Tuesday, September 30, 2014


It was a recent news which appeared in India that Rs 25000 crore worth of imported foods were lying in various ports in the country for want of clearance by the food safety authorities on technical grounds. Unfortunately in the name of food safety these food products with definitive expiry dates are being allowed to be lost with benefit neither to the importers nor to the consumers. There is a feeling that such large scale detention of imported foods may be a sort of protectionism rearing its ugly head all over the world either due to local food lobbies seeking protection from low cost products into the country and can be theoretically considered as TBT-technical barrier to trade which WTO does not allow. But it could also be a genuine problem of transient nature which government of India must address immediately. This reminds one of the happenings in the Italy-Austria borders in December last when farmer interests from Italy blocked flow of food products into their country alleging that the reputation of Italian brand was being destroyed by cheap imitations and raw ingredients which are processed in their country before labeling as Italian made! Look at the incongruity of the situation by reading the excerpts of report referred below:   

Thousands of Italian farmers blocked the Brenner Pass at the border with Austria on Wednesday, protesting against food piracy and import of raw food ingredients of low quality. Agricultural association Coldiretti claimed the so-called"false Italian food" (i.e. food made with foreign ingredients, but branded as Italian) is badly damaging the traditional agricultural and food production in Italy."Many products are partially or totally made with ingredients coming from abroad, but since they are assembled or processed in our country they can be sold as 'Italian foods', and this ruins our original production," Rolando Manfredini, quality manager with Coldiretti explained to Xinhua. This allegedly unfair competition has resulted in the closing of around 140 thousand agricultural businesses between 2007 and 2013, according to figures released by Coldiretti and Unioncamere, the Association of the Italian Chambers of Commerce. Around 32.500 cattle sheds and farming businesses have disappeared just in 2013, with a loss of 36 thousand jobs in the farmlands, they said.

WTO is supposed to ensure free flow of trade across borders with least barriers and there are adequate provisions for preventing cheap products being dumped in any country which can have adverse impact on the domestic industry. Europeans should not forget that they belong to a unified country group with practically no borders and if this is so the stand taken by Italian traders cannot be justified. While Italy has every right to oversee the quality of products entering its territory, the excuse that raw ingredients coming into Italy for conversion into value added products harms its interests will not stand critical scrutiny. There is another tendency which is emerging in some wealthy countries trying to declare on the label the country of origin boldly so that consumers can shun products from some countries and in the name of patriotism citizens are forced to buy locally made products. When responsibility for the safety of any food product imported rests with the importing company with valid license, where is this need for declaration separately the country of origin? More over products imported into any country must conform to that country's standards and safety bar. WTO must truly work to ensure that the world really works as a global village with no barriers to honest trade.


Sunday, September 28, 2014


Memories of late Dr V Kurien who pioneered the milk revolution in the country several decades ago may be fading and the younger generation who has never known the scarcity condition vis-a-vis milk availability of milk in the country that existed before nineteen eighties needs to be educated about his yeoman service in this area. Now that India is the top milk producing country in the world, it may be time to look ahead and see what is required to be done for the sustainability of dairy industry. It is here that the forward looking state of Punjab is providing the beacon to rest of the country. Here is a report about the innovative and progressive dairy farmers in that state which can be a role model for rest of the country.  

"Punjab is one of the top five milk producing states in the country. Punjab's per capita milk availability at 937 gm is nearly four times the national average of 252 gm. And the state's average yield is much higher than the national average. But a falling cattle population because of unviable backyard dairies and a labour shortage impacting commercial dairies posed a serious challenge to the growth of the dairy industry in the state. That is set to change now with Singh, one of 6,000-odd big farmers, going in for full automation. They have formed an association known as the Progressive Dairy Farmers' Association (PDFA). Together, they produce nearly 800,000 litres of milk a day. The average yield of a cow is nearly 8,000 litres in a lactation cycle against the national average of 1,500 litres, claim PDFA functionaries. And nearly 40 per cent of PDFA members have gone in for automation. The association owns a high-tech processing unit located 50 km away from Ludhiana city. And it has launched its own milk brand, La Pure Milk, which is marketed in Ludhiana. "I went to Israel in 2006 and saw cowsheds being built there. Upon enquiry, I got to know that a model cow shed should have a height of 35 feet and width of 120 feet. Such a shed allows proper ventilation and reduces the temperature inside by 4-5 per cent," recalls Daljeet Singh Gill, president of PFDA. He also happens to be a member of the Punjab State Farmers' Commission's advisory committee. Association members learnt about feeding techniques in France and Sweden and about fodder quality in New Zealand. PFDA helps members import machines and provides training to farmers on running them. Veterinary help, too, is extended quickly. The association is in the process of fixing marketing requirements of its members."

Suffice to say that Punjab will accomplish the feats of several dairy farming countries like New Zealand, Australia, Denmark and others in terms of raising of milk animals, production standards and processing and show its fellow countrymen that nothing is impossible if there is a will to work hard and set their vision high. The conflict between manual operation and mechanization is a real one in a country like India where unemployment is supposed to be high about 13% of the population. But food production and processing require quality human resources and skilled workers and only training and skill development can make unemployed people fit for absorption by the industry. Unless such skill is generated shortage of human resources will always compel the industry for more and more mechanization.


Thursday, September 18, 2014


Cow is supposed to be a sacred animal to most people in India due to its association with mythological events. For most vegetarians milk from these animals provides high quality proteins and micro nutrients for their sustenance. Though the animal is supposed to produce milk for feeding its calves during its productive period of life by Nature, man's ingenuity and innovative ability over the years have seen the milk production by animals like cows and buffaloes increase rapidly much beyond the needs of its calves. While technological means of increasing milk productivity is understandable, what is reprehensible is the cruelty perpetuated on these dump creatures by dairy farms across the country for cutting the cost and increasing milk yield as much as possible. In a recent report such practices have been detailed by the animal protection NGO PETA. Here is a take on some of the dastardly acts by dairy farms which are in vogue in India! 

"Since 2000, People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has repeatedly reported about thousands of illegal dairies across the country where animals are impregnated repeatedly and forced to produce enormous amounts of milk every day. Chained by the neck in narrow stalls, unable to move, and often lame as a result, the cows suffer from chronic debilitating diseases due to lack of movement and poor and unhygienic diet. Most are unlawfully injected with hormone oxytocin to make them give more milk. Oxytocin keeps their bodies in perpetual condition of labour, with repeated uterine contractions, destroying their reproductive systems and making them bone thin and eventually sterile. The man-animal interface has largely been taken over by machines: Most cows in India are milked by low-cost milking machines. They may have reduced drudgery for dairy workers but are painful for animals. The suction machines tend to take more milk out of the cows than what they would yield naturally. And they are often kept on even when udders have become dry, causing acute pain. Bigger urban dairies tend to be foul-smelling infernos, where the animals stand in feet-deep slush and dung, suffer from skin disease, other infections and TB. Death is a daily affair. But even in death they are useful: the carcasses are sold for beef and leather. The small dairy owners in cities and big towns send their animals out on the street to fend for themselves. They forage for food in garbage bins or vegetable markets. And what do they eat? Doctors at a Tamil Nadu vet school report that cows are brought in with gastroenterological problems as a result of swallowing large amounts of plastic waste. Doctors have witnessed cases where cows had swallowed more than 25 kg of plastic. On an average, every month, 10 per cent of cows brought in are found to have plastic deposits inside their bodies."

What is tragic is that, in spite of many agitations and campaigns from time to time to protect cows and respect them as man's friend, at the ground level nothing is happening to improve their lots. To stop killing is not certainly the answer but letting them live without pain or torture. It is time Government of India makes it punishable to maltreat animals like cows and those committing such crimes are made to undergo compulsory prison terms. A few Goshalas here and there in the country does not solve the problem and an organized effort is necessary to address the problem on a national level. 



USA, considered the capital of GM foods, seems to be nurturing many farmers within their borders who make money by raising non-GM crops mainly for export. Of course these farmers are not wedded to natural crops, not tampered with by man but opportunities from abroad to buy non-GM crops at higher prices are too tempting for them to get into this area. Many Asian countries, especially Japan, are apprehensive of GM crops and are scrupulously avoiding cultivation and consumption of such crops by their citizens. Probably they are expecting that GMO technology will go through the safety and hazard analysis by impartial scientists to give a verdict regarding their absolute harmlessness. Though this may or may not happen in the near future, American farmers engaged in growing non-GM crops are reaping bounties by sending them to Asia. Here is a take on this interesting subject.

"When GMOs came on the scene about 20 years ago, it turned out that his Japanese customers didn't want them. Japanese food companies were suspicious of the new technology and didn't want to risk a hostile consumer reaction. So Clarkson tweaked his supply chain to deliver what the Japanese wanted. He made sure his farmers grew varieties that weren't genetically engineered. The non-GMO niche was born. He wasn't the only one doing this. Clarkson shows me, on a wall map, the concentration of farmers who supply the Japanese market. Many are along the Illinois and Ohio rivers, with easy access to ships heading toward Asia. There are thousands of them, and they're now happy to supply customers in the U.S., too. "U.S. buyers often think that we're starting from scratch" with non-GMO grain, Clarkson says. "Well, we're not. We're starting from millions of bushels of demand that are in place and being satisfied on a regular basis for Asian clients." Most of these farmers don't have any philosophical objection to genetic engineering. In fact, most of them grow both GMO and non-GMO crops. Allen Williams, who grows grain for Lynn Clarkson, says the choice to grow non-GMO grain simply comes down to money. "You're just trying to improve your profit," he says. "There's not a lot of ways to do that, if you're growing commodities. This is one way to do that." He'll sell his non-GMO grain for 10 percent or 15 percent more than the standard market price. But there are complications. Some of the extra income gets eaten up by extra costs. He'll spend more money on pesticides, for instance, for his non-GMO soybean fields. He also has to make sure the grain he sends to Clarkson Grain doesn't contain any traces of his GMO crops. So when he finishes harvesting one of his GMO fields, he has to spend hours cleaning out his combine. "You know, time is of the essence during harvest," he says. "So to take time during harvest to clean out equipment and storage locations and transportation equipment is very expensive for a farmer."

What is intriguing is the logistics involved in growing GM and non-GM crops together without the latter getting contaminated with GMO traces. It appears these farmers are taking extreme precautions to prevent cross contamination because Japanese buyers are very stringent in their specifications. In the mean time the ding-dong battle between GMO lobby and anti-GMO activists is becoming more and more acrimonious with each side marshaling data to reinforce their respective assertions. It is the consumer who is caught between the two extremes not able to decide whether to buy or shun GM foods, though there is hardly any choice in a country like USA where GM foods practically monopolized the market leaving very little choice to the citizens there.  


Tuesday, September 16, 2014


True, a new government has taken over the reins in the country raising hopes of millions of Indians that better days are ahead in contrast to the policy paralysis prevalent earlier. But whether their hopes will fructify remains to be seen as bureaucrats still rule the roost and moving them to implement top policy decisions is still a big task. Food Corporation of India is a classical example about the bureaucratic grid lock that characterizes government programs, many of them well intended but not implemented properly. Looking back FCI and GOI were damned by the Supreme Court of India some time back for wasting precious food grains because of negligence and callousness in creating sound storage structures required to safe guard food grains for long duration. Here is a flash back on this issue and it is pitiable that nothing much has changed as far as this problem of wastage is concerned.  

"The court commissioners dubbed negligence by officials as `genocidal' and recommended responsibility and accountability be fixed at the highest level in Central and state governments. The commissioners have warned that this is just a third of the 1.37 lakh MT of wheat lying in the open since 2008-09 in Punjab, and the entire lot could have become unfit for consumption as Food Corporation of India (FCI) norms allow grains to be exposed to nature for only a year. In Haryana, too, 31,574 MT of grains have been lying in the open since 2008-09. Another 27.38 lakh MT of grain are lying in Punjab. While 18.90 MT of grains are wrapped in polythene, and gathering dust for the past two years. The commissioners report that "a significant quantity of these food grains are likely to go waste if urgent measures are not taken by the Government of India to release these stocks to poor immediately." The Supreme Court commissioners' statement comes in stark contrast to that of Pawar, who had earlier said in Parliament only 11,700 MT of grains worth Rs 6.86 crore had become unfit for consumption and reports of rotting grains were blown out of proportion. When contacted principle adviser to court commissioners, Biraj Patnaik, refused to comment, stating the issue is sub-judice. A counter affidavit filed by the government to this report quietly skirts the issue of rotting grains completely. Instead it talks of long-term arrangements to increase space for storage. The apex court, in its earlier hearing, had asked why grains should not be distributed to the poor instead of being allowed to rot in the open. The government claimed it cannot increase allocation of grains to the state under the PDS as it is not able take ad-hoc decisions while the new criteria is being developed by the government."

One of the redeeming pictures emerging now with the new government setting new standards of governance, FCI stored food grains are released into the open market in a controlled way which has resulted in reduction of prices in the case of some food grains, especially rice and wheat. Nothing much has been heard about the extent of rotten grains still with the FCI though the Court wanted this to be distributed to the poor. What is not realized is that these grains in all likelihood might be inedible even for animals because of severe infestation and contamination. It is time that government takes a serious view regarding this issue, sets in motion a review of acquirement policy and make the FCI accountable to the Nation. Recent direction to states not to increase Minimum Support price being offered to mop up surplus grains from the farmers may be a good move to divert these grains into open market and avoid long term storage for which adequate storage capacity is still not available. Also interesting is the announcement by the new government to restructure and recast the FCI to make them more efficient and accountable, though it remains to be seen whether such statements get translated into reality.  


Monday, September 15, 2014


Entrepreneurship in food area is the driving force for the industry to grow and expand and every new entrepreneur knows how difficult it is to start a new venture in food processing. The biggest hurdle is hard to access information necessary to plan a new venture and once this is overcome the next biggest challenge to sustain them with diligence and devotion. Of course Internet is a precious source of varied information and to day's denizens depend on this source more and more for day to day activities. But for a venture what is needed is information that is reliable and derived from experienced professionals and unfortunately very often internet sources can be confusing and contradictory making them useless as a basis for investment. If a recent report appearing on this issue in some media is to be believed, here is an organization that is doing service to the entrepreneurs through valuable experience based information.

"She knew she was at the forefront of a movement. Four years ago, when Danielle Gould started talking to people about the growing demand for locally produced food and the ways technology could help organic farmers and small businesses thrive, people looked at her like she was crazy. Investors weren't interested in food startups, and it was difficult to fundraise. But she wouldn't take "no" for an answer. She knew she was ahead of the curve, and that everyone else would eventually catch up. Gould started a blog, Food+Tech Connect, to write about open data and agriculture, and bootstrapped it into a company from there. "When I started, I had 50 organizations that were really thinking about food, data, and tech, and then it just exploded. We've grown with the movement," said Gould, the CEO of Food+Tech Connect. Today the company is a site of record and a connector for the food technology sector, with well over 3,000 organizations using the website. What makes the business unique is that it covers the entirety of the supply chain -- from farm management software and restaurant management software to consumer-facing health apps and fitness wearables. The company has weekly infographics that explain aspects of the industry, lists of resources for start ups, and discussions of upcoming trends in agriculture. They also host meetups in New York and San Francisco. And as it turns out, Gould was absolutely right about the demand. Food is one of the fastest growing industries around the world, both in the start up and investment space. In fact, two of the biggest areas in tech investment right now are food delivery services and grocery delivery services, which hit a five-year high in investments during the first quarter of 2014, a 51% jump from 2013. Gould and her three full-time staff members at Food+Tech Connect produce editorial content daily, and the company also hosts hackathons several times a year to tackle big problems in the food industry. They recently held Hack Meat in Palo Alto, to work on projects geared toward the meat industry. Next up is Hack Dining, for the restaurant industry, which will be in New York."

The organization mentioned may be restricting its activities to the geographical boundary of the US but has scope to expand the same to other countries where millions of entrepreneurs are languishing with hunger for information for their plans to invest in the food sector. Each country has its own industry environment and it is understandable that one organization cannot comprehend all of them due to logistical and legal constraints. This is where indigenous organizations have to sprout in different countries to perform the above role. With governments pumping in money to encourage new entrepreneurs to take up agri-based ventures, there is no reasons why service oriented organizations cannot come up similar to the one illustrated above.



A recent news item appearing in the media reports the plans of some major Indian food companies to manufacture and market so called chocolate spreads in India as a replacement to fruit jams. It is a fact that the fruit jam market is lately seeing a decline because of the perception among consumers that is unhealthy being too rich in sugar. Technologically jam is a product in which no preservatives are allowed by law, the high sugar concentration amounting to almost 70% providing preservative effect. But what is forgotten is that there is also a significant content of fruit solids supplying some vital nutrients like vitamins and minerals. After all jam is not eaten in big quantities as a 5 gm sachet is sufficient for two slices of bread and there for its presence in the daily diet is not that much to be afraid of. The alternative being considered viz. Chocolate spread is hardly the answer. read the report below and imagine the consequences of this move in the Indian context. 

"At least three food companies are introducing chocolate bread spreads in the domestic market, in what could be a sign of urban India's desire for change on the breakfast table. Mapro, Dukes and Finetti will bring out their own line of Ferrero India's Nutellalike chocolate spreads this month, challenging the dominance of fruit preserves that have found favor with consumers for ages. "Consumption growth of jams is on a decline and chocolate spread, although on a small base, is rising steadily". 

True chocolate is a beautiful product liked by both children and adults and it is hard to resist good quality chocolates because of of their unique texture, flavor, taste and mouth feel. Unfortunately its high saturated fat content and intense sweetness can be a fatalistic combination if consumed in large quantities in the long term. Modern avatars of chocolates viz. Bitter Chocolates are touted as panacea for every illness mankind is faced with. But there is very little clarity regarding the beneficial effects these products vis a vis their processing methods, composition, absorption of the phytochemical constituents present in them and actual impact on human health through clinical studies. Though the manufacturers are not claiming any health benefits for these spreads they must be really factoring in the aura of cocoa and its popularity as a source of antioxidants before venturing into the market. Industry might also have been influenced by the absence of any mandatory standards of quality and safety in the statute books at present. Probably wiser parents may be well advised to keep their children away from such high fat and sugar products if they wish to keep them safe from future obesity problems.


Friday, September 12, 2014


If FAO of the United Nations is to be believed, the World is heading for a food glut with some consequences on the agricultural community. It is a paradox that while almost half the world is suffering from hunger, here is a situation where the food grains availability is 20% more than the average requirement of a denizen! Of course there is not much that can be done to make surplus food available to needed population because most of them do not have adequate purchasing power to buy their food needs and after all there is nothing like a charity in the food front that will allow producing countries to distribute foods freely. A country like India which itself is holding huge food stocks found it difficult to use its surplus stocks, some of which has been getting rotten under sub-par storage conditions. The food security "scheme" which is supposed to distribute government food stocks at heavily subsidized prices ( almost free!) seems to have run afoul with WTO regulations for free trade and this global issue still needs to be sorted out. The big question therefore is whether the current situation will exacerbate the food situation further and whether it will impact on the farmer income world over due to market depression of prices. Here is a take on this.

"The monthly Food Price Index of the United Nations' Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) was at 196.6 points in August, down 7.3 points (3.6 per cent) from the previous month and lowest since September 2010. Barring meat, prices of all 65 agri commodities measured by the index showed marked decline in the month. With the world cereal production forecast scaled up to 2.5 billion tonnes this year - only 0.5 per cent lower than last year's record high - FAO's cereal price index averaged at 182.5 points in August, down 2.8 points (1.5 per cent) from last month and 24.2 points (11.7 per cent) lower than August last year. The global inventories of all cereals are estimated to rise to the highest levels in 15 years, given the good harvests in the past two years. By the close of the 2015 season, the world cereal stocks could reach 616 million tonnes, 12 million tonnes higher than the previous forecast and six per cent more than the start of the 2014-15 season, estimates FAO"

Another aspect of this glut is whether consumer will benefit by increased availability of food grains in the market? This is an unlikely scenario because more than 80% of world food supply is controlled by giant international companies with awesome financial clout. They can manipulate the global prices to deny the benefit of lower prices of grains in the world market through "cartelization" and retail market prices. Ultimately this situation benefits neither the farmer nor the consumer while the bottom line of grain traders gets significant boosts! A pity indeed!