Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Adulteration of foods-Is it rampant in India?

Look at a recent report by the FSSAI about the food safety in the country. Uttar Pradesh "shines" in one area of activity, that is in manufacturing and marketing spurious foods among all the states! What is galling is that this food safety body is publishing such data after getting it "collected" from the states which have the constitutional responsibility to ensure that only clean and safe foods are marketed within their boundaries. What does a laymen understand from such bland figures "released" by the food safety watchdog routinely every once in a while, probably to convince its bosses that it is doing a great job? Passing the buck is a favorite game with babus in the state and central governments since no hard questions are asked and no accountability is demanded. However responsibility for the sorry state of affairs vis-a-vis the consequences Indian population are suffering from, must be squarely laid on the doors of the governments at Delhi as well as in the states. Is it not interesting that the figures referred to pertain to only number of samples found to be adulterated while the sample size has not been mentioned which only can say how effective the vigilance regime is in the country. According to FSSAI the state governments pick up about 60000 samples an year from the 8 million retail outlets spread across the country and normally finds about 20% are adulterated. The million dollar question that begs for an answer is whether the samples picked up really represent the quantum of production in the country. The extent of "rampant" adulteration as being claimed is contained in the following report. 

Food adulteration the state is the second highest in the country. As per the Food Safety and Standards Authority in India, 1,458 food samples were found to be adulterated, unsafe and misbranded in the state. Uttar Pradesh with 4,119 failed food samples has the poorest record. Health Department officials said except certain fruits, most food items in the state were found adulterated. Milk products, cheese, ghee, tea, bottled water, chillies, garlic, turmeric and black pepper are some of the food items that are usually found adulterated in the state. Harmful chemicals are reportedly found in numerous food items and adulteration is rampant as the Health Department doesn't conduct frequent checks. Shopkeepers too promote such products in a bid to make a killing," said a Health Department official. He further said the highest percentage of milk samples fail in the state with the rate having doubled from 22 per cent to 44.3 per cent last year. On Friday, the Bathinda police raided a factory that mixed fake ghee with desi ghee. Similar incidents have also been reported in other parts of the state. There are also reports of pulses and apples being coloured with harmful chemicals. Commissioner of Food Safety, Hussan Lal, said the government had devised a mechanism wherein a person with a particular quantity of milk would be given a licence to sell. "Similarly, 50 designated food safety officers have been deployed across the state. Soon, their number will be raised to 60," he said. Lal further said they would focus on active surveillance to stop the sale and manufacture of adulterated food.

Though there is no unanimity regarding the quantity of processed foods manufactured in India since production estimates are not being put out after the eclipse of the erstwhile DGTD, one can get a fairly good idea looking at various raw materials being processed in the country. According such data, only 2.2% of fruit and vegetables go through the hands of the processing industry while the corresponding figures for milk, meat and poultry are 35%, 21% and 6% respectively. But when it comes to value of production by the processing industry, the estimated out put is valued at $ 300 billion or Rs 21000 lakh crore. With such a gigantic sized manufacturing base can picking up 60000 samples for testing is really sensible? This is a total sham in the name of food safety and how can any citizen get any confidence on the governments commitment to protect him? If the total number of "inspectors", the vital cogs in the safety monitoring regime, is not more than 1000 under the control of state governments the present sampling just works out to 60 samples a year by each inspector, height of inefficiency measured under any yardstick regarding their performance. The present system needs complete overhauling so that the safety management has at least 10000 inspectors and their efficiency is raised to at least half a dozen samples a day. Can India do it? Let us hope governments will wake up to this urgent need without losing more time.   


Monday, January 25, 2016

Use of Opium to season food preparations-Latest food scare in China

It is not easy to forget the greatest food fraud in China which occurred a few years ago killing and maiming hundreds of unsuspecting children after consuming baby foods made from milk adulterated with the toxic Melamine, a polymer material used in varnishes. Unfortunately the fraudsters are still alive and kicking in that country with the government, though considered a totalitarian regime, not able to do much to weed them out from the society. Latest scandal to emerge involves use of the intoxicant Opium to season some of the food preparations served in reputed restaurants. Opium in limited quantities are used to treat certain disease conditions but for a normal person to consume it regularly is unthinkable as this opioid is a habit forming one.making customers addicts.  Here is a take on this unfortunate episode reported recently from China.

"Thirty-five restaurants in China selling popular dishes and snacks were found to have used opium poppies as a seasoning, China's top food safety regulator said. Owners of 25 of the restaurants have been transferred to public security departments for criminal investigation, the China Food and Drug Administration said last Thursday. The other 10 are under investigation by the administration. The restaurants include some that are locally well known, including Huda Restaurant in Beijing, which specialises in spicy crayfish. Adding opium poppies to dishes violates China's Food Safety Law, which forbids the selling of food made with non-food materials or chemicals, except for food additives. Violations could result in fines or criminal penalties. The regulator called on local food and drug authorities to punish those involved and to cooperate with public security departments to find the sources of the poppies. It also required food and drug authorities to intensify supervision and inspection of restaurants that sell food like fried chicken and noodles. Professor of food safety and nutrition Luo Yunbo, at the China Agricultural University, said opium causes addiction and serious harm to health if overused, and it is banned from use in food in China. "There are so many restaurants in China and it is very difficult to effectively inspect every one of them to ensure they follow the law," he said."

What is galling is that irrational statements are being made regarding the impossibility of preventing such malpractices in the catering sector. Is it not the responsibility of the State to give protection to its citizens whatever may the cost or difficulties? What are the food safety personnel doing there if they cannot discharge their surveillance responsibility and why the government is soft on these criminals, instead of putting them in jails for long terms besides confiscating their properties? Though only 35 restaurants in Beijing so far have been found to be delinquents, this practice might be widespread through out the country because of the long term gains these eateries will have by making their regular customers more and more addicted to their food preparations! It is regrettable for any one to obfuscate by saying such practices can be weeded out only through education which presupposes that those indulging in such practices are innocent and illiterates! No doubt food safety surveillance is a heavy responsibility on all governments but showing helplessness is nothing but abdication of their duty of protecting the citizens through convincing and trust inspiring action.  

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Is exercise irrelevant for good health? Some seem to think quality of food is more important!

We are being bombarded day in and day out about the crucial importance of physical exercise in maintaining a good health. Of course mention about a "bad" diet invariably is obscured, probably because there are powerful vested interests and influential lobbyists who always get the ears of the policy makers and even biased scientists. It is still fresh in our memories what the CEO of a giant multinational beverages (soda) company said when the industry was criticised for marketing zero calorie products like soft drinks containing only sugar and her argument was that those who take high calorie foods are at the risk of contracting obesity because of their sedentary way of life. Though exercise is important for toning up the body, more crucial is a balanced diet which only can ensure healthy life. What does one understand by a healthy diet? Simply put take more of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, pulses and white meat and fish and avoid imbalanced foods and drinks like white flour based products, sugar dominated beverages, excessive fried foods etc. The issue is amply clarified by a respected journal emanating from the UK and read it carefully to appreciate this line of argument.

"An editorial published Wednesday by the British Journal of Sports Medicine argues diets high in sugars and carbohydrates are largely to blame for the obesity crisis, and do more harm than inactivity, alcohol and smoking combined. "Let us bust the myth of physical inactivity and obesity. You cannot outrun a bad diet," the editorial concludes. Published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, the editorial accuses the food industry of persuading people that inactivity, rather than poor diet, is the primary cause of obesity and related illnesses such as diabetes. "The public health messaging around diet and exercise, and their relationship to the epidemics of type 2 diabetes and obesity, has been corrupted by vested interests. Celebrity endorsements of sugary drinks, and the association of junk food and sport, must end," the editorial states. The editorial also takes issue with the idea that all calories are equal — that 150 calories from sugar or carbohydrates equal the same number of calories from fat or protein. It states sugar calories promote fat storage and hunger, while fat calories cause fullness. It takes a similarly dim view of other carbohydrates, stating that restricting carbohydrates should be the first step in managing diabetes, and that even athletes don't benefit from loading up on carbohydrates."

Can we blame the food industry for the faultline that is becoming increasingly becoming clear day by day when people run after foods that stimulate their taste buds rather than their instinct for survival by moderating their consumption? Industry cannot be expected to be working for charity as they have a responsibility to their shareholders to bring in attractive returns for capital invested. With our knowledge about healthiness of foods, it is easy for the industry to come up with recipes and formulations which can ensure sound health. But the million dollar question that begs for an answer is whether people will patronize such products if they do not tinkle their taste buds providing excitement to the pleasure centers in the brain? Industry can change its course only if there is a universal consensus among its members regarding what products they should not make based on sound health considerations. Or there must be mandatory controls for restricting certain foods proven to be unhealthy by the government regulators which is unlikely because of legal considerations. Most ideally it would be the will power of the consumers to shun products considered unhealthy thus putting pressure on the industry to change their product portfolio with increasing health improving potential. The warning that exercise is not a panacea for good health but quality of diet has much more to do with good health is timely indeed.   .


Monday, January 18, 2016

Declaration of "added" sugar on the label of packaged foods -What are the implications?

Rightly or wrongly white sugar has been considered as one of the culprits responsible for some of the worst life style disorders including diabetes and obesity. Though there is no unanimity as to the minimum daily need for sugar in human beings, the fact is that it is a major contributor of calories directly or indirectly through both added sugar as well as derived sugar from carbohydrates consumed as a part of the diet. It is more or less agreed that there is a significant difference between empty calories as represented by sugar, HFCS and refined carbohydrates and nutrient dense calorie sources like sugars present in fruits, whole grains, legumes and other natural foods.  Therefore making a distinction between added sugar by the manufacturers during processing and naturally present sugar makes eminent sense. Presence of about 50 grams of added sugar in the food we consume daily is considered harmless by many health experts and therefore asking the industry to make declaration about it in the label will help the consumer to exercise better discretion regarding the purchase of processed foods. This issue is now coming to the fore and whether the industry will voluntarily agree to this just demand remains to be seen. Here is a take on this new development in the labeling area and its implications on consumer well being. 

"Americans have a sweet tooth, and the obesity and diabetes rates to prove it. The best way to help people eat less sugar is to let them know how much of it is in their foods. Yet a sensible plan to inform consumers about the amount of sugar added to packaged products is under fire from the food industry and politicians. The Food and Drug Administration should stand strong and stick with the plan when it issues its final rules later this year. The FDA has proposed requiring a new line in the nutrition label for "added sugars"— just below the line for total sugar. The label may also specify how much of the recommended daily allowance of added sugars the product contains, out of a maximum of roughly 12 teaspoons. Added sugar deserves a line of its own because it's empty calories. Many nutritious products contain natural sugars: A cup of cherries or grapes can have more than 15 grams, and a cup of 1 per cent milk has 13 grams. Yet this sugar comes along with essential nutrients; that glass of milk contains 16 per cent of the protein a healthy adult needs each day, and 30 per cent of the calcium. In contrast, refined cane sugar, corn syrup and the like that are added to foods and drinks during processing (also called "free sugars") offer no additional nutrients. Americans now get about 13 per cent of their daily calories from them, largely through soda and other beverages, breakfast cereals and frozen desserts. A can of Coca-Cola has more than 9 teaspoons (39 grams) of added sugars. But even products not considered sweet contain them; a tablespoon of ketchup has about 4 grams. A study of 80,000 products on supermarket shelves found that 58 per cent contained added sugar. And while total US consumption has declined in recent years, only 30 per cent of Americans eat less added sugar than the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend. The food industry has three objections to the labelling requirement. The first is that Americans won't know what to make of the information about added sugar. That may be true, but neither were many Americans familiar with trans fats when they were added to nutrition labels in 2006. And since that rule was passed, thanks also to greater media attention and information campaigns, people cut their consumption of trans fats by more than 75 per cent. (Last year the FDA decided to ban them altogether.) In any case, if most consumers won't pay attention, what do food manufacturers stand to lose from the disclosure? Food makers also argue that the science suggesting that added sugars should be limited is not settled. And it's true there's not a lot of good data on added sugar's connection to health problems. But there's significant evidence that consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages is linked with obesity. And after reviewing the evidence on added sugars, the federal Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee found there was a strong correlation with diabetes and obesity, and a moderate correlation with hypertension, stroke and dental problems. Finally, food makers object that almost all packaged-food labels already list added sugars. That's technically true, but the industry engages in all sorts of tricks to hide them, for example by including several different types in a single product so that they appear as low as possible in the ingredients list, which is organized by weight in descending order."

It appears the food safety authorities in the US are considering revamping of the present label content on packaged foods so as to include a provision to declare how much sugar has been added by the manufacturer. This hopefully will make the consumers aware of the same for better selection of products during their visit to the market. The logic is that consumers would shy away from those products containing high levels of sugar prompting the industry to modify the product formulations to reduce added sugar. However such an exercise will have no meaning if the consumers are not informed as to the maximum daily sugar intake that is ideal from the health angle. The highly hostile reaction by the industry can be understood because of the challenge thrown at them to come up with products containing less and less sugar. But in the interest of the well being of the consumer. Industry must fall in line if it has to overcome the trust deficit that is evident to day. Afterall the present technological base is so strong that there is nothing which cannot be accomplished and reformulation of many sugar containing products to reduce the added sugar will not be a major technical problem. One uncertainty is how the regulators can distinguish between natural sugar and added sugar in a product when it comes to regulatory protocols. This issue needs to be considered more carefully before making such label changes mandatory.  

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Detecting chemical toxicity in foods-An "out of the box" approach

Food safety is a concern that affects the entire world and many advances in testing methods have enabled the food industry to improve the safety of the products made by it through deploying these advanced and highly sensitive analytical technologies and electronic instruments. A recent report from Hong Kong speaks of assay technique that can detect a "thousand" toxins of different nature in any given sample. It sounds like a magic when the innovators say that the fish embryo they are using for testing give tell-tell visible signs of presence of toxins pretty fast. No doubt this is a welcome development that deserves appreciation if what they claim is true. Here is a take on this new claims by the developers of the new test protocol.

"A Hong Kong-based startup called Vitargent sees hope in a food-testing technology centered around fish embryos, which would enable scientists to detect contaminants and poisons in everything from food and beverages to makeup and body lotion.The test that they've developed using the tiny fish can allegedly detect more than 1,000 different toxic substances, a giant leap from existing processes that only give results for five to ten toxins at a time. Vitargent is using engineered embryos of oryzias—also known as Japanese ricefish or medaka—which either develop tumors or turn fluorescent in the presence of certain dangerous chemicals and other additives. In the presence of bisphenol-A, for example—the dreaded BPA your water bottle promises not to contain—the fish will light up like a glowstick, thanks to a jellyfish gene that's been spliced into their genomes. The company's founder and executive director Eric Chentold the South China Morning Post that the fish have a similar DNA structure to humans, and react the same way to toxins. Chen sees a huge opportunity for this chemical-detection method in China, and his company hopes to institute its testing regimen throughout the region. "Businesses are so creative they will add anything you can imagine to our food and drink," he told the Post".

Though the claims are highly impressive, proof of the same has to come from independent assessors out side Hong Kong. Probably since it is a commercial venture very little technical information would be available but testing the fish for its ability to detect different toxins can be easily verified by independent trials. Of course since it is based on the use of live fish embryo, there is a need to maintain an aquarium to breed Japanese rice fish for getting the embryos for use in the test. What is not clear is the type of toxins which are detectable using this test though BPA has been mentioned as one of the toxins that can be detected. This new test might have far reaching impact if it can detect presence of different pesticides or chemical toxicants like acrylamide or other leachates from the various packaging materials used by the food industry.


The GMO fiasco in the US-What policy inertia and succumbing to GMO lobby can do to harm agriculture

Genetically modified agricultural crops (GMO) are always mired in controversy ever since this biotechnology enabled many crops to be genetically altered to confer some benefits compared to their natural counterparts. Hundreds of countries realizing the risks involved in allowing such man-modified crops in their countries banned the same pending establishing their absolute safety for human consumption. The only country which embraced the GMO technology without caring about the well being of its citizens is the US where the vice-like grip the GMO lobby has on the government saw to it that Americans are provided only GMO foods in the market through absence of any policy that could have regulated the industry. The result is that 80% of the diet of an average citizen there is made up of GMO products. While the safety of GMO foods is still being debated, what is galling is that the citizens are compelled indirectly to consume GMO foods denying them their to choose what they want to eat! One of the issues that confronted the organic food industry and the farmers who wanted to avoid GMO crops is how to protect their crops from cross contamination from nearby fields where GMO crops are raised. The authorities who vouchsafed that such contamination would not happen have eggs on their face by the recent reports that GMO genes are spreading far and wide causing great losses to traditional farmers, especially those involved in exports as wide spread contaminations were noticed in a crop like alfalfa. What a fiasco this is turning out to be for a country which boasts of an enormous technological base as far agricultural technologies are concerned. Read further on this unfortunate developments that can have great implications for that country.        

"A recent study by USDA scientists shows that genetically engineered (GE) alfalfa has gone wild, in a big way, in alfalfa-growing parts of the West.  This feral GE alfalfa may help explain a number of transgenic contamination episodes over the past few years that have cost American alfalfa growers and exporters millions of dollars in lost revenue.  And it also exposes the failure of USDA's "coexistence" policy for GE and traditional crops. The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) has long maintained that genetically engineered (GE) crops can co-exist with traditional and organic agriculture.  According to this "co-existence" narrative, if neighboring GE and traditional farmers just sort things out among themselves and follow "best management practices," transgenes will be confined to GE crops and the fields where they are planted. The latest evidence refuting USDA's co-existence fairytale comes from arecently published study by a team of USDA scientists.  The study involved Monsanto's Roundup Ready alfalfa, which, like most GE crops in the U.S. is engineered to survive direct spraying with Roundup, Monsanto's flagship herbicide. In 2011 and 2012, USDA scientist Stephanie Greene and her team scouted the roadsides of three important alfalfa-growing areas – in California, Idaho and Washington – for feral (wild) alfalfa stands.  Because alfalfa is a hardy perennial plant, it readily forms self-sustaining feral populations that persist for years wherever the crop is grown. Greene and colleagues found 404 feral alfalfa populations on roadsides.  Testing revealed that over one-quarter (27%) of them contained transgenic alfalfa – that is, plants that tested positive for the Roundup Ready gene.  They believe that most of these feral populations likely grew from seeds spilled during alfalfa production or transport. However, the researchers also found clear evidence that the Roundup Ready gene was being spread by bees, which are known to cross-pollinate alfalfa populations separated by up to several miles.  Their results suggested that "transgenic plants could spread transgenes to neighboring feral plants, and potentially to neighboring non-GE fields" (emphasis added).  While they did not test this latter possibility, there is no doubt that non-GE alfalfa has in fact been transgenically contaminated – not just once, but on many occasions. In 2013, a Washington State farmer's alfalfa was rejected by a broker after testing revealed transgenic contamination.  In 2014, China rejected numerous U.S. alfalfa shipments that tested positive for the Roundup Ready gene.  Alfalfa exports to China, a major market that has zero tolerance for GE alfalfa, fell dramatically.  U.S. hay prices fell, and at least three U.S. alfalfa exporters suffered many millions of dollars in losses. Both the Washington State farmer and those who sold to the exporters intended to grow only traditional alfalfa.  It is not clear how their produce became contaminated.  Besides cross-pollination from GE feral or cultivated alfalfa, possible explanations include inadvertent mixing during harvest or storage, or (most insidiously) transgenic contamination of the conventional alfalfa seed they planted. What makes the high (27%) GE contamination rate found in this study so remarkable is how little GE alfalfa produced it.  USDA first approved Roundup Ready alfalfa in 2005, and it occupied just 1% of national alfalfa acreage in 2006.  A federal court prohibited new plantings starting in 2007, but allowed what had already been planted to remain in the ground (an alfalfa stand is typically grown for about five years).  Because this study was conducted just a few months after the re-approval of GE alfalfa in 2011, all of the feral GE alfalfa the researchers detected arose from the comparatively few fields planted in 2005 and 2006.  There is much more GE alfalfa being grown now (Monsanto says 30% of alfalfa seed sold is GE).  So there is likely much more feral GE alfalfa today than is suggested by this study."

Of course the legal communities of lawyers and advocates can be expected to have a roaring time taking up the causes of affected farmers making millions of dollars as compensation. But a larger question is who will take the responsibility for this fiasco-the government which approved the cultivation of GMO crops or the biotech industry which sold the seeds? Can the country controll the wild spread of GMO genes with respect to other commercial crops also?  One is reminded of a recent assertion by a much decorated Indian agricultural scientist that Government must allow GMO crops to be cultivated in the country though wiser counsel has prevailed over the government, at least for the time being. We should not be surprised if the global biotech giants ultimately buy out the government as well as some of the vulnerable scientists to toe their line at some point of time and if that happens it will be a sad day for the country.. 


Nitrogen emission-A new peep into hazards of modern food production system

Lot has been said and written about pollution of this planet by uncontrolled emission of green house gases CO2 and Methane which is supposed to cause global warming leading to droughts and floods across the world. Recent Paris conclave spent considerable time on the need to do more to control these emissions through self restraints and national policy orchestration. Though each country has its own compulsions to resist any compulsory limits for green gas emissions, there is a better realization that such restraints eventually will benefit their own people. How far burning of fossil fuels can be reduced which can contribute to lower emissions remains to be seen in the light of rapidly declining crude oil prices in the international market tempting countries to buy more of these fuels to propel their engines of growth and economic development. To add to the woes here comes another area of concern vis-a-vis green house gas emission which pertains to "Nitrogen Emission" that never got the attention from the people and if some experts are to be believed there is a real danger if adequate steps are not taken to control this type of emissions. Here is a take on this danger which is coming to the public domain calling for urgent action at the global level 

"You hear about carbon, but not so much about nitrogen which causes a whole host of pollution problems," said professor Mark Sutton, one of the authors of the report Nitrogen on the Table. Sutton and his co-authors calculated that between 6.5 million and 8 million tonnes of nitrogen is released into the environment by the European agricultural sector every year. Nitrogen is mostly released as ammonia and nitrous oxide in the air and nitrate in ground and surface water. Too high levels of ammonia in the air cause health problems, while nitrous oxide is a powerful heat-trapping greenhouse gas. An important question is where to put the effort to reduce nitrogen emissions. "There are two basic ways to reduce nitrogen emissions from European agriculture," said Potocnik, who was environment commissioner under Jose Manuel Barroso until 2014. The Slovenian is now co-chair of a UN body on international resources. The first way is to reduce emissions per unit of product, i.e. per piece of meat, dairy product, or egg. The second one is to reduce consumption. "The first one is the one which we are normally focussing on in our policy life. Why? It's easier. It's not contagious," noted Potocnik. "The second one is problematic, because it's addressing people's dietary choices and has major consequences also on the structure of European agriculture. That's why nobody is pretty much from the policy trying to address it," he added. But dietary changes would have great effects."

The report above mainly talks about the Nitrogen emission in Europe where fertilizer intensive agriculture is practiced across the continent. If Europe and the US have become leading producers of food grains and other food materials including meat from sources like beef, chicken and pork, thanks are largely due to the use of nitrogenous fertilizers liberally. The knowledge that these fertilizers can cause emission of Ammonia and Nitrous Oxide, considered serious pollution should make those countries with vibrant agriculture and livestock industry more sensitive to the dangers they are causing to the world and the impact that can threaten the very existence of this planet. What about the countries in the developing world? They are also equally vulnerable to the dangers because the so called "green revolution" that made some of them self reliant in food production is founded on application of nitrogenous and other chemical fertilizers, most of them heavily subsidized by the governments. Scarcity of data regarding the severity of nitrogen emission in these countries does not mean that such emissions are not serious. It is in this context organic foods become more relevant because of significantly lesser emission due to non-use of chemical fertilizers. It is another matter whether natural manures used in traditional cultivation can also be equally guilty of such emissions. Probably cutting down on meat and dairy products as is being proposed by some environmental activists may makes sense as raising animals do contribute enormously to the overall pollution problem but it cannot be a solution as agriculture also is a culprit. But cutting down meat and animal derived foods can make a significant impact as staple food grains consumption cannot be tinkered with though avoiding over consumption can make some difference. All said nitrogen emission control is not that easy as compared to controlling emissions of carbon dioxide mostly coming from non-agricultural sectors. Technological breakthroughs that can reduce nitrogen emission per unit of any food are the priority to day for agricultural scientists for a better future of this planet.         


Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Free breakfast in the School rooms-The pros and cons

The subject of midday meals programs in schools world over is a hotly debated one with some favoring it while a few oppose the exercise as a fruitless one. As with any other issue there are always pros and cons and it is not easy to come to any categorical conclusion regarding the impact of such social welfare programs. Ostensibly free meals provided in schools are supposed to to improve the attendance especially that  of children from the low income families and many studies have supported such a hypothesis in many countries though the result is not uniform. These ready to eat meals are generally supplied outside the class premises at a common time and at a designated place within the schools. While the foods are brought by approved caterers or cooked locally. In developed countries there are established cafeterias in some schools where kids congregate to pick up their foods to be eaten at designated times. A new issue has cropped up now in the Us where such programs have been operating for a long time. Some social activists feel that meals must be served within the class room and must be eaten by one and all irrespective of their economic status. According to them such an arrangement serves to help the kids to concentrate more in the class room resulting in better academic performance. Here again such a conclusion is not shared universally raising doubts about implementing such a policy without assessing whether it is true . Here is a take on this new development in school feeding and the feasibility of making change over in the school meals programs.

"In an effort to increase the number of children eating breakfast, more schools are serving it in the classroom. In a national survey by the Food Research and Action Center, 50 of 62 districts polled offered breakfast in class or had outside carts with food items that children could bring into the classroom. Yet the initiative has opponents in districts like Los Angeles Unified, where some teachers and parents argue that low-income children in danger of falling behind academically are getting less class time and food is being thrown away. The federal school breakfast program started in 1966, but for decades, participation lagged behind the number of students eating a free or reduced-price lunch. Schools that offered breakfast typically served it before school in the cafeteria. Not all children could get to school early, and of those that did, many opted to play outside. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reimburses schools for each free or reduced price meal served to low-income students. So non-participation means losing potentially millions in revenue. Looking at these factors, food policy advocates began encouraging districts to consider an alternative approach. Studies haven't shown a link between eating breakfast and academic performance, but supporters say there is a common-sense element to the initiative. The day before a big test, for example, parents are routinely reminded to make sure their children eat a good breakfast. Anecdotally, some districts report improved attendance and fewer visits to the school nurse. Charles Basch, a professor at Columbia University's Teachers College, said school breakfast is one of several factors with an effect on a child's ability to learn. "There's not just one thing that's going to be a magic bullet," he said. Instead of sending children to the cafeteria, students or volunteers bring crates of food to the classroom. Each district determines what food to serve, but all meals must meet federal nutrition guidelines. A typical meal could include a piece of fruit, cereal, milk and orange juice, coffee cake or a breakfast sandwich. Ideally, the food can be served and eaten in 10 minutes. Teachers are encouraged to incorporate a lesson or other school tasks, such as taking attendance, while students eat. This can be a challenge, especially for teachers of younger students. Supporters say serving breakfast to only some students adds to the stigma associated with a free meal and discourages those who need it from eating. The number of children from low-income families has increased from 32 percent in 1989 to 51 percent in 2013, according to the Southern Education Foundation. For the most vulnerable students, the food they get at school might be their most substantial meal of the day. Where breakfast is being served in class, participation is significantly higher than in schools where it's offered in the cafeteria. Parents and teachers have objected where it's been introduced as a universal policy. Opponents say breakfast in the classroom takes away class time from low-income students who have lower math and reading performance."

Whether such a change will really improve the academic performance or not, it is beset with some logistical problems which ought to be addressed before thrusting the same across the board in all schools. Scientifically serving pre prepared foods within a class room is wrong from hygienic and sanitation angles and this cannot be an effective substitute for a well designed functionally efficient cafeteria. It is beyond any body's comprehension as to how a kid can divide his attention between the food he has in his hand and the subject matter being taught by the teacher. Besides the eating habits of different children coming from different economic and cultural milieu can vary enormously making it difficult to compress the eating time to 10 minutes as being proposed. Cafeteria is the best place to serve the food, especially hot ones or moist ones, as there will be proper seating arrangements and frequent cleaning of the place by the canteen staff and also having facilities for drinking water and hand washing, before and after eating. While eating together is a socially satisfying exercise, compelling every student to eat what he does not like is a violation of the basic principle of "inviolable eating right" of a citizen. The issue becomes more complicated because the food suppliers have a vested interest in boosting the number of students served in the school in order to make more bucks in the process. Serving of foods in the schools, whatever be the economic justification,may be uncalled for in spite of many countries embracing the practice and it is better that the policy is revisited for better delivery of  nutritious foods to deserving and vulnerable children through alternate channels or programs.   .


Monday, January 4, 2016

Solar power-New approach to improve efficiency of trapping solar energy

Search for alternate energy to fossil fuels has been going on since last 5 decades and solar energy became most promising during the last few years because of the encouraging trend seen vis-a-vis the cost of the solar panels which form the core of the technology. To day the panel cost is relatively low compared to the cost of the frame structure needed to mount these panels. Other sources like wind, ocean waves, geothermal etc are also viable candidates for a significant slice of the emerging market for alternate energy generating systems but the cost of generation and investment in creating the necessary infrastructure to install them are relatively high. The cost of energy produced by non-conventional sources was never comparable to traditional power generated by thermal, hydro electrical or nuclear reactors. It is here that solar energy is making enormous strides and the recent break through achieved by researchers in the US offers a real chance to make the solar energy affordable to all. Here is a take on this new development. 

"Solar panels placed flat on a rooftop are most effective at harnessing solar energy when the sun is close to directly overhead, but quickly lose their efficiency as the angle of the sun's rays hitting the panel increases – during the mornings, evenings, in the cooler months and in locations far from the equator. It is exactly in these situations that the researcher's vertical solar modules provided the biggest boosts in power output. After exploring a variety of possible 3D configurations using a computer algorithm and testing them under a range of latitudes, seasons and weather with specially developed analytic software, the team built three different individual 3D modules and tested them on the MIT lab building roof for several weeks. The results showed a boost in power output ranging from double to more than 20 times that of fixed flat solar panels with the same base area. By going vertical and collecting more sunlight when the sun is closer to the horizon, the team's 3D modules were able to generate a more uniform output over time. This uniformity extended over the course of each day, the seasons of a year, and even when accounting for blockage from clouds and shadows. The researchers say this increase in uniformity could overcome one of the biggest hurdles facing solar energy – predictability of electricity supply that currently makes it difficult to integrate solar power sources into the grid. They add that this uniformity, as well as the much higher energy output for a given area, would help offset the increased cost of the 3D modules, which are higher per the amount of energy generated when compared to conventional flat solar panels. While the team's computer modeling showed complex shapes – such as a cube with each face dimpled inward – would offer a 10 to 15 percent improvement in power output when compared to a simpler cube, these would be difficult to manufacture. In their rooftop tests, the team studied both simpler cube modules as well as more complex accordion-like shapes that could be shipped flat for unfolding on site. This accordion-like tower was the tallest structure the team tested and such a design could be installed in a parking lot to provide a charging station for electric vehicles, according to Jeffrey Grossman, the senior author of the study and the Carl Richard Soderberg Career Development Associate Professor of Power Engineering at MIT. Grossman and his colleagues believe that with the fall in the cost of solar cells in recent years - to the point where they have become less expensive than their supporting structures and the outlay for the land upon which they are placed - makes it an ideal time to examine the benefits of different solar cell configurations. "Even 10 years ago, this idea wouldn't have been economically justified because the modules cost so much," Grossman says. But now, he adds, "the cost for silicon cells is a fraction of the total cost, a trend that will continue downward in the near future." Buoyed by the success of the tests on the individual 3D modules, the team now plans to study a collection of solar towers that will enable them to examine the effects that one tower's shadow will have on another as the sun moves across the sky over the course of a day. While the team believes its 3D solar cells could offer big advantages in flat-rooftop installations or urban environments where space is limited, they say they could also be used in larger-scale applications, such as solar farms, once a configuration that minimizes the shading effects between towers has been developed."

One of the severe limitations for exploiting the solar light is the vast land area required to install the panels and the nonuniform generation pattern during the course of a day or through out the life of the plant. This is sought to be addressed by the new findings that by altering the configuration of the panels facing the sun into a 3D structure, efficiency of absorption of solar rays can be boosted very significantly, thus promising a further slide down in the cost of power generated. Though this is an exciting development, its commercial feasibility will have to be worked out by building large scale plants and the assessing the cost of power so produced. The researchers have a point when they say that the supporting structure on which the 3D panels are to be arranged will determine the economic feasibility of adopting these modified designs in future. Still it has to be conceded that 3D system may become the only option in many countries where open lands for installing conventional solar plants are not easily available. With India undertaking a stupendous program for expanding the solar energy system in the country for phasing out its highly polluting coal based power plants and uncertain rain falls that drive the hydroelectric power sector, the new 3D solar plants may be a big boon.