Sunday, July 24, 2016

Water "Biome"-A peep into the world of bacteria in water and its significance

Water borne diseases are known to cause havoc in human society since long and some of the diseases caused by them can prove to be fatal. It is this concern which is driving an entire industry called water purification industry that offers many technologies and equipment for supposedly making water potable. A new study questions the rationale of such an approach in using chemicals to purify water and hypotheses that natural water supply containing millions of bacteria is capable of purifying itself needing no elaborate treatment through intervention of any technology. It sounds crazy and may even be scary to believe such a claim though scientists may have their own rationale to come out with such a finding. In today's world even a child may not accept untreated water from a tap as is the case in most parts of India because of fear of serious diseases like cholera, dysentery and jaundice. The report of a scientific group on this issue can be seen below and it is very difficult to understand the logic of such an argument. 

"A glass of clean drinking water actually contains 10 million bacteria. But that is how it should be - clean tap water always contains harmless bacteria, researchers said. These bacteria and other microbes grow in the drinking water treatment plant and on the inside of our water pipes, which can be seen in the form of a thin, sticky coating - a so-called biofilm. All surfaces from the raw water intake to the tap are covered in this biofilm. These findings show that the diversity of species of bacteria in water pipes is huge, and that bacteria may play a larger role than previously thought. Among other things, the researchers suspect that a large part of water purification takes place in the pipes and not only in water purification plants. "A previously completely unknown ecosystem has revealed itself to us. Formerly, you could hardly see any bacteria at all and now, thanks to techniques such as massive DNA sequencing and flow cytometry, we suddenly see eighty thousand bacteria per millilitre in drinking water," said Catherine Paul from Lund University in Sweden. At least a couple of thousand different species live in the water pipes. According to the researchers there is a connection between the composition of bacteria and water quality. "We suspect there are 'good' bacteria that help purify the water and keep it safe- similar to what happens in our bodies. Our intestines are full of bacteria, and most of the time when we are healthy, they help us digest our food and fight illness," said Paul. Although the research was conducted in southern Sweden, bacteria and biofilms are found all over the world, in plumbing, taps and water pipes. This knowledge will be very useful for countries when updating and improving their water pipe systems, researchers said. "The hope is that we eventually may be able to control the composition and quality of water in the water supply to steer the growth of 'good' bacteria that can help purify the water even more efficiently than today," said Paul.

Though most people to day, educated on a staple diet of science may question the logic of the above findings, anecdotal episodes regarding millions of people in India living healthy by drinking water from natural resources in village area defies our understanding. In most metropolitan regions, it is hardly possible to find any people without a bottle of packed water in their hands because of the common perception that municipal water supply cannot be trusted for its safety. Under such a contradictory scenario what to believe or where lies the truth defy an answer.  Are we to believe that the multibillion dollar water purification industry has been taking us for a ride for decades by insisting on installing domestic purifiers or the large scale urban water purification systems working across the world are redundant?  Why is that health experts advise people to boil water before consumption? If the water pipes, storage tanks and water taps have biofilms of friendly bacteria, where is the need for any elaborate processing to make such waters potable? WHO of UNO must intervene to make the record straight for common man across the world to adopt a living practice that ensures safe water for drinking.


Thursday, July 14, 2016

"Cosmetic" food standards-Major causative factor for food wastage

If one can recall the words of late Dr HAB Parpia, doyen of food technology in India,  during sixties food wastage in the country amounted to more than 40% and according to him most of this wastage was taking place at the post harvest phase of the produce when it is transferred to the markets under none too ideal conditions. Probably many sceptics did not subscribe to this view though every one concedes there is "significant" loss of valuable foods in the food chain of the country. Is it not unfortunate that even to day ministers and bureaucrats conveniently quote this figure for food losses in their sterile speeches targeted at the gullible public? The tragedy is compounded by the reluctance or insensitivity all around to study this problem nation wide and arrive at consensus figures regarding wastage in different sectors like perishables including fruits, vegetables, spices, meat and poultry and so called durables like cereals, pulses and oil seeds that take place across the entire spectrum of food handling. It is against such a background that the following publication brought out the scenario in the US where food is wasted consciously by the citizens because they can afford it if not satisfied with the quality as represented by color, shape, size, appearance and texture. Here are further details about the whims of an entire population which has built up a "cult for perfection" in their every day life and throw away precious food that can feed almost a quarter of world population!.

"Americans throw away almost as much food as they eat because of a "cult of perfection", deepening hunger and poverty, and inflicting a heavy toll on the environment. The demand for 'perfect' fruit and veg means much is discarded, damaging the climate and leaving people hungry
Vast quantities of fresh produce grown in the US are left in the field to rot, fed to livestock or hauled directly from the field to landfill, because of unrealistic and unyielding cosmetic standards,according to official data and interviews with dozens of farmers, packers, truckers, researchers, campaigners and government officials as reported by the Guardian "It's all about blemish-free produce," says Jay Johnson, who ships fresh fruit and vegetables from North Carolina and central Florida. "What happens in our business today is that it is either perfect, or it gets rejected. It is perfect to them, or they turn it down. And then you are stuck." Food waste is often described as a "farm-to-fork" problem. Produce is lost in fields, warehouses, packaging, distribution, supermarkets, restaurants and fridges. By one government tally, about 60m tonnes of produce worth about $160bn (£119bn), is wasted by retailers and consumers every year – one third of all foodstuffs. That lost food is seen increasingly as a drag on household incomes – about $1,600 a year for a family of four  and a direct challenge to global efforts to fight hunger, poverty and climate change. Globally, about one-third of food is wasted: 1.6bn tonnes of produce a year, with a value of about $1tn. If this wasted food were stacked in 20-cubic metre skips, it would fill 80m of them, enough to reach all the way to the moon, and encircle it once. Food waste accounts for about 8% of global climate pollution, more than India or Russia. "There are a lot of people who are hungry and malnourished, including in the US. My guess is probably 5-10% of the population are still hungry – they still do not have enough to eat," said Shenggen Fan, the director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington. "That is why food waste, food loss matters a great deal. People are still hungry."
That is not counting the waste of water, land and other resources, or the toll on the climate of producing food that ends up in landfill.
This results in formation of methane gas contributing to climate change due to greenhouse effect."

Looking from another angle, every denizen has a "right" to buy whatever is offered for a price and what they do with it is their business. But can an interdependent global society  hide under such a narrow legal excuse to justify enormous waste of food,  especially in rich countries like the US just because these foods do not satisfy their aesthetic sense? If the above report is to be believed at a global level more than 30% of food is wasted advertently or other wise. While developing countries like India may be helpless to some extent in controlling food wastage because of lack of access to right types of agricultural and post harvest technologies, essential to save foods from the predators, they cannot be exonerated completely because most of them do not have visionaries and humane politicians at the helm of affairs to implement policies that can help prevent or reduce food wastage. This is nothing but callousness and indifference. While food wastes in wealthy countries can be understood because of the high buying capacity of the consumers there, same cannot be justified in poor countries where millions of people are reported to be going to bed every day on empty stomachs because of lack of accessibility to food due to improper cultivation and conservation practices. Why an agency like FAO of the UNO has not been able to do much in this area is baffling in spite of its existence for several decades. Present concerns about global warming and focussed international actions contemplated may be alright but same concern must be evident in ameliorating the hunger conditions of millions of people under starvation of different degree across the five continents through international cooperation. 


Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The GMO labeling sham in the US-A fraud on consumers!

If the recent proposal to dilute the compulsory labeling of GMO ingredients on the food pack labels become law, (as it  is likely to be soon) a crucial question that will be asked by the citizens in that country ia whether whether their cherished democracy is really working.? The elected representatives in the law making bodies there seem to be more interested in serving the industry to the detriment of the consumers rather than serving them! Billions of dollars food industry is paying for financing the election of these law makers compel them to serve their financiers than the citizens as reflected by the hectic haste with which this new toothless law is going to be enacted soon. This move is also for negating the wishes of majority of Americans who feel strongly with conviction that transparency in labeling is a must for informed choice in the market place. Read further about this disgusting behavior of the law makers in the US in protecting the industry instead of serving their true masters who are the honest citizens of that country who elected them.

"After several months of bargaining which resulted in backroom arguments, the Senate decided to vote for a new national standard set for labeling food that are made with ingredients derived from genetically engineered crops.  The purpose of the deal is that companies will be required to reveal their GMO ingredients (though they will not be required to put that information on the label). Most food companies are opposed to the existing type of GMO label because they feel consumers will view them (incorrectly) as a sign or warning that the products are either nutritionally inferior or unsafe to eat. If the new bill becomes law, food companies will be allowed to disclose the GMO ingredients used through a QR code that will be found on the package. That is the type of square barcode usually seen on an airline boarding pass. Consumers can scan the code to retrieve the information using their Smartphone. Smaller companies can print a Web address or a phone number where consumers can find out whether or not a product contains GMOs. Many who advocate for GMO labeling have attacked the bill. The executive director of Food and Water Watch, Wenonah Hauter, released a statement branding it "a slap to the face for all of all activists" who worked to pass compulsory GMO labels. Senators representing Vermont have opposed the bill as it strikes down Vermont' law that requires GMO labels right on a package. Despite these setbacks the Senate's proposal has endorsed support from the OTA (Organic Trade Association) an organization that represents major organic food enterprises and has been in support of labeling GMOs. The leaders of the Organic Trade Association sent a message explaining why they supported the bill to their members. They argued that the proposal contained key benefits for the organic industry."

The argument that GMO foods are safe is relevant in the above context because by the declaration on the label that the packet contains GMO ingredient does not make it lesser safe and therefore the demand by the consumers should have been honoured by the law makers if they had any sense of shame. A state like Vermont has already promulgated laws to make such label declaration mandatory for any foods manufactured or marketed in that state and it is not certain whether this law will be musseled by the new national one. If so it will be a sad day for the country that boasts itself as the strongest democracy on earth! Denizens world over can only pity the citizens in the US for their tribulations on this count.


Saturday, July 2, 2016

Indian organic food industry-A free for all situation!

Organic food industry globally is growing rapidly because of the dangers posed by the so called modern agriculture which uses a number of man made chemicals that include growth hormones, fertilizers, crop protectants and weedicides, many of them with doubtful safety credentials. Though organic foods cannot be considered as more nutritious or healthy as measured by well accepted yardsticks, their preference by many consumers is due to dramatic reduction of chemical residues in these crops giving some confidence that they are much more safer than their counterparts raised conventionally in many countries. When it comes to India the organic food industry is offering opportunity for many producers to compromise on their global standards and lull the consumers into apparent sense of safety though no one knows whether these products will pass muster if analysed as per global standards. After all Indians are more concerned about the acceptance of their organic products in the export markets while least bothered about domestic consumers. The fact that India's share of export in the international market is practically negligible because foreign buyers are not convinced about their reliability and credibility. The pitiable export figure of hardly 0.5% of the global market place speaks for itself. It is against such a bleak scenario that a report appeared recently in the media in India that government of India is "contemplating" setting in motion a "policy" to address this problem. Here is a take on this "information" from a "government source" about its "intention".

"ndia is creating its own organic products policy with clearly defined safety standards, traceability norms, soil certification guidelines and good agricultural practices.  The aim of the new policy is to boost exports of agricultural products and processed food from the country. The good agricultural practices (GAP) followed by countries such as the US, Brazil, the Netherlands and France are being studied by trade experts and officials to generate adequate inputs for the policy, a government official told BusinessLine. The Commerce Ministry is framing the policy in collaboration with the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI). "The idea is to have one uniform policy for the organic products sector so that domestic consumers as well as foreign buyers gain confidence that the items that are being sold to them as organic meet certain laid down standards," the official added. While the global organic food market is estimated at an annual $72 billion, exports from India are a mere $298 million. India exports mostly to the US, Europe, Korea, Australia, New Zealand and countries in South East Asia. In India, organic products for exports are certified by various certifying agencies accredited by the National Programme for Organic Production (NPOP), India, under Agriculture and Processed Food Products Export Development Agency (APEDA). For organic products sold in the domestic market, the certification process is largely voluntary, but FSSAI and Agmark are taking some steps to regulate it, the official added. Certification of organic soil in the country is a problem as there are no domestic certification agencies for that and the services of foreign certifying agents is use to certify the soil. With a proper policy in place, the process of cross checking guidelines by importing countries would become smoother. The same guidelines would also apply on items for exports, imports and domestic market. Traceability of inputs, especially in case of processed food to determine if all ingredients in a certified organic product are also organic, is also expected to improve once the policy is in place, the official added. India produced around 1.35 million tonnes of certified organic products which includes all varieties of food products such as sugarcane, oil seeds, cereals & millets, cotton, pulses, medicinal plants, tea, fruits, spices, dry fruits, vegetables and coffee."

How credible is this information? Looking at the past record of the successive governments, one is not inspired by such reports because such statements are more political in nature with very little possibility of any follow up action. The monolithic organization set up to ensure food safety and standards in the country has already proved to be a damp squib and except for grand standing from time to time and frequent photo op conferences and press briefings from the corridors of power, the pathetic situation vis a vis food safety  continues unabated in the country with adultererators and fraudsters having a roaring time in fleecing the citizens as they please with very little fear about any deterrent action by the government. One really gets flabbergasted by the news that another agency will be created to "oversee" production of organic foods in the country  which will help a few retired bureaucrats to find refuge in fancy offices and derive immense pecuniary benefits from the tax payers' money! While international standards do exist for almost all organic foods, the present attempt to evolve "Indian" standards is nothing but a ploy to rehabilitate a few scientists under government patronage under the excuse of a "technical committee" to "reinvent the wheel"! With government's resources stretched to the limit, a number of private players with doubtful credentials may get the opportunity to "certify" organic products made in this country for the benefit of the domestic consumers. Probably it will end up like the ISO certification system presently working in the country with every "Tom, Dick and Harry" claiming the expertise for providing the certification! A more practical approach could be to license established foreign certifying agencies with impeccable credentials to work in India along with Indian partners to overhaul the industry and build trust with the consumers, domestic as well as international.