Thursday, April 25, 2013


If there is one single initiative any government has taken recently benefiting the farmer and the consumer equally, it is the recent program launched in Andhra Pradesh by the Horticulture Department of the state for delivering fresh vegetables at the door steps of the families. The beauty of the program is that there are triple beneficiaries all getting a fair deal under the arrangements put in place. Farmers in villages are divided into clusters, with each cluster being assigned to an entrepreneur who is equipped with specially designed vans to collect and bring to different colonies in cities nearby. This is an example of how well intentioned, soundly designed and efficiently executed public programs can serve the communities well and reduce the impact of uncertainties and fluctuations in prices commonly experienced these days due to the brutal middlemen who exploit both the farmer and the consumer for his self interest. Here is a take on this approach of A. P. government which needs to be congratulated for the citizen friendly program that enables people to get access to the protective foods so necessary for protecting health.  

"The 'Farm Fresh Vegetables on Wheels'  launched by the Department of Horticulture involving clusters of farmers and farming entrepreneurs is catching up with the citizens of the city welcoming it. The state-wide programme launched on March 18 in the city had been formulated with farmers groups in a village formed into a cluster. The farmers in the cluster supply freshly harvested vegetables to the Horticulture entrepreneurs who are either from among the families of the farmers or an outsider, who collects vegetables in the early hours of each day from the vegetable farms and carry them in his specially designed mobile vegetable sales outlet given by the department of Horticulture. The posh looking mobile outlet is given on a subsidy of Rs.2 lakh out of a total cost of Rs.5.3 lakh. A loudspeaker is fitted to the vehicle and a recorded message announces the arrival of the vehicle at the residential colonies. The entrepreneur brings the vegetables to the city by 9 a.m. to the designated residential localities. One of the entrepreneurs selected by the department Nagi Reddy Sathyanarayana told The Hindu that he hailed from Adduru village in Chodavaram mandal. He is also a vegetable farmer and part of the cluster of farmers in his village. Nagi Reddy sells vegetables in the posh residential colony of Waltair Uplands and is quite happy with the success of the scheme. Local resident Mercy Paul, a regular customer at the outlet said that she was very happy with the quality of vegetables. They are fresh and fine. The prices appear to be higher than Rythu Bazzar but the vegetables are arriving at our doorstep, she adds. As the mobile outlet arrives women can be seen grabbing the fresh vegetables".

Since the program has been launched very recently it may take some time before a value judgment regarding its efficacy or impact can be made though involvement of private entrepreneurs can definitely give it a fair chance of success. One cannot forget the Fruit and Vegetable initiative taken way back in 1980s under the NDDB umbrella which promised many things but could not manage a pan India foot print so far for many reasons. This responsibility undertaken while Dr Verghese Kurien was alive, was entrusted to NDDB because of its vast experience in organizing milk cooperatives which contributed in no small measure to the roaring success in the form of White Revolution. In a smaller way HOPCOMS in Karnataka organized fruit and vegetable vending kiosks in many urban areas in the state with active participation by the Horticulture Department and this program also could not show any dramatic results as reflected by the poor condition under which many vegetable vending kiosks in most cities work to day. The novelty of the A P Scheme is that the fresh commodity is delivered in a prime condition to the house holds at reasonable prices and if the new initiative really succeeds, it can be a model that can be replicated all over the country with great relief to the much harassed consumer and badly exploited farmers!   


It looks like microorganisms are going to play an increasing role in the lives of humans with whom they have close association. The story of microbiome in the human body is now well known and over 1000 species of microbes cohabiting within and outside human body have a profound influence on the quality of health of the people. Microbes also are involved in production of many chemical substances and food materials of immense value complimenting human effort to ensure food security. Recent discovery that microbes can convert 30% of all plant materials on this planet into consumable forms of food is indeed reassuring. Equally true is the fact that there are many destructive bugs which can cause serious health problems including fatal conditions. While man has learned to live with these diverse microorganisms living near him , the new startling discovery that these tiny creatures can also live in highly hostile conditions that prevail in thin and rarefied air thousands of feet above the earth raises many questions regarding their role on climate moderation and well being of humans. Here is a take on this new revelations.       

"To find out, Nenes had some of his students hitch a ride on a NASA airplane that was on a mission to study hurricanes. They made multiple flights and were able to collect air samples from about 30,000 feet over both land and sea. The samples turned out to contain some fungi — and a lot of bacteria. "And this was a big surprise because we didn't really expect to see that many bacteria up there," Nenes says.It's not exactly a friendly place. It's cold, it's dry, and there's a lot of damaging UV light. But Nenes says the bacteria seemed to be able to handle it. "They were alive," Nenes says. "More than 60 percent of them were actually alive, and they were in an active state that that you could say they should be metabolizing and eating things that are up there." Back on the ground, other members of the research team used genetic techniques to identify the bacteria. One of them was Georgia Tech microbiologist Kostas Konstantinidis. "We were able to see at least close to 100 different species, of which about 20 were in most samples," Konstantinidis says. Some of those 100 species were from the ocean. Others came from the soil and from fresh water".

It will be interesting to know further about their nature and impact on humans on earth and whether some of the pathogens identified would be more virulent than their earth bound counterparts? Will the current antibiotic therapy be effective against them? With the frequency of high altitude flights, including outer space flights, increasing will there be more transfer of them to ground level mingling with the existing cocktail of microbes? What will be the consequences? A more detailed and intensive study including genetic mapping of these high altitude microorganisms only can find answers to these vexing questions. An international study on these issues is called for with minimum delay 


Wednesday, April 24, 2013


Apple is a fruit much cherished among well to do people who can afford to buy it at the present market price of Rs 150 per kg and above. Though Apple is produced in India in states like Himachal and Kashmir, considerable quantity is imported into the country from countries like the US, japan, New Zealand etc and after paying the import duty the price reaches levels which are unaffordable  to the vast majority of the Indian population. But what is not understandable is why Indian apple also costs as much as that of imported ones and the only explanation is that apple industry in the country sees this as an opportunity to make money because there are adequate buyers in the country who buy them at any cost!. What ever it is, the fact remains that a nutritious food material has become cost prohibitive due to factors which have nothing to do with actual cost of production in the orchards. Recent reports that apple has been genetically modified to make it more beautiful when cut without developing the brown color are interesting as this is a case of using a suspect technology for purpose other than improving nutrition or production economics. Here is a take on this new development which of course may not have any relevance in a country like India because of minuscule consumption.  
"First, let's look at the physical properties of apples. No matter how you slice it, every apple turns brown eventually. "When their flesh is cut, the oxygen in the air interacts with chemicals in the flesh of the apple," says Susan Brown, a plant scientist at Cornell University. An enzyme called polyphenol oxidase, or PPO, makes melanin, an iron-containing compound that gives apple cells a brown tinge. The same type of "oxidative" browning happens in the browning of tea, coffee or mushrooms, explains Brown. Within five minutes of slicing, browning can alter the taste and might not be as aesthetically pleasing, but it doesn't mean the apple is old or rotten. To prevent oxidative browning, the GM apples developed by Okanagan stop PPO production with a man-made gene containing pieces of four natural PPO genes. An insertion with gene fragments is an automatic red flag for the apple cell — usually the first step of viral attack — so it chops up every sequence of DNA that looks like the suspicious fragment, and the apple flesh stays light. "The beauty of this [process] is it's a natural plant defense mechanism," says Carter. Even when sliced, these apples stay clear of browning for about two weeks — that's roughly the same extended life span as apple slices from McDonald's and Burger King, which use lemon juice and calcium ascorbate to prevent browning.  But if the apple doesn't go brown, then how do you tell if it's rotten? An apple with just oxidative browning isn't automatically rotten. Rotting comes from a fungal or bacterial infection, which causes the apple to go either mushy or dry. Infecting spores, not melanin, also give the flesh a dark brown hue. So, taking PPO out of the equation won't make a rotten apple appear pristine. "'Bad' apples will still be evident," says Brown. Rotting GM apples look rotten and turn brown from a bacterial or fungal infection the same as a conventional apple. But Bill Freese, a science policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety, notes that some studies in tomatoes have shown that silencing PPO has an impact on a plant's susceptibility to diseases and invasive insects because the enzyme may play a role in plant defense reactions."
Food industry has already known that during apple processing browning is a problem and it also has the technology to prevent or retard browning by arresting the enzymatic reaction involving polyphenol oxidase which is exposed to the air when cell integrity is affected during peeling, slicing, crushing etc. If so what is the necessity for tinkering with the genes to knock out this enzyme through biotechnology? How many consumers want the apple to be without developing brown color during the time of eating? Probably not many. Though the safety authorities in the US may accord approval for this new version of apple, it is doubtful whether these apples will be readily accepted in other countries. The new variety developed through the GMO route may have a doubtful commercial success within the US itself if consumer comes to know that it is genetically tinkered with! It is another matter that GM products are not required to be labeled in a country like the US and therefore consumers may patronize the product unknowingly.     

Tuesday, April 23, 2013


A recent report from Tamilnadu revealed a shocking practice being perpetrated by the Mango traders there using dangerous pesticides for ripening the fruit! This is the first time one hears about use of pesticides for fruit ripening and if it is true this must be based on "innovation" by the unscrupulous traders for making a fast buck. From where they got this knowledge is still a mystery and horticulture scientists must probe this development further to bring out the dangers inherent in such devious practices. It is known that acetylene generated using Calcium Carbide chemical and moisture is widely practiced all over the country basically for giving a highly attractive (tempting?) red color to Mango though the consumer realizes the mistake only after cutting open the fruit and eating! Though this is illegal, due to lax vigilance by safety authorities in every state, this despicable practice goes on unchecked. The new development of using life threatening pesticides as ripening agents if true has far reaching implications on the well being of consumers. Here is a take on this new revelations.   

 Food safety officials, in Erode, on Friday seized three tonnes of artificially ripened mangoes sprayed with organophosphate based insecticide, an artificial ripening agent. The compound is toxic and is part of the same chemical family of compounds that are found in various harmful pesticides and even nerve gas agents. "Based on a tip off, we raided the shops and confiscated the artificially ripened mangoes. They were sprayed with pesticide for quick ripening which is being widely used as a substitute for calcium carbide these days," said G Rameshkumar, designated officer, Food Safety and Drug Administration Department, Erode. The artificially ripened mangoes were seized from three fruit warehouses in Nethaji whole sale fruit market in Erode. Officials claimed the traders were spraying pesticide on the mangoes to ensure the entire bunch becomes ripe within five to six days. They acknowledged it difficult to identify fruits ripened by spraying the pesticide which is available in the open market at Rs 1200 per litre. "These artificially ripened fruits have a pink tinge on their outer skin but that cannot be the only factor to confirm the presence of the toxic artificial ripening agent," Rameshkumar added.

While in many developing countries traders indulge in such malpractices, look at the consumer response to these prevalent activities of the trade. Most consumers do not bother to check the quality of mango and go for cheap ones attracted by the appearance and price. Lessons are never learned and memories are short which is exploited by vendors to the hilt. The tendency to patronize street vendors is very common in India as consumers have the misconception that they can get a better bargain but these vendors invariably have weighing contraptions "doctored" to deliver 20% to 40% less than what is offered! Fruit buying is an ability very few consumers have and in many cases, after paying exorbitant prices, they realize that what they bought was not mature or rotten inside or have othr concealed defects forcing them to throw them away in disgust. This is where the organized retailers and the government sponsored marketing organizations can play a constructive role as they have a reputation to guard. It is time that a universally accepted standard branding is introduced that will guarantee the quality of fruits available in the market as that exists in the US. Probably National Horticulture Board must address this issue with imaginative and visionary foresight.  

Monday, April 22, 2013


Does any one think as to how toxic is the environment where modern mankind live? Probably not! There is a fatalistic perception among the people that because of a "vigilant" government which is supposed protect its citizens from likely dangers faced by them from time to time, they need not be apprehensive about their well being. Unfortunately this very government can be an impediment in providing clean and safe foods and a safe environment. A classical example is the use of over 85000 industrial chemicals reported to be currently in use for one or the other purpose by the manufacturing sector with suspect safety credentials. This is in sharp contrast to rigorous testing regimes imposed on synthetic chemicals permitted to be used in food and drug by the respective industry. It is beyond one's comprehension as to how such a dangerous situation has arisen and why safety agencies, national as well as international, have not bothered to do any thing to alleviate the situation. Here is a take on the sorry situation that prevails in this field in spite of enormous data being generated by science on the safety of many of the industrial chemicals

In its history, the E.P.A. has mandated safety testing for only a small percentage of the 85,000 industrial chemicals available for use today. And once chemicals are in use, the burden on the E.P.A. is so high that it has succeeded in banning or restricting only five substances, and often only in specific applications: polychlorinated biphenyls, dioxin, hexavalent chromium, asbestos and chlorofluorocarbons. Part of the growing pressure to update federal rules on chemical safety comes from advances in the science of biomonitoring, which tells us more about the chemicals to which we are exposed daily, like the bisphenol A (BPA) in can linings and hard plastics, the flame retardants in couches, the stain-resistant coatings on textiles and the nonylphenols in detergents, shampoos and paints. Hazardous chemicals have become so ubiquitous that scientists now talk about babies being born pre-polluted, sometimes with hundreds of synthetic chemicals showing up in their blood. It often takes a crisis to draw attention to how little the government knows about industrial chemicals in circulation. After the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, at least two million gallons of chemical dispersants were spread to break up the slick. But federal officials could not say they were safe because minimal testing had been done. The current presumption that chemicals are "safe until proven dangerous" stands in marked contrast to how pharmaceuticals and pesticide companies are handled. Companies making these products have to generate extensive data demonstrating the safety of pharmaceuticals or pesticides before they are sold. This was not always the case. Pharmaceutical companies used to be able to sell drugs with minimal prior testing, but that changed after a drug called Thalidomide, given in the 1950s to pregnant women for morning sickness, was found to cause severe birth defects the public outcry helped push the medical field to take a precautionary approach to introducing new drugs.s.   

The specious argument by the chemical industry that such testing if made mandatory will cast a great onus on them to spend billions of dollars in scientific studies and naturally this will have adverse impact on the price front making these chemicals exorbitantly costly. To some extent their plea is understandable but such considerations ought not to come in the way of ensuring the safety of the society. Of course there are plenty of data available readily in the literature and government can always consider them provided those who use them collate the same and submit the same to safety agencies. There can be joint study teams which can vet these data to come to any meaningful conclusion. But it is inevitable that mankind has to face this challenge collectively without further obfuscation.      

Sunday, April 21, 2013


The power of the GM food industry has recently been demonstrated in no uncertain terms when the government in the US prohibited courts interfering with propagation of transgenic plants like sugar beets in future! In no civilized country such a thing can happen because of the responsibility cast on the government to protect the citizens from any type of danger to their life. No doubt that the GM foods have come to stay in the US market, uncontrolled and unregulated by the government there because of the massive influence of the GM food industry on the law makers there through financial donations during election. Of course there is an ethics committee of the Senate which is after all a closed club of supporters of GM foods and nothing concrete can be expected from it in cases pertaining to corruption by the GM food industry. There are wide spread protests against this sordid policy orchestration though it is unlikely the government would bend. Here is a sad commentary on this new twist to the GM food story which can at best be described as a tragedy. 

Why is this such a big deal? The court system is often our last hope, with Congress, the White House, and regulatory agencies deep inside industry's pocket. Several legal challenges have resulted in court decisions overturning USDA's approval of new GMO crops, for example, sugar beets. So the biotech industry, unable to make its case to a judge, figured why not just rewrite the Constitution instead, with the help of a Democratic Senate led by Senator Barbara Mikulski, chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee. Despite Montana Senator Jon Tester's best attempts to stop the so-called biotech rider, the measure was pushed through. (Industry had tried to get a similar measure passed more than once last year.) Tester minced no words in an article in yesterday's POLITICO about this and other industry power grabs such as weakening small farmer protections: These provisions are giveaways, pure and simple, and will be a boon worth millions of dollars to a handful of the biggest corporations in this country. They deserve no place in this bill. We simply have got to do better on both policy and process.

No doubt the GM foods have been tested extensively and no specific evidence has surfaced damning the technology or the products derived from this new breeding techniques. But all the studies which have found little evidence of safety risks are based on limited scale and short time duration. Those who care for the precious lives of future generation have the right to insist on establishing the safety beyond a shadow of doubt. The intolerance of criticism by scientists, social activists and consumers is great, GM food industry does not want its products to be even labeled so that one can make an informed choice whether to buy them or not! USA is the only country in the world which exempts the GM foods from declaring the same on front of the pack label. If such unlimited power is given to an irresponsible industry controlled by a few transnational corporations, what would be the fate of the consumers and how he can resist the force feeding strategy adopted by them? There is still hope that such brazen nexus between the "destroyer and the protector" will not be allowed to get away unchallenged in the coming days!  


Saturday, April 20, 2013


Dengue fever, also known as Breakbone disease seems to be spreading in many tropical countries and a specific variety of mosquito (A.aegypti) is known to be the carrier of the virus that causes the disease. Hemorrhagic fever, bleeding, depletion of blood platelets, drastic lowering of blood pressure are some of the symptoms manifested in affected persons. In some cases Dengue fever can become fatal and so far no vaccine has been developed to immunize people from this scourge. Mosquito is one of the biggest menaces mankind faces and practically there is no way this creature can be eliminated from the environment, especially in tropical regions of the world. Mosquitoes breed in stagnant waters laying their eggs which hatch in no time spawning new ones that swell the the population. Many known pesticides are some what less effective in killing these mosquitoes. Interestingly there are four types of Dengue virus variations and though small bites can confer some immunity against one type that does not guarantee the same from fresh infection if other viruses are transmitted by later biting episodes. Best approach would be to "nip the source in the bud" through destruction of the larvae which is much easier than killing the adult predators. Biological control is being attempted using natural agents that can "sterilize" the mosquitoes preventing proliferation. According to a recent report clove oil is an effective  larvaecide which can be easily tried in every home vulnerable to Dengue epidemic. Here is an insight into this new development.
In fact, removing breeding sites around the house is a routine that most Brazilians have grown accustomed to, with televised public announcements constantly reminding them of the chore. However, if some stagnant water is unavoidable, those looking to keep Aedes aegypti at bay can turn to another ally in nature. Recently, the Instituto de Nacional de Pesquisas da AmazĂ´nia, an Amazon-based research center, discovered that a substance called Eugenol, which is found in clove (Syzygium aromaticum), can kill the larva of the dengue mosquito in 24 hours. The formula is undergoing patenting, but it's simple and can be prepared at home by blending 60 clove buds and a cup of water. No sieving is required and the solution can be kept in a fridge for up to one year. In terms of dosage, three drops suffice for a 15-cm vase (popular targets for dengue mosquitoes) or other types of containers that retain water. The blend will remain effective for about 14 days.The researchers highlight that the clove solution is no substitute for other preventive measures, but it can drastically reduce reproduction of the mosquito. Like the Wolbachia bacteria method and the genetic modification of the mosquitoes, the clove-based remedy is harmless to the environment. Most importantly, it is readily available.
Though the report is encouraging, one has to look into the practical aspect in translating this technique on a wider scale. It is alright that small volume of stagnant water can be made larvae free for two weeks but what is causing the real problem is the availability of public water bodies, cesspools. sewage treatment areas, etc for these creatures to breed and flourish. If clove is really effective why not evolve formulations based on extracts rich in Eugenol, the active principle responsible for the kill effect, for preemptive spraying programs under governmental agencies in countries where they are prolific? There was a time when government agencies used to have regular pesticide spraying programs which could bring about some control of mosquito population responsible for transmitting several diseases like Malaria, Filariasis etc but such control measures are more conspicuous by their absence these days. It is time this practice is revived and mosquito control measures are reformulated and made more intensive and extensive to give protection to the helpless citizens in the country who are vulnerable to diseases caused by these winged messengers of misery. 

Friday, April 19, 2013


The old saying that necessity is the mother of invention has repeatedly been proved by various true life stories on innovative achievements in human history. Here is another example of human mind driven by adverse conditions came up with answers which are entirely local in its origin. India is in the news lately for a wrong reason because of the evolving man-animal conflict which is intensifying day by day with the governments, Central as well as at the state level, looking on helplessly with no clue to find a practical solution. Conceded Indian population is growing fast and people looking for a tolerable life are intruding into forest areas disturbing the ecosystem drastically forcing the original "residents" viz the animals to foray into human habitats in search of water and food. The fact that forests are being destroyed for economic and social reasons cannot be denied and animals cannot be blamed for this periodic reports of their straying outside their habitat. In spite of many forests being covered under the protected National Park policy, poaching of animals like elephants, rhinos, tigers etc continue unabated in the country. Looked from a human perspective the recent strategy used by Coffee planters in using Chilli powder to repel Elephants from transgressing into their plantations can be justified and may be preferable to killing them as some do with guns and other lethal means. Here is a narration of the strategy used by these planters in Karnataka to reduce Elephant menace in their plantations. 

"Even as the elephant menace has increased in Siddhapura limits off late, the coffee planters have resorted to a new idea to keep elephants away from coffee plants. Taking clue from a workshop conducted by Dr Rudra from Assam who is engaged in researching on elephants, some of the coffee planters have now hung pepper sacks soaked with chilly powder on the fences around the coffee plantations. Dr Rudra hadigital device for stopping food wasted conducted a workshop for planters at Bhuvanahalli Estate in Karadigodu village near Siddhapura, where he furnished information about the new experiments to coffee growers. According to the experiment, the pepper sack will be completely soaked in the vehicle oil after which chilly powder will be applied on the sack. These sacks will emanate strong odour which will remain for over 20 days. The strong smell cast effect on elephants, thus keeping elephants away from plantations. Addressing the workshop, recently, Dr Rudra said that the experiment is cost-effective and could be made use by any planter. Farmers in Assam too were badly affected due to elephant menace as Assam shelters large number of elephants.  But, the experiment has caused much relief to farmers, he said. However, he felt that the experiment will be more effective if Bhoojalki chilly available at Assam is used for the purpose as the chilly is more strong than the normal chilly. Speaking to Deccan Herald, Assistant Conservator of Forest Kariappa said that the Department is observing the experiment made by planters in the region and are looking forward to what extent the experiment would be a success.  The Department will make attempts to get chilly from Assam, if the experiment proved useful, he said.

Chilli will not do any permanent damage to the animals by just sniffing but will this technique work for long considering the adaptability of animals to new adversities? Also to be learned is whether such large scale use of Chilli powder will disturb the ecosystem in the area. Present technique of using electrified fences is still an effective one though occasional electrocution cases are reported. However installing electric fences is expensive with chances of human accidents if not properly managed. As of now the Chilli fencing seems to be a promising way of keeping the Elephants away from human dwellings proximate to the forest areas.


Wednesday, April 17, 2013


Is it not a tragedy that in this century most consumers are swayed by highly aggressive advertisements and commercial promotional strategies of some of the industry giants and buy food products considered least healthy for them? For example while marketing fruit based beverages many manufacturers get away selling fruit pulp based beverages containing hardly 10% of the pulp, rest being sugar and the designs used in presenting the product to the consumer conveys the impression that they are fruit juices! Is it not unethical to market such products though the law may permit? The food laws are not specific regarding the way the label must be designed leaving sufficient leeway to the industry to present such products to give the appearance of a genuine juice though synthetic drinks have to carry the declaration that they do not contain fruit solids. The result is highly attractive fruit beverage packs crowding the retail shelves attracting the consumers in droves who buy them thinking that they are fruit juices. Recent introduction of a 100 ml tetra pack based fruit beverage is an excellent example as to how industry sings about consumer welfare and at the same time targets the consumers that too in poor vulnerable village sector to swell their sugary beverage business. Here is a take on this new strategy of tapping the rural wealth for a wrong cause.   

"This is going to be the lowest price for a Coke product in the non-returnable ready-to-drink category, where the pricing ranges from Rs 8 to Rs 12 and goes on to as high as Rs 60 for a two-litre plastic non-returnable pack. In package size, too, this is the smallest in the beverage product category - the smallest so far were the 200 ml returnable bottles. Explaining the strategy, Coca-Cola India President & CEO Atul Singh told Business Standard in an exclusive interview: "There are two million retail outlets in rural India where we sell our products. There are consumers who want packaged beverage at an affordable price. We have been working with our suppliers to get affordable packaging and have got Maaza at the right price point." He said the challenge would be making carbonated drinks affordable for the rural market. At present, these are sold at Rs 8-12 - not affordable for a large swathe of the market. "We need a sustainable model and there are cost constraints. But, we do recognise there are consumers who are not ready to buy at high prices. That's a challenge; we have to innovate in packaging, distribution, transportation and cooling equipment." At present, neither of the two beverage majors - Coke and PepsiCo - has ready-to-drink mainline branded products at Rs 6. Coke had introduced Fanta Fun Taste powder for Rs 5 but that had to be mixed with water. It had also introduced micronutrient powder sachets at Rs 2.50-3. PepsiCo, on the other hand, sells fruit juice powders for Rs 10, besides Tata Glucose (under a JV with Tatas) for Rs 6".

A part of the blame will have to be born by the food safety authorities in the country for making the law so flexible allowing these merchants of ill health to exploit the unwary citizens in the country. Products based on 100% sugar but with flavors latched on to them to imitate real fruits are popular in India because of the hot and sultry climatic conditions prevailing in most regions of the country during major part of the year. But these products at least carry the declaration that they are made without fruit solids. It is the fruit beverages which are dangerous because they do not warn the consumers that the fruit juice content is minuscule in them and to make up for low fruit solids artificial flavors are permitted! It is time that the category of fruit beverage is withdrawn from the statute books altogether. Alternately industry should not be allowed to add external flavors and this will make these products whither away gradually due to less attraction to the consumers. Another interesting aspect of this strategy is to shrink the pack size to bring down the price and enlarge the consumer base thereby increasing the business volume. Here is an example of a beverage pack of 100 ml priced at Rs 6 per 100 ml which really costs to the consumer Rs 60 per liter where as the same product is available in two liter packs at Rs 30 per liter! The poor is really trapped in this price matrix having no choice but to pay a higher unit price because of their lower purchasing capacity. Thus the pack shrinking strategy hits the poor economically as well nutritionally!      

Tuesday, April 16, 2013


Fossil fuels appear to be entering its last phase if the current pace of its exploitation continues unabated to satisfy the energy needs of wealthy countries as well emerging economies. With no satisfactory alternate options available to replace non-renewable resources of energy so far, world is heading for an uncertain future. Of course there are many renewable sources being tried out including solar, wave, windmill, geothermal etc  with none of them coming any where near the petroleum fuels in terms of cost and performance. The Biofuels with so much promise till recently, might not be a solution as most sources from which they are derived also happen to be food resources consumed by millions of people and large diversion of these food materials tend to distort the food situation adversely affecting food security in the world. One of the food materials now being used as biodiesel, especially in Europe is based on spent vegetable oils coming from industry engaged in frying of foods. If recent reports are to be believed the demand for used palm oil is so high, the price commanded by this product is higher than that of virgin oil! What a paradox! Here is a expose on this ironical situation that is prevalent in countries like the UK.    

"But research carried out for Chatham House says that reaching the 5% level means that UK motorists will have to pay an extra £460m a year because of the higher cost of fuel at the pump and from filling up more often as biofuels have a lower energy content.The report say that if the UK is to meet its obligations to EU energy targets the cost to motorists is likely to rise to £1.3bn per annum by 2020. "It is hard to find any good news," Rob Bailey, senior research fellow at Chatham House, told BBC News. "Biofuels increase costs and they are a very expensive way to reduce carbon emissions," he said. The EU biofuel mandates are also having hugely distorting effects in the marketplace. Because used cooking oil is regarded as one of the most sustainable types of biodiesel, the price for it has risen rapidly. Rob Bailey says that towards the end of 2012 it was more expensive than refined palm oil. "It creates a financial incentive to buy refined palm oil, cook a chip in it to turn it into used cooking oil and then sell it at profit," "It is crazy but the incentives are there." 

What a ridiculous situation where biofuels are becoming more expensive than fossil fuels! Whatever advantage biofuels have, the ground reality does not give any optimism that they will become an effective substitute to the fossil fuels in future. Another worrying factor is whether use of biofuels will have any impact on the carbon emission which is being blamed for global warming. Probably world will realize sooner than later that biofuels from plant sources may never be feasible and man will have to fall back on microrganisms for production of fuels of future with low cost and practically no adverse effect on the food front. Research has already achieved adequate breakthrough in this area and it is a question of time before giant vertical bioreactors start producing single cell biomass from which fuel oil can be extracted using known processes.       



The recent debate on proposed food security bill in the Parliament during December last was indeed very illuminating and those who blocked the drat Bill deserves country's gratitude for at least temporarily stopping the madness of the Government in pushing through a legislation considered "half baked". Inappropriately called Food Security Bill, it cannot ensure food safety in the country which is operating a Public Distribution System full of "holes" enabling fraudsters, gangsters, looters of all colors with or without political nexus to siphon off more than 50% of the food grains channeled through this leaky operation. Every one including the promoters of this scheme knows that public money is being wasted under a populist scheme increasing the food subsidy drastically, that too for a country reeling under heavy current account deficit. Here is a critique on this subject which is still being dangled across the nation as a remedy to abolish poverty in the land. 

"Earlier, Chairman of the Commission of Agricultural Costs Ashok Gulati, in his deposition before the panel, had said that the implementation of the Bill would be a massive challenge as nearly two-thirds of the population, 1.2 billion, will have to be covered by it. Similarly, the Union Agriculture Ministry, in its submission,  also expressed its reservations towards the Bill. According to sources, the panel is likely to recommend giving legal right over subsidised food grains to 67 per cent of the country's population, in line with the Food Security Bill introduced in the Lok Sabha in December 2011. The panel will also suggest the Centre to give freedom to state governments to identify the number of beneficiaries. However, the consensus is yet to be reached on the quantity of food grain to be supplied to beneficiaries. The proposed Bill aims to supply seven kg of food grain per person each month to priority households and three kg to general households. But some members demanded that entitlement over subsidised grains should be on the basis of each family instead of an individual as this will benefit large families".

It is recognized that subsidized food should be given to those who are impoverished, under nourished and poor but supplying the grains at Rs 1-3 per kg for a majority of the population is silly and ridiculous, amounting to profligacy! Rupee has lost its value very significantly during the last one decade and even beggars do not accept one rupee as alms because of its very low purchasing value. In a country like India where minimum wages are continuously being hiked reaching almost Rs 150 per day, where is the need for distributing food grains at Rs 1-3 per kg as most families can afford to buy the food grains at considerably much higher prices, say Rs 10-15 per kg. Why should the scheme cover families with monthly incomes as high as Rs 5000 and above? It is time that conscious effort is made by the government to fix the criteria for deserving recipients and confine supply of low cost food grains only to such families. Probably such a decisive step may bring down the food subsidy by almost 70-80% of the present outgo. The dynamics of politics should not interfere while evolving such national policies of far reaching importance.


Monday, April 15, 2013


The water scarcity in Maharashtra seems to be getting worse with each passing day and the government there seems to have no clue as to what must be one to save some of the drought prone districts from ruination. India is not new to droughts and practically every state experiences water shortage periodically, especially when monsoon rains fail or the precipitation is lass than normal but the conditions are never allowed to get out of control with timely ameliorative action. However the present condition in the state of Maharashtra where more than one third of the people are affected by the drought is grave enough to focus the attention of the nation for bringing the much needed relief to the severely stressed people there. According to analysts the drought here is a man made one deliberately brought about by the greediness of sugar industry, wineries, distilleries and banana growing cooperatives blessed by powerful politicians who are at the helm of affairs there. How can the country forgive these powerful vested interests for depriving the agricultural community of the water stored in over 50 dams by diverting the same to the water guzzling industries and government in the state has no moral right to continue in power for allowing this day light robbery! Here is an account of what has caused drought in the state through the eyes of dispassionate observers, development specialists  and economic experts.            

The drought in a large part of Maharashtra, said to be the worst since 1972, may have been triggered by poor rainfall in the last monsoon season - but it has been compounded by mismanagement of the available water. Nearly one-third of the state's population living in the 15 drought-hit districts in and around the Marathwada region is facing a severe scarcity of drinking water, apart from water for salvaging its wilting crops. The paucity of fodder for livestock, the mainstay of livelihood for the small and marginal farmers and landless households, too, is acute. This, paradoxically, is the state of affairs in a state that has the country's largest network of dams. What this has meant is that financially and politically influential farmers and industrialists are managing to corner enough water to irrigate crops and run industrial units, while the poor are deprived of even drinking water. This is evident in various areas where water-guzzling sugarcane and banana farms are in fairly good shape, while the neighbouring fields of less water-requiring sorghum - which belong to resource-poor farmers - wither away. Remember, the Marathwada region, which lies in the rain-shadow zone, is drought-prone. It is, therefore, unfit for the cultivation of water-intensive crops such as sugarcane. It is also worth recalling that the state government had decided in February, when the signs of a water crisis became imminent, to give priority to meeting drinking-water needs before letting water to be used for other purposes. This well-intended resolve has, however, remained largely on paper. Since the bulk of the state's sugar industry is in the co-operative sector and is controlled by politicians, cane crushing, which requires substantial amounts of water, is still going on in water-stressed areas.

Every patriotic Indian has to hang his head in shame when such inequities and crimes are committed openly with no remorse by a group of people elected by them to protect their interests. This is also a reflection of the failure of the Central government to implement existing laws that are supposed to protect the farmers from such gross exploitation. Can any one justify encouragement of water intensive crops like Sugarcane and Banana in areas where there is  perpetual shortage of water? How could the state allow water guzzling industries like wineries, sugar mills and distilleries to be set up in the region without giving adequate consideration for ensuring water supply to the agricultural fields for which the largest net work of dams has been built? Is sugar more important than food grains when the whole world is shunning sugar because of its well established role in health disorders like diabetes, CVD and others? Are alcoholic products like wine, beer and spirits more important than staples like pulses? If God is invoked and blamed for the present drought, the same God will not spare the perpetrators of this crime on humanity by a few political overlords of this country!    


India is a large country with 1.2 billion plus population with diverse culture and economic standards. Any thing to be done on a pan-India scale is fraught with insurmountable problems and only dedication, commitment, perseverance and high investment can show positive result at the ground level. In spite of good intentions and massive investments, the income gap between the rich and the poor is widening and poor people in the country are increasingly being mired in endless miseries and agony which do not seem to give them much hope about their future. Food is an area where the country has done reasonably well, at least with regard to production of staple grains like wheat and rice. Of course the story of oil seeds and pulses is one of many missed opportunities and billions of rupees are being spent to bring these foods from out side the country every year. The onus on the government to protect the food supply is indeed awesome and the special purpose vehicle created for the country's food safety is still in its formative stage trying to prove its mettle during the last 5 years. Unfortunately this outfit under the name Food Standards and Safety Authority (FSSAI) has been created with a heavy bureaucratic structure with doubtful capability for showing any dynamism at the ground level. As this agency is heavily dependent on the state governments with no authority to enforce its writ, the policies often do not get implemented. Here is a take on this important area of concern to the Indian citizen, viz how food is the food taken by him!
The agency is working to bring on board about 55 million people engaged in various food businesses and register them with the organisation by February 2014, Chandramouli said. Currently, only one million licences have been issued to food and beverage operators. To check and maintain food standards, FSSAI is in the process of setting up testing laboratories, he said. "Our aim is to have at least one laboratory in each state initially. Later, we plan it to increase this to at least one lab for every 20 districts in the next five years," he added. There are currently 72 government laboratories, which are to be upgraded during this period. Simultaneously, 33 new such testing centres will be set up. On food imports, Chandramouli said: "Our country imports lot of food items now. Though there is no fixed figure available, but Rs2-3 lakh crore of foods come to India every year." "We don't have food and safety standards in the country which deal with food products across the spectrum. For this, we need to get the state governments and other stakeholders on board," Chandramouli said, adding implementation of the FSSAI Act continues to remain a challenge".

The above report laments about lack of allocation of funds to FSSAI during the 12th Plan and one is afraid that this could as well become an excuse for non-performance or under performance.It is common knowledge that the quality of food made in India and imported at great cost is suspect because of grossly under developed infrastructure and shortage of critical personnel to run the monitoring program sincerely and effectively. With legal system delaying trials of food fraudsters for years, many are able to get away with blatant violations of existing laws and wide spread adulteration.  One of the excuses trotted out for under performance is lack of standards available to enforce but this argument cannot be sustained when it is realized that international standards under FAO-WHO as well by different global organizations are in place for thousands of foods which can easily be adopted till domestic-specific ones are evolved. FSSAI seems to be over obsessed with licensing and wants more than 55 million food handlers to be brought into its licensing system! Is it practical? What next after registration? Does it have adequate capability to undertake surveillance of these players regularly? Millions of home scale processors, cottage units and micro enterprises cannot be expected to register with FSSAI which is both time consuming and cumbersome. Since the retailers who sell the food articles are all licensed by local civic authorities, it is easier to make them accountable vis-a-vis quality of food sold by them. The onus of selling safe food must be put on these retailers who must be punished if he peddles bad food even unintentionally. Such an environment will starve the fraudsters of a market eventually. No doubt a body like FSSAI is a necessity for the country but it must be made to work hard and diligently for the welfare of the common man.