Butanol, a valued fuel, considered better than ethyl alcohol. While generating Butanol can be a profitable activity, it also solves the problem of waste disposal and pollution potential of these wastes incurring heavy cost to the distilleries. The product aptly named Biobutanol has been found to be more energy dense and can be used more easily in blends with gasoline. Since it is still in the development stage, only future will tell whether it is economically feasible. Here is a take on this new development that is exciting for the automobile industry. 

"Can whisky help solve the world's shortages of both food and fuel? A team of scientists in Scotland is banking on it. The people behind Celtic Renewables have invested five years of research and now a business venture in the idea that the waste products from whisky distilleries can be converted into biofuel to power cars and trucks. Mark Simmers, CEO of the company founded last year, says the biobutanol Celtic Renewables makes from whisky waste is not only better suited to use as vehicle fuel than the bioethanol commonly pumped now, but it also dodges the food vs. fuel quandary facing the biofuel industry at large.  Speaking from the whisky capital of the world, Simmers said there were two things driving him and his colleagues - who started out researching the whisky waste-to fuel idea at Edinburgh Napier University: finding a "large, guaranteed feedstock that is not food," and also finding a reliable, cheap, local source of fuel for vehicles in remote parts of Scotland where gas is expensive. Simmers describes biobutanol as an "advanced" biofuel compared to bioethanol. It can be used in any unmodified vehicle on the road, where bioethanol requires some modifications. Butanol also mixes better at a chemical level with conventional petroleum products, meaning a higher ratio of biofuel to petroleum can be used when mixing gas for consumers at the pump. The other big plus, as mentioned above, is that no corn or other crops are needed to produce the whisky-waste biobutanol. One of the biggest challenges to the biofuel industry comes from organizations fighting its production on the grounds that farmland in poor nations - where cheap food is in short supply - is being used to grow crops expressly for biofuel production, which pays better than food production. Celtic Renewables is still in the trial phase of its production, but it hopes to be producing biobutanol for the commercial market by the end of next year".

According to estimates Scotland, the Mecca of Scotch of Whiskey generates about 1.6 billion liters of Pot ale and 1, 87, 000 tons of Draft, both wastes from the distillation line which can be useful in making Biobutanol. This development is all the more interesting considering that in most countries valuable food commodities are diverted to make Bioethanol for blending with gasoline and there is substantial opposition world wide against such "misuse" of food items for non-food purpose. If Biobutanol production is found to be sustainable and economically viable, large quantities of Corn now being used for making Bioalcohol can be better used for feeding millions of hungry people, especially in the African continent. Auto industry should be happy because Biobutanol has much better physical characteristics than ethanol in terms of blending and energy content.