Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Water management in agriculture-New technology

Agricultural productivity is closely linked to efficient water management and optimum utilization of nutrients by the plants. In a tropical country like India water loss through evaporation and run off can deprive the plants of water required at the desired levels. There are farm technologies like drip irrigation, spray irrigation etc which are used by well to do farmers for high dividend crops but they are beyond the means of most of the farmers who depend on rain water to manage just one crop in an year. As water is a scarce natural resource, it is imperative that it is conserved as much as possible preventing avoidable losses. It is in this context one has to appreciate the innovative technology developed under the ICAR aegis which uses a type of hydrogel to retain water without allowing it to evaporate over a long time making water available to the plants regularly. Here is a report from the NRDC of India which has made this technology available for commercialization recently hoping it will help the farming community to manage their water resources more efficiently.  

"National Research Development Corporation (NRDC), under the Department of Scientific & Industrial Research (DSIR), and Reliance Industries Limited (RIL) have signed an agreement for commercialisation of a novel superabsorbent hydrogels technology. This involves a novel hydrophilic super absorbent polymer indigenously developed by the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, New Delhi, to meet the requirements of water productivity in agriculture. "The scientists had successfully demonstrated the potential of resolving the problem of poor water use efficiency in agricultural crops. Besides, improved nutrient use efficiency, an array of other benefits have been achieved by using this product," said DSIR in a press release. NRDC is about to execute another agreement with a Chennai based company for the transfer of the same technology. NRDC has already executed agreements with five companies. Hydrogel absorbs a minimum of 350 times its weight of pure water. It exhibits absorbency at high temperatures suitable for semi-arid and arid regions. Besides, low rate of application it also improves physical properties of soil such as porosity, aggregate stability and hydraulic conductivity. "No undesirable effect on the crops raised in the fields treated with hydrogel has ever been observed or reported by the experimenters or the end users, the farmers," added the release."    

How far this technology can help the farmers under field conditions is not clear now. But in principle the hydrogel technology has the potential to revolutionize the farming sector if products are manufactured and made available at affordable cost. Also to be seen is the type of adjustments farmers will have to make in their normal operations to use hydrogels. If government is convinced that the new technology can revolutionize water usage pattern in the country, no effort should be spared to support its use nationwide. Of course this not going to be a panacea for solving the water problems in the agricultural sector, especially in drought affected areas but it will reduce unnecessary water loss in areas where water is available in lesser quantities.  


Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Prosperity, thy name is "nemesis"-Great food inflicted health crisis staring us!

Umpteen number of treatise emphasize the uncomfortable truth that an average a denizen, living in any part of the globe with high income, consumes a diet that is drastically different from that consumed 50 years ago. The catch here is that the quality of the diet has taken a beating with more and refined foods, low quality carbohydrates, less and less of fibers, fruits and vegetables, more of fats of lower quality, predominating the food that is consumed day in day out. The result is there for every one to see. Diseases like obesity, CVD, blood pressure, diabetes, kidney ailments, liver problems, cancer etc have become common and billions of dollars are being spent to treat them, the only beneficiary being the drug industry. Here is a telling commentary on this vicious situation in a super rich country like the US which is revealing.

"Today, novelty dominates American food. Those yellow arches are now golden arches and we are now a nation addicted to sugar, fat and drive-through windows. Food is mere fuel, and we eat more of it in our family car than at our family table. For proof, look how we — you and me — have changed our food patterns in the last 40 or so years.
• In 1960, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, we spent 26 cents of our food dollar on restaurant meals; in 2013 it was 50 percent.
• In 1950, the standard soft-drink bottle contained 6.5 ounces; in 1960 it grew to 12 ounces and, in the 1990s, 20 ounces became the norm.
• In 1970, according to numbers in a 2011 article published by Grist, the U.S. "churned out 2,168 calories per day per person, 402 of which came from added sugar and 410 from added fat ... or, combined, about 37 percent of the total."
• In 2008, the U.S. produced 2,673 calories per day person (" ... powerful evidence that [America's] cheap food policy ... succeeded ... ") of which "added fats and sugars [grew] to 459 and 641 calories, respectively, a 35 percent jump over the 1970 level ... "
• In 2013, according to Harvard University, Americans spent "an estimated $190 billion treating obesity-related health conditions."
• Also, in 2013, U.S. organic sales (which USDA does not track) totaled an estimated $35.1 billion, an 11.5 percent increase from 2012 but still only 18.4 percent of the amount spent we spent to treat obesity-related health problems that year. 
What's it all mean, fellow foodies? According to that brief survey, most of us ate less sugar and less fat when we ate more fresh, local food at home 40 or 50 years ago than what we buy and eat (mostly) in town today. Also, most of us were skinnier and healthier (as were our parents in comparison to us today) and all of us had more neighbors and more "community" — local banks, medical care, grocery and clothing stores and the like — than almost any of us have anywhere in rural America today. In short, we had it very, very good — despite Grandma pushing the pickle beets and lima beans every chance she got. Little wonder, then, that a new food culture, a foodie culture, is taking root across the U.S. now."

Though the above study, analyzing the hard data is considered reliable, there is no cogent answer as to what can be done to redeem the world from the curse of bad food and distorted food culture which are slowly but surely making the quality of life progressively deteriorating. While many blame the industry for this sorry situation, some blame will have be apportioned to the government regulatory agencies who have allowed this situation to develop by shirking their bounden responsibility to protect the lives of the citizens. Where does the consumer come in this complex scenario? Of course it is the weak will power and weakness for tasty foods abandoning the health concerns (similar to tobacco and alcohol) on the part of the consumer that is driving this insane rush towards health catastrophe staring at them! Unless consumers, regulatory agencies, health experts and the food business get together to deal with the crisis, this sordid "death dance" will continue unabated!

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Soda market moving to India? Latest investment on soft drinks in Hyderabad

When we are being bombarded with the Prime Minister's pet theme of "Make in India", day in and day out, there was great hope that products identified for manufacture, both for domestic and export consumption would be highly relevant to the country's needs. Of course the relevance of a product is determined by factors like consumer demand, environmental hazard, health implications, employment generated, water exploitation, farmer linkages etc. By no stretch of imagination manufacture of soft drinks can fit into this bill but if current trend is any indication foreign investors will invest only if they have a market for their products, rightly so.  Is soft drink an item of consumption that must be encouraged in our country when world over these products are being condemned for their empty calories and vulnerability of consumers to a host of diseases including CVD, blood pressure, kidney ailments, obesity, diabetes etc ? Recent report coming from Andhra Pradesh claiming that an MNC is investing in that state on a piece of land measuring 85 acres of government land for setting up a mega bottling plant is indeed disturbing. Should India be rolling red carpet to such investors who have very little regard for the well being of the citizens in this country? It is difficult to justify or rationalize this industry as the highly automated plant is unlikely to provide much employment or earn any foreign exchange! Here is a take on this paradox that is happening in front of our eyes with all and sundry paying obeisance to the dollar lord!   

"For the past 25 years, PepsiCo has been investing in the Indian economy and its people. As we move forward into our next 25 years, that commitment is stronger than ever. This plant is an investment in India's bright future," said Nooyi. Spread across 86 acres, the first line of the plant started manufacturing on Friday. When it becomes fully operational, it would benefit nearly 33,000 farmers thanks to local sourcing of mangoes and other fruits, Nooyi said. Speaking on the occasion, Naidu said local sourcing of mangoes would immensely benefit the region economically. Complimenting the Sri City management for attracting dozens of companies to set up shop there, Naidu said it could become India's largest industrial park in 10 years. The PepsiCo plantwill manufacture fruit juice-based drinks, carbonated soft drinks, and sports drinks, among other beverages. PepsiCo has deployed state-of-the-art technologies with an emphasis on production efficiencies, environment protection and safety. The plant will be PepsiCo's most water-efficient beverage plant in India and the firm aims to procure LEED certification for this facility, company officials said. a LEED, or Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design, is a set of rating systems for the design, construction, operation, and maintenance of green buildings, homes and neighborhoods. It is developed by the US Green Building Council. PepsiCo has a large manufacturing facility, with seven production lines in Telangana to cater to the markets of the undivided Andhra Pradesh and parts of Karnataka. The company, which has 22 brands in its product portfolio comprising food and beverages, has annual retail sales of about $1 billion. Sitting on a land bank of 8,000 acres, Sri City currently houses 106 companies employing 25,000 directly The GVK group plans to set up a hospital, medical college and a research centre at Sri City with an initial investment of Rs 100 crore, according to officials."

Andhra Pradesh government which is bending backwards to please the MNC seems to be forgetting what happened in Kerala years ago when the people of Plachimeda, a small hamlet in that state where a similar bottling plant was allowed to be set up led to one of the most virulent opposition campaigns India has ever seen against the corporate investor. Besides over exploiting water resources, the spent water polluted the area heavily causing many problems to the local population and thanks to people's power the bottling plant was forced to be shut down once for all. Interestingly the investors in A.P are using sugar coated words like employment generation, benefiting the farmer, high technology, research and innovation etc to mislead the government. It is difficult to imagine how farmers are going to benefited if the major product made is flavored sugary water, though there is a sprinkling of fruit based but sugar sweetened drinks containing traces of natural fruit solids! Unhealthy products like potato chips, fried and heavily salted extruded snacks etc are going to be the major part of the turn over expected from this factory. There is not even a single healthy product in the portfolio of products churned out by this company justifying conferring so much favors on it. If this is the forerunner of things to come under the "make in India" slogan, where is this country going to end up? God save the country!