Sunday, July 12, 2015

Deprivation in India-Are the latest census figures realistic?

India is always considered a country of paradoxes. This is reinforced further by the census figures released recently highlighting the contradictions inherent in the growth of the country. It is unbelievable that more than two thirds of the rural households possess cell phones while the government wants to give heavily subsidized cereals at throw way price to 3 out of the 4 households under its National Food Security Act! If the figures trotted out are really true all the development programs to uplift the poor from poverty were wasted with no significant impact! Can this be true? It is hard to believe that really poor people would spend their precious resources for a cell phone which costs at least a few hundred rupees, in stead of on essential things in life. With government schemes like MNREGA income earning opportunities do exist in rural areas and according to some reports in many states there are few takers for this earning scheme. It is really hard to believe that rural population is languishing from lack of money for buying their essential needs to such an extent. If planning is based on these figures more subsidies can be expected from the government to address "poverty". Read further to get some idea about the implications emerging out of the set of figures put out by the government agency. 

Over two out of every three rural households own a mobile phone, the Socio Economic and Caste Census 2011 has found. At the same time, 36 per cent of rural Indians are illiterate, only 10 per cent households have someone with a salaried job and only 8 per cent households earn Rs 10,000 or more every month. The SECC findings, released last Friday, bring out statistics reflecting the state of poverty and deprivation in rural India as well as crucial social trends such as ownership of assets, gender dynamics, marital status, educational and employment. The mobile phone statistics contrast sharply with those for landlines. While only one per cent of rural households own a landline phone without a mobile, a whopping 68.35 per cent have mobiles as their only phone(s). In Uttar Pradesh, as many as 86 per cent rural households own no phone but mobiles. Households with both landline and mobiles constitute an additional 2.72 per cent of the rural population, with Kerala the highest among the states at 28.33 per cent. That leaves nearly 28 per cent rural households without any phone. In Chhattisgarh, this is particularly high at 71 per cent, mainly due to lack of connectivity and mobile towers, a reflection of the lack of development in the state, which has witnessed large-scale Naxal violence. The average size of a rural Indian household is nearly five members — 4.93 — the highest being in Uttar Pradesh at 6.26 and the lowest in Andhra Pradesh at 3.86. An overwhelming majority of households is predictably male-headed, but nearly 13 per cent do have a female head. In Rajasthan, around 91 per cent households in rural areas are headed by men, while in Kerala 26 per cent households are women-headed, the highest among the states. While divorces are a relatively common phenomenon in urban India, they remain almost rare in the rural landscape. Only 0.12 per cent of the rural population have been divorced, the highest in Mizoram at 1.08 percent. The findings list 41.64 per cent rural people as never married (the highest being in Nagaland at 56 per cent) but do not spell out the age group of these unmarried people. Educational levels remain dismal, with over a third of rural India illiterate. The proportion of those passing through the primary, secondary, senior secondary and higher secondary stages drops at each successive level, from nearly 18 per cent to 5 per cent, while only 3.45 per cent are graduates or above. The highest proportion for graduates is in the National Capital Territory and Delhi, at 9.6 per cent; among the states, Kerala tops at 8 per cent. Rural India remains largely dependent on self-employment or the unorganised sector. Less than 10 per cent households are dependent on salaried jobs, of which the majority are in government jobs. Also, 0.09 per cent of rural households are houseless, compared to 0.15 per cent in the urban areas.

There is no doubt that poverty does exist in pockets, if the term means inability to buy essential needs like food, medicine and others out of one's own earnings. Farmers' suicides which are happening in the country with sickening regularity have often been cited as the manifestation of poverty but these are happenings because of indebtedness caused by crop failures and other reasons. It is an established fact that what is needed is providing employment and earning opportunities in stead of handing out doles year after year as being practiced to day in modern India. The bundle of figures contained in the report does tell a story which highlights the uneven distribution of wealth in the country due to government's ineffective policies during the last 7 decades. Unless the agricultural sector is made dynamic through large scale injection of modern technologies and integration of nonviable fragmented land holdings, nothing much dramatic can be expected to improve the present situation in our rural landscape.


Wednesday, July 8, 2015

New antibiotic substance from fruits-Encouraging development in Mexico

Search for alternate substances to add to the array of antibiotics that are used to day, has led scientists to a variety of sources including plants and marine sources from which biochemicals simulating bacteria killing ability can be extracted. However no commercially viable product is in the market to day as most studies do not go beyond identification and exploratory stages. The issue has become critical now because "smart" bacteria are emerging which can withstand inhibitory or bactericidal action of most of the antibiotics currently used raising the specter of a potential catastrophe in future. Against this background comes a report from Mexico where a group of scientists have discovered antibacterial and anti fungal properties in the soluble extract of a locally grown fruit with some promise. Here is a take on this new development which needs to be watched further for any fruitful outcome vis a vis mass commercial application.

"We know that proteins inside the fruit have antibacterial activity. We have tested it with S. aureus, a bacterium with high incidence in hospitals which has developed resistance to antibiotics, so they do not work against it," explains Dr. Elizabeth de la Luz Ortiz Vazquez, who served as an advisor of this research . In addition to the Bromeliad extract, the scientists have identified the protein responsible for the antibacterial ability of the fruit. "We try to find alternatives for the food and health industry, and here we have achieved a soluble plant extract; we are also characterizing proteins," Dr. Ortiz Vazquez added. This is the first time that the fruit of Bromelia pinguin L. has been studied, a cousin of the pineapple. The fruit resides within the plant and numbers up to 50 in each bush. The fruits of the plant are grown from November to May, the ancestors of the region were said to use as an antiparasitic, and that is why the research began in 2009. However, ITM specialists have discovered that Fruit-derived antibacterial with potential application in the food industry "If we find any protein or peptide of 5-10 amino acids, we could produce it at a biotechnological level by introducing genetic information in a bacteria," says Dr. Ortiz Vazquez."

Of course like many other studies in the past the protein discovered in this fruit may exhibit limited inhibitory action but whether the extraction and optimization process will confirm its potential as a promising bacteria busting agent will have to await further concentrated studies. The objective of the scientists seems to be to identify a short chain peptide present in the extracted protein that will have highest antibacterial activity and further to mass produce the same through genetic transplanting into a suitable strain of benign bacteria.This makes sense as the plant under consideration is becoming extinct in its own native land. A critical issue that needs to be kept in mind is whether such a peptide will cause allergy symptoms in some people and how that can be avoided.


Friday, July 3, 2015

Improving health through agriculture-diet interfacing-New approach

Most ideal way to produce food is to shun the use of chemicals and other man-made inputs to boost production. Also selecting right variety for planting for crops with highest nutrient content is a desirable goal. It is true that evolution of food processing has seen progressive dilution of nutrition because significant part of the nutrients are removed as waste in order to improve functionality of raw material for various operations and also to improve the aesthetic quality to attract consumers. Plant breeder during olden days attempted to select plants with high nutrient denssity and diversity and cross breed them to improve the overall quality of these crops. Modern biotechnology has found newer techniques for genetic modification that can be done much faster compared to the old hybridization technology. Unfortunately modern day plant breeders using GMO technology have not been able to convince the consumers that they are absolutely safe. Look at the messy food landscape in the US where GMO foods have taken a vice like grip on the market and relentless fight back by the consumers going on to force the manufacturers to declare GMO foods on the front of the package label. A recent report from Africa claims that new sweet potato varieties with orange color in stead of white or yellow, can bring about dramatic improvements in the health status of the local population. Read further below to understand the implications of this development. 

"Farmers in Mozambique had been planting white and yellow sweet potatoes, not the orange-colored ones. The white and yellow potatoes have very little Vitamin A. However, one small, orange sweet potato has a fullday's supply of Vitamin A. A lack of Vitamin A is dangerous. Without enough Vitamin A, you face an increased risk of getting a serious disease or dying from infections.
Around the world, 190 million young children are not getting enough of this important vitamin in the foods they eat. That number comes from the spokesman of WorldHealth Organization. He saysabout 70 percent of children there were Vitamin A deficient. They were not getting enough Vitamin A. "About 70 percent of kids under the age of five were vitamin A deficient. So,you have this huge need for new solutions. If you can do something throughagriculture to increase the amount of vitamin in the diet … you're in muchbetter shape because that's much more sustainable.". Mr. de Brauw says the potatoes had a surprising effect on the health ofchildren. At the end of the three-year study, the researchers compared the health of children in villages growing orange sweet potatoes with those not growing them. Children living in the sweet potato villages had 40 percent fewer cases ofdiarrhea than other boys and girls. Among children under the age of three, the difference was 50 percent. According to Mr. de Brauw showing the impact of a food-growing project on health is very important, or as he says, a big deal.Health specialists say lack of vitamin A can cause blindness in children (Photo Courtesy - Light for the World)
"This is a big deal because nobody has shown in thepast that an agricultural production intervention can have big health impacts … have had any healthimpacts."Nutrition experts say vitamin supplements – that is,fluids or pills you take in addition to normal meals -- canonly do so much. One expert goes so far to say that supplements are a Band-aid -- a short-term fix to along-term problem. Anne Herforth is an expert on global food security andnutrition. She was not part of this study but talked about it with VOA's SteveBaragona on Skype."It's sort of a Band-Aid solution to a more fundamental problem, which is people not having access to high-quality diets."Experts are suggesting that linking agriculture and health issues is a natural and effective partnership.They say teaching farmers how to grow healthier food is among the best ways to improve health.Different types of millet are helping feed people in India, Africa and other parts of the world..Ms. Herfoth says the findings do a good job making the link between food production and health. "To say, 'You know, look, you produce a food and it'savailable to people to eat and they like it,' then it does good things for health."HarvestPlus is now helping farmers in other countries. In India, the group is helping farmers grow iron-richmillet. And in Bangladesh, it is helping farmers grow high-zinc rice."

No doubt the intention of the developers of orange variety of sweet potato must be noble but what is not revealed is how such new varieties have been evolved by the scientists achieving this breakthrough. According to the developers this variety has been evolved using traditional techniques which means that there is no gene level manipulation to get this special trait. Also of some doubt is whether the so called bio-fortified produce has carotenoids which are readily assimilated by the body as not much has been done on this aspect. But some trials seem to indicate that those fed on this variety were "healthier" than others with better vision and other biological functions. Similar efforts in Asia to evolve varieties of crops enriched with iron and zinc also are also going on though it may take some time before stable versions are developed. A big question that haunts policy makers is how to convince the farmers to switch over to the new varieties from their traditional ones to which they are used to for decades. Probably the farmers can understand only the language of "crop yield" which is linked to more profits and higher incomes. Nutritional superiority is rarely a USP for farmers world over. Unless the new varieties with better nutrition can compete economically with traditional crops, promoting them will be an arduous task.


Product Approval Committee of FSSAI-Alice in the wonderland situation!

While cornering all the glory for making Nestle bend their knees before them, FSSAI seems to have forgotten that it has lot to answer to the Indian public for its shoddy and unscientific working system. This has been brought out by a PIL regarding the messy system that prevails in that organization with corruption and callousness being the rule rather than an exception as being alleged. Most shocking is the allegation that the so called "product approval committee" which is vested with the power to clear new labels and standards for new products is manned by non-technical personnel or bureaucrats who sit on judgment regarding the merits of each application. These babus seem to think that they are super food scientists capable of taking decisions on a number of products developed by the industry from time to time.  While Delhi high court has taken up the issue for consideration, the matter is so serious that it may be more appropriate if Supreme court intervenes now to bring about some sanity in the food safety regime in the country. Read below to understand the gravity of the situation and the sorry mess this country has slid down during the last 7 decades of independence

"The Delhi High Court has issued notices to the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) and the Ministry of Health on a public interest litigation seeking an enquiry into alleged corruption in the FSSAI and a review of discrepancies in the food product approval system.
The matter is now posted for hearing on September 30. The petition, filed on July 1 by Pradip Chakraborty, a former Director of Product Approval at the FSSAI, states that only 370 products have been standardised as per the Food Safety Law while the rest are sent by manufacturers to the regulator's Product Approval Committee for clearance. Chakraborty alleged in his petition that there were instances of malpractices, mismanagement, and "possible acts of corruption and embezzlement of funds" involving senior officials at FSSAI. The Product Approval Committee mainly comprises non-technical personnel, according to the petitioner. The committee reviews applications of food companies that want to market products. The Maggi noodles product was approved by this committee."

The case assumes further significance and seriousness when one realizes that the litigant is no less a person than a former employee of the organization handling product approval applications. Even assuming that court does not sit on judgment regarding the merits or otherwise of the PIL, citizens in the country cannot help feeling let down by the governments whom they have been electing every five years with monotonous regularity. Out of the three stake holders in the food scenario, industry and consumers are being put at the mercy of a government organization which appears to be in shambles causing serious apprehensions about the  very future of this country. If the litigant is to be believed this system seems to serve only corrupt bureaucrats and criminal food fraudsters who are having a free run in the country with no fear of law or repercussions arising out of their dark deeds in pursuit of easy money.


Thursday, July 2, 2015

Solar energy farms in dessert regions-A novel strategy to co-generate bio-fuel

Solar energy is one of the most researched areas of renewable sources of power and in the last one decade lots of investments have been made in erecting solar panels in all countries, especially tropical ones with maximum exposure to sun light. China to day stands tall among all developing countries and even outpaces many wealthy countries in making cheap solar panels and producing huge quantum of power through them. In India also the present government, after waking up to the real potential of solar energy has substantially enhanced its target to produce solar power across the country. Though cost wise solar power may not be in a position to out-prize conventional energy from fossil fuels, hydroelectric or coal, progressive lowering of prizes of solar panels is bringing it almost on par with them. If scientists from an American University are to be taken seriously, millions of hectares of desert land that sprawl across all the continents, are right candidates for setting up giant sized "solar farms" that can generate solar power plus bio-energy materials which can be very attractive to potential investors. Here is a take on this exciting development which deserves attention by the authorities in India.

"Solar farms that would "co-locate" carefully selected crop plants between rows of photovoltaic panels might produce an energy "win-win" yield of electricity and biofuel, researchers at Stanford University say. Computer models suggest the solution is ideal for sunny and arid regions in the U.S. Southwest, they say. "Co-located solar-biofuel systems could be a novel strategy for generating two forms of energy from uncultivable lands: electricity from solar infrastructure and easily transportable liquid fuel from biofuel cultivation," Stanford postdoctoral researcher Sujith Ravisays. Ravi and environmental Earth system science professors David Lobell and Chris Field are conducting the research at the university's Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. Solar farms create electricity out of sunlight, but a supply of water is needed to wash dust from the solar panels to make sure they run at maximum efficiency. To minimize the spread and buildup of dust, the ground around the photovoltaic panels is also kept moist with water. Desert-tolerant plants planted between and underneath the panels could use the excess water running off the panels, and as they grow could anchor the soil, cutting down on the problem of dust. Such a system could allow solar farms to operate with reduced water needs, Ravi says. "It could be a win-win situation," he says. "Water is already limited in many areas and could be a major constraint in the future. This approach could allow us to produce energy and agriculture with the same water." Not just any crop would be appropriate, the researchers acknowledge, and food crops in particular are not well-suited to arid desert regions. However, there is perfect candidate crop well-suited to the inhospitable environment, they say: Agave. The prickly plant, known to most people as the source of tequila, thrives on poor soil and high temperatures in its native North and South America. Tequila aside, they say, it can be a source for liquid ethanol, which as a bio fuel can be blended with gasoline or operate as a sole source of power for ethanol vehicles. For that purpose it's even better than many food crops already being used as biofuel stock, Ravi says. "Unlike corn or other grains, most of the agave plant can be converted to ethanol," he says".

Though the scientists have excited the whole world with their computer generated model studies, it is not known whether any experimental solar farms is working any where presently. Agave is a fructose rich plant used extensively in South America to produce the alcoholic beverage Tequila and this has amply demonstrated its ability to produce ethanol which is the most commonly accepted bio fuel in the world to day. What is to be proven is whether Agave plant can grow with high productivity in all deserts in the world. Setting up solar plants in desert also needs some water for keeping the panel surface free of dust for maximum photo voltaic efficiency and despite the computer simulation offering some hope for future co-generating solar farms, imponderable ground conditions will have to be assessed before such farms become a reality.


GRAS Vs GRAS-The great food additives deception on the consumer

Can any normal person be proud to be an American to day when it comes to food safety and medical services prevalent in that country? Of course on many counts Americans can hold their heads high due to their hard working, generally honest and efficient way of life styles developed over a period of two centuries. With economic might and free enterprise spirit, there appears to be a shift in the power from the average citizen to the military-industry complex that emerged after world war II. This is more than amplified by the power and economic muscle of vested interests that lord over the citizen to day. The nexus between powerful industrial lobbies with least concern for the well being of their people and vote garnering politicians is too apparent in every sphere of activity in that country. Read the report below about the behavior of food industry in that country and how effective or ineffective is the food safety vigilance system there putting the health of the citizens in great jeopardy. Reference here is about the so called GRAS system of allowing hundreds of chemicals with questionable safety record being allowed to be used by the food safety administration agency in the US. 

"When President Eisenhower signed the Food Additives Amendment of 1958, he established a regulatory program intended to restore public confidence that chemicals added to foods are safe. In the intervening 56 years, the basic structure of the law has changed little. However, the regulatory programs the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) established to implement the law have fallen behind over time as the agency strived to keep up with the explosion in the number and variety of chemicals in food, and to manage its huge workload with limited resources. The 1958 law exempted from the formal, extended FDA approval process common food ingredients like vinegar and vegetable oil that are "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS). It may have appeared reasonable at the time, but that exemption has been stretched into a loophole that has swallowed the law. The exemption allows manufacturers to make safety determinations that the uses of their newest chemicals in food are safe without notifying the FDA. The agency's attempts to limit these undisclosed GRAS determinations by asking industry to voluntarily inform the FDA about their chemicals are insufficient to ensure the safety of our food in a global marketplace with a complex food supply. Furthermore, no other developed country in the world has a system like GRAS to provide oversight of food ingredients. Why Did Companies Forgo the FDA Notification Review Process  Because of the apparent frequency with which companies make GRAS safety determinations without telling FDA, NRDC undertook a study to better understand companies' rationale for not participating in FDA's voluntary notification program. First, we built a list of companies and the chemicals they made. Then we reviewed public records, the company websites, and trade journals to identify chemicals that appear to be marketed in the U.S. pursuant to an undisclosed GRAS determination, i.e. without notification to the FDA. All told, we were able to identify 275 chemicals from 56 companies that appear to be marketed for use in food based on undisclosed GRAS safety determinations. This is likely the tip of the iceberg -- we previously published in an industry journal an estimate that there have been 1,000 such undisclosed GRAS determinations. For each chemical we identified in this study, we did not find evidence that FDA had cleared them. In addition, using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), we obtained from the FDA copies of communications between the agency and companies who voluntarily sought agency review of their GRAS determinations. We found that this glimpse into the review process shows that often the agency has had serious concerns about the safety of certain chemicals, and that companies sometimes make safety decisions with little understanding of the law or the science. As discussed later, companies found their chemicals safe for use in food despite potentially serious allergic reactions, interactions with common drugs, or proposed uses much greater than company-established safe doses. On those occasions when the FDA is asked to review a GRAS determination, the agency rejects or triggers withdrawal of about one in five notices. Moreover, the public has even less information about the many substances with GRAS determinations that are never submitted to the agency in the first place -- and which may pose a much greater danger. It is often virtually impossible for the public to find out about the safety -- or in many cases even the existence -- of these chemicals in our food. NRDC believes that"Generally Recognized as Secret" rather than "Generally Recognized as Safe" is a better name for the GRAS loophole. A chemical cannot be "generally recognized as safe" if its identity, chemical composition, and safety determination are not publicly disclosed. If the FDA does not know the identity of these chemicals and does not have documentation showing that they are safe to use in food, it cannot do its job. In an increasingly global marketplace where many additives and foods are imported into the United States, this loophole presents an unsettling situation that undermines public confidence in the safety of food and calls into question whether the FDA is performing its duty to protect public health. The problem is rooted in a law adopted in 1958 when Eisenhower was president and Elvis was drafted. It is time for the FDA and Congress to fix the problems. In the meantime, consumers need to demand that their grocery stores and their favorite brands sell only those food products with ingredients that the FDA has found to be safe."

One has to be sympathize with the condition prevailing in that country in spite of stringent laws that exist on the statute books. No where else in the world the food manufacturers are given free hand in deciding what chemical is to be added based on flimsy scientific data sourced from within or from doubtful sources. It is true to redefine GRAS as secret list of chemicals used by the industry without proving they are safe. Can this continue for long? Citizens must raise their voice against such an obnoxious system that controls their lives. Compared to USA, EU countries are some what better off as there is better governance as far as safety monitoring is concerned. It is time that all GRAS additives are brought under a critical scanner and compel the industry to use only those found to be safe through impeccable scientific scrutiny.


Will this new Kerala initiative work? Doubtful

Ignoring the "boasting" element in the statement of the food safety authority in Kerala, one has to give a fair trial to the proposal to set up mobile testing labs to detect unsafe and sub-quality foods in that state. But it is difficult to imagine how such a project will work in a country like India where food safety vigilance system is severely hampered by archival testing infrastructure, vague food laws and rules and a seriously under- staffed work force. Read the idea being floated by the authorities recently reported by the media and try to understand the mindset of the implementing agency in the state. 

"Concerned over increasing instances of food adulteration, Kerala is gearing up to set up a string of mobile testing laboratories at check posts, claimed to be a first such initiative in the country. The plan is to examine the quality of food articles, including milk, milk products, oil and water, in view of increasing concerns on the flood of adulterated food articles from neighbouring states. Tender procedures in this regard were almost complete and negotiations were on with a company to finalise the standards and conditions, a senior Food safety official said. In the initial phase, three mobile lab units would be set up in selected check posts in the state. State Food Safety Joint Commissioner K Anil Kumar said, "This is the first time that any state is setting up such mobile labs at check posts to test quality of edible goods." "By setting up mobile test labs, Kerala is actually showcasing a model for other states in the drive against adulterated articles. We are planning to open them at selected check posts in the state, but the exact locations are yet to be decided," he told. The state-owned Kerala Medical Services Corporation Ltd has been entrusted with the selection of the company to set up the mobile labs. "KMSCL has now zeroed in on a company and negotiations are going on," he said. He said the state was already carrying out regular checks and strict monitoring to ensure the quality and safety of food articles and the drive has been intensified after the Maggi noodles controversy. The government had also stepped up its vigil at check posts to prevent the arrival of vegetables and fruits, having high pesticide residue, from neighbouring states. "There is no comparison between mobile testing labs and our highly sophisticated dedicated food safety labs. Only preliminary examination of samples is possible there. But, we will get first round results faster at the mobile labs," Anil Kumar said. The samples, found to be having high degree of adulteration, would be sent to the nearby dedicated food safety labs for detailed examination. "Though the quality of food articles, oil, milk, milk products and water can be tested at these labs, the pesticide content in vegetables cannot be examined there as it is a time consuming analytical process," the official said. Such a facility would facilitate gradual decrease in flow of adulterated and sub-standard food products from other states, he added. Kerala recently informed Tamil Nadu that vegetables brought from that state were found to have pesticide residues three to five times more than the permissible limit. This was noticed during random visits to certain farmlands in nine districts in Tamil Nadu recently by a team of Food Safety officials from Kerala after the state launched a drive against sale of vegetables with high pesticide content. As part of initiatives to check them, it had been made mandatory for all vegetables traders to get license and registration for sale. The vehicles bringing vegetables from other states have also got to register themselves under the Food Safety and Quality Act."

What is intriguing about this scheme is that such mobile testing labs are to be set up only at "check posts" that dot the state boundaries with Tamilnadu and Karnataka. This assumes rather pompously that foods coming from other states are only unsafe as the native industry is repository of all virtues! This is sending a wrong message to Kerala manufacturers that they can produce food products of doubtful safety and quality! The "Commissioner", probably a well meaning babu, has no clue regarding the wherewithal required to set up a food testing lab that too in a four wheeler carrier. Can the results of tests in these labs have any legal validity? How can a simple and cheap mobile lab test foods for all the parameters laid down in the statute books? One of the major complaints regarding out of the state foods has been regarding presence of high levels of pesticides in them and can these mobile labs do a honest job in estimating these dangerous chemicals? Impossible unless one invests crores of rupees to design and build a mobile food testing lab. Honestly such labs, most of them becoming redundant within a few months of launching due scarcity of inputs in quality and quantity required to run such facilities, might be of little impact as far as Kerala citizens are concerned. This Blogger will be happy to be proved wrong eventually.