Wastage of food due to spoilage on account of physiological changes, chemical reactions, physical factors, microorganisms, pests and insects has been a concern of mankind ever since the dawn of modern civilization. The problem assumed more and more sinister dimension when it became clear that the fast growing population may face food shortage one day if availability falls short of requirement. Extent of food wastage has been variously estimated between 25 and 50%, mainly due to post harvest losses. In spite of the availability of a plethora of technologies developed during the last 5 decades and discovery of many chemicals that can counteract food spoilage, wastage is still considered significant. A strategy combining drastic reduction of losses with increased land productivity only can ensure adequate food security to future generation.
Food irradiation technology has been a controversial method of preserving food though 60 years of incessant research and thousands of publications arising out of the past studies have cleared every doubt regarding the safety of irradiated foods. If any technology can be put on a high pedestal for its "cleanliness" and dependability, none can beat the irradiation technology for that unique position. Yet it is sad to see that only a small volume of 500000 tons of food is irradiated in the entire world, the reason for such low performance being human "psychology". Ever since the horrible incidence of dropping atomic bombs in Hiroshima in 1945, man is horrified by the term radiation and this has put a mental block on accepting a food processing technology associated with radiation.
Thanks to Codex Alimentarius Commission of FAO/WHO (CAC), food irradiation has been cleared for use in any foods using any dose of radiation. Also known as electronic pasteurization or cold pasteurization, over 40 countries have adopted food irradiation to varying extent in different foods though Brazil and Pakistan are the only two countries adopting the CAC guidelines in toto. The irradiation technology is very versatile in that it can be used in low doses of 1 kilo Gray for sprout inhibition, delayed ripening and for increased juice yield from fruits while higher doses beyond 1 kGy are useful in extending life of meat products, disinfection of aromatic herbs and spices and sterilization of hospital diets for recuperating patients. To day a wide range of food products that include apples, bananas, mangoes, onions, potatoes, strawberries, an array of spices and seasonings, fish, poultry, frog legs, fresh and frozen meat products, food grains, etc undergo irradiation, especially for making them fit for export involving extended periods of ocean transport. The ionizing radiation causes irreparable damage to the DNA strands in contaminating organisms making them incapable of proliferation.
North America and Europe account for most of irradiated food business as the population there are more sensitive and vulnerable to food related safety mishaps. In non-food sector radiation sterilization is widely practiced and this includes medical hardware, plastics, holes for gas pipe lines, hoses for floor heating, shrink foils for food packaging, automobile parts, wires and cables, tires, gemstones etc. Food industry will have no choice but to use irradiation technology in the coming years because of its superior performance compared to other technologies. Recent indications bring out the fact that many consumers are willing to accept irradiation technology if adequate safety assurances are forthcoming from the industry and already many food ingredients treated with irradiation are in use with full knowledge of consumers. The possibility of using more explicit terminologies like electronic pasteurization or cold pasteurization on the label as is being contemplated in some countries may help the cause of this technology. Though initial investment may be some what high for irradiation plants, being in the range of $ 1-5 million, the low processing cost between 3-20 cents per kg of treated foods makes the process one of the cheapest possible to day.
Whether one likes it or not artificial sweeteners are here to stay as an ingredient in many consumer food products because there are millions of people who have restrictions regarding intake of natural sugars either for medical reasons or for weight control. The question of selection of a particular non calorie sweetener is difficult because each one available to day has one or the other drawback as none is considered absolutely satisfactory. Consumer is further confounded by claims and counter claims by different brands regarding the virtue of their products. Amongst the sweeteners which have been established as acceptable with adequate safety credentials, Aspartame was predominantly in use till the year 2004 and more recently Sucralose and Stevia glycosides are in the lime light because of their perceived superiority and cost considerations.
Aspartame, discovered by G D Searle and Company in 1965 had a turbulent history before becoming universally accepted as a sugar substitute till recently. It is the methyl ester of aspartic acid/phenyl alanine dipeptide and got its first approval in 1975 and to day it is considered safe in more than 90 countries. It is 200 times sweeter than sucrose and both Sucralose and Stevia score over it in terms of intensity of sweetness. Under continuous attack from critics on safety issues, it was subjected to hundreds of safety studies and most recently it was declared safe again in 2007. Besides the stability of Aspartame under high temperature or under acidic and alkaline media is not considered adequate for application in many foods though there are more than 6000 consumer food products in the market containing this sweetener. After the expiry of its patent protection in 1994, there are more producers of Aspartame, most prominent being the Ajinomoto Company which enjoys a market share of 40% out of a total world production of 15000 tons.
The controversy regarding the safety refuses to die down and no matter how much scientific evidence is generated there will always be skeptics who do not want to believe the claims, probably out of too much concerns for their own health. How ever keeping the controversy alive can be harmful to the product as is evidenced by some sustained legal and other obstructions against Aspartame. This has of course added to general concerns over artificial sweeteners and fed growing interest in natural ingredients, including Stevia, which comes from a plant native to South America. Stevia has been used in food and drink products sold in markets in Asia and South America for decades but industry recognition of the ingredient has grown since the FDA cleared its use in the US in 2008. The food and drinks sector is awaiting full EU clearance, although France has given its approval under a rule that allows a member state to give a temporary, two-year green light to an ingredient.
Stevia has to go a long way to catch up or replace Aspartame though giants like Cargill have joined the Stevia club to corner significant share of global sweetener sales. It is estimated that out of a world business of $ 350 million in artificial sweeteners, Aspartame has a share of 27% while Stevia sales were just $79m, or 6% of the market. If Stevia and Sucralose become more attractive choices, Aspartame market is bound to slide go down progressively, especially because of the on-going controversies vis-à-vis its safety. Given the choice, the safety of the sweeteners being not an issue, users may increasingly prefer Stevia and Sucralose as their sweetener intensity is much higher than Aspartame while the unit cost is almost same. With large mega players like Cargill entering Stevia business the sugar substitute business is bound to heat up in the coming years and if competition can bring down the prices, consumer will be the happiest lot! Natural sugar, be it from Sugarcane or Sugar beets may see its role increasingly being marginalized because of the plethora of health disorders attributed to its consumption.
A series of statements and press releases from the officials of the Ministry of Food Processing Industry at Delhi (MFPI) promise the citizens in India that a "world class" research institute focusing on food is scheduled to commence operation from the year 2011 in Haryana. It is indeed a revelation that Government of India (GOI) can set up such an institute single handedly from a scrap and deliver the required services like technological development, machinery design, quality and safety innovations, training of personnel for industry and creation of entrepreneurs. It is true that GOI has plenty of cash to spare to take up such whimsical projects with out much of a botheration about the chances of success in delivering what is intended and promised. That scientific research is a political game in India has been proven several times over and the latest example is the hastily announced food research outfit, fancifully called National Institute of Food Technology, Entrepreneurship and Management (NIFTEM)!
Probably citizens in this country have a right to demand why another food research set up is needed for the country when millions of rupees are being showered on another white elephant working under Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) which is a part of Ministry of Science and Technology. Similarly there is another research set up for food under the Ministry of Defense called Defense Food Research Laboratory (DFRL), supposed to be designing foods and technologies for the benefit of the Jawans. Put together these two government funded organizations guzzle up more than Rs 500 million an year with very little out put of significance to show to the country. There are about 300 well qualified food scientists "working" in these two institutions with more than 30% of the posts remaining vacant because of paucity of high quality recruits of some caliber. How the NIFTEM is going to create the critical mass of food scientists in such a short time is probably known only to the minister and the bureaucrats who are running the show. It is forgotten that as a general rule government's role in creative activity cannot succeed as proven by history and NIFTEM is unlikely to be an exception.
Research and development activities are normally planned keeping in view the beneficiaries and it is an unfortunate fact of history that the ultimate user of the fruits of research in the country, the industry, does not seem to be too much concerned about the need for such R & D, being satisfied in getting only "certificates" from such GOI institutions for their survival. A factor which further vitiates the food technology environment in the country is the unaffordable cost of acquiring technologies and technical services from GOI institutions which are increasingly being shunned by the user industry especially in the SME category. If this is so how can their technological base be strengthened? Is the PPP model a better proposition where GOI can make the user industry a partner and a stake holder. It is true that earlier cooperative research strategy mooted 4-5 decades ago did not work satisfactorily due to many reasons but probably under to day's condition PPP many have a better chance of success if planned and designed properly.
Any PPP effort may have to think of roping in large players with financial and technological resources as is being done in Netherlands involving large multinationals in the food industry from Europe as well as many local companies there. Under the banner of TI Food and Nutrition which has become a leading institute guided by the industry, the participating companies combine their power to charter new areas of innovation bringing common benefits to all concerned. The innovation program under the Food and Nutrition Delta (FND) label is funded by a grant of EUR 100 million from the Netherlands government and is supposed to stimulate conversion of strategic knowledge in food science and nutrition into readily usable innovations by the small and medium enterprises. The beauty of this path-breaking effort is that out of 326 companies participating in the FND program more than 80% belong to the SME category. It is known that SMEs may be short of economic resources but they come with many novel ideas which have a better chance of developing into new modes of operation. Government of the Netherlands has been able to assemble a scientific team of more than 300 scientists in running the mother institute IT Food and Nutrition. As the institution is being positioned as an international organization the fruits of its research are likely to percolate to other countries also.
Food self-sufficiency is a dream every independent country entertains to ensure that its citizens are fed properly and adequately as food can be a "fatal" tool for unrest when there is a shortage. The 2008 food riots in Asia and more recent ones in Africa have only confirmed this fact of history. But many countries face critical impediments in achieving self sufficiency due shortage of inputs like land, water right weather conditions and skilled farmers, the four vital ingredients which can only ensure adequate production of right type of foods. It is under these conditions that import is resorted to for meeting the shortages. In India itself there has been persistent shortage of pulses and oil seeds since ages which government is not able to address effectively and these two commodities form a major part of food imports into the country.
Buying or leasing surplus lands, not cultivated from land surplus and food surplus countries is a logical way for augmenting food production, what is objectionable is the efforts by rich countries to corner farmlands in poor countries where poverty, food shortage and malnutrition are widely prevalent. Added to this, the production from these lands are not made available to local population to meet at least part of their food needs. A mutually agreed sharing of production probably can be justified to some extent but those who invest to make these lands highly productive by marshaling optimum resources invariably are looking for maximized returns without any obligation to the local people. Here is a commentary on the subject.
"At that point, as world market prices for grain and soybeans were tripling, governments in food-importing countries suddenly realized that they could no longer rely on the market for supplies. In response, some countries tried to nail down long-term bilateral trade agreements that would lock up future grain supplies. The Philippines, a leading rice importer, negotiated a three-year deal with Viet Nam for a guaranteed 1.5 million tons of rice each year. A delegation from Yemen, which now imports most of its wheat, traveled to Australia with the hope of negotiating a long-term wheat import deal. Egypt has reached a long-term agreement with Russia for more than 3 million tons of wheat each year. Other importers sought similar arrangements. But in a seller?s market, few were successful".
"The inability to negotiate long-term trade agreements was accompanied by an entirely new genre of responses among the more affluent food-importing countries as they sought to buy or lease large blocks of land to farm in other countries. As food supplies tighten, we are witnessing an unprecedented scramble for land that crosses national boundaries. Libya, importing 90 percent of its grain and worried about access to supplies, was one of the first to look abroad for land. After more than a year of negotiations it reached an agreement to farm 100,000 hectares (250,000 acres) of land in the Ukraine to grow wheat for its own people".
"What is so surprising is the sheer number of land acquisition agreements that have been negotiated or are under consideration. In 2009 the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) compiled a list of nearly 50 agreements, based largely on a worldwide review of press reports. No one knows for sure how many such agreements there are or how many there will eventually be. This massive acquisition of land to grow food in other countries is one of the largest geopolitical experiments ever conducted".
"The role of government in land acquisition varies. In some cases, government-owned corporations are acquiring the land. In others, private entities are the buyers, with the government of the investing country using its diplomatic resources to achieve an agreement favorable to the investors. The land-buying countries are mostly those whose populations have outrun their own land and water resources. Among them are Saudi Arabia, South Korea , China, Kuwait, Libya, India, Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar. Saudi Arabia is looking to buy or lease land in at least 11 countries, including Ethiopia, Turkey, Ukraine, Sudan, Kazakhstan, the Philippines, Viet Nam, and Brazil".
While the food commodities so produced are supposed to be consumption by humans, in a few cases the over riding commercial interests divert the materials for bio-fuel production which cannot be justified. It is good that the collective conscience of the world is aroused by these cross border farm activities and more balanced legal frame work is likely to emerge for the mutual benefit of all.V.H.POTTY
Russians are known for their "scarcity" syndrome which makes them hoard any commodity which is likely to become scarce in the market. The great shortage of salt that occurred three decades ago caused severe damage to the sewage drains because all salt stocks stored by the people during the shortage were flushed through the drains once salt availability eased! A similar situation is happening in that country to day because of the perceived scarcity of Buckwheat which is an important part of the diet for many people and every grain available is being siphoned off from the market by those who can afford to buy large quantities. The retail price ruling at about 50 cents a pound last year more than doubled this year making what ever is available in the market dearer.
Buckwheat is not a real wheat but it is considered some what more nutritious than the latter, being rich in high value protein (18%) but not gluten type and other nutrients like Iron, Zinc, Selenium and antioxidants like Rutin and Tannins. Russia is the leading producer accounting for more than 50% of world production. The unusual weather conditions that affected wheat production forcing the country to ban global exports, have also reduced the production of Buckwheat, creating a psychological fear about its availability. Looking back at history, unless the present government takes drastic measures to address the problem, uncontrolled unrest may still be a distinct possibility.
Unlike in the past there does not appear to be any let up from the Buckwheat shortage this year and the prevailing heat wave conditions, wide scale forest fires and extensive drought seem to be making the situation more grim for the Buckwheat supply. The familiar scenario of consumers, especially those belonging to the older generation, used to the daily diet from Buckwheat, trudging from one super market to another one in search of their staple continues to daunt the government and the matter is so serious that no less a person than the president of the country is visiting many provincial centers to personally assuage the feelings of the scared consumers, assuring immediate remedy to the situation. Government seems to have taken a stand that the shortage is not natural but artificially created by hoarders to hike up the market prices for financial gains. How far these "hoarders" would be able to thwart the credibility of the government remains to be seen.
Talking about hoarders, the natural question is about the identity of them because under the almost autocratic rule in Russia where punishment could be swift and severe for wrong doers, it is doubtful whether the traders would resort to cornering of stocks and naturally suspicion centers around the rich consumers who could have caused the present situation due to panic and apprehension. After all the production has fallen just by 30% and Buckwheat is not the main stream food, that role going to wheat. It is a historical truth that Russians had lived just on Potatoes during World War II and a small dip in production of a commodity like Buckwheat cannot be expected to impinge on the hunger or nutrition status of the population. But history has also recorded the bitter fact that even during the rule of the Czars, shortages of flour, sausage, table salt and Vodka had led to political unrest and probably the present rulers may also be worrying about the same.
The 2007 food riots in Asia and recent incidences in some parts of Africa are indicative of more frequent such episodes as a result of the demand for food outstripping production in many parts of the world and inflationary pressures that deny access to available foods in the market. Social unrests because of such imbalances in food sourcing can adversely affect world peace and the rich countries also will be sucked into the vortex of such developments.