Sunday, July 29, 2012


With world population surging ahead ruthlessly, the quest for food to meet the food needs of millions of new denizens is becoming a relentless effort in many countries, developed, developing as well as  the impoverished ones. The fact is that condition of most of the populations in poor African, Asian and South American countries is a matter of concern because the very existence of such poverty ridden human beings pricks the conscience of the whole world and can be a source of unrest and violence affecting the lives of every body in this planet. For long it has been realized that unless well to do nations show a spirit of sacrifice in helping those with hungry bellies, eternal peace will continue to elude humanity. It is not that such help is not forthcoming as billions of dollars worth foods are donated each year by the industrialized world to needy people in these poor countries but the pertinent question that begs for an answer is whether this humanitarian help is sufficient to make any meaningful impact on the hunger front. Will this world ever be able to solve this food problem through financial resources, technological means, skill upgrading of local population, land reclamation, water conservation and economic improvement of the people in these unfortunate countries?. 

What is alarming indeed is the mindless and unethical diversion of human foods to cattle and for non food purpose in most developed countries while almost one third of the global population is literally starving. Two typical examples are enormous diversion of corn to alcohol production and ever increasing use of Palm oil as a sustainable source of fuel for automobiles in the US and Europe. Take the case of corn which is a rich source of starch carbohydrate which is processed into alcohol through hydrolysis into glucose and anaerobic yeast fermentation.  In Brazil where there is a strong alcohol industry based on sugar cane, vast rain forests are being destroyed for expanding sugar cane cultivation to meet the inexhaustible demand for alcohol from the automobile industry. One can understand that sugar is not a staple and therefore Brazil's efforts can at best be condemned from the ecological point of view but "corn-for-alcohol" program defies logic and ethics. Look at the US which is diverting almost a third of its corn production for making alcohol because of the mandate from the government to blend fossil fuel based gasoline with 10-15% alcohol over a period of time. While Brazil can opt for a policy to cut down on sugarcane cultivation and replace with staples like corn, in the US the bumper corn production harvested year after year can save millions of lives, especially in Africa where it is a staple crop. Paradoxically there are amble technological capability to use alternate sources of carbon like green mass materials, other wise wasted, for alcohol production. All it requires is a conscience and the necessary resolve to help fellow denizens in other continents.

Palm oil presents a different case and shows how far a food material can be mindlessly usurped for deriving pleasure and comfort by those who are well to do. Malaysia and Indonesia happen to be the top producers of Palm Oil and India leads the list of importers of this vital commodity. Shortage of edible oils in India is a well known "secret" during the last two decades with the local government having no clue regarding ways and means to overcome this perennial shortage. Imagine the cascading effect of increased diversion of Palm Oil to Europe on a typical family budget in India when the domestic oil prices start shooting up once demand starts climbing from the automobile sector! Paradoxically there is sustained campaign going on among the Western countries against Palm Oil, blaming the producing countries for global warming by reckless deforestation and it is suspected that such insinuations are made by lobbies trying to protect the interests of oils from corn, soy and rapeseed. History is replete with examples of trade manipulation by many countries to export their surplus commodities and protect their farmers. Wheat was once the instrument of influence for countries like the US, Europe and Australia and it is a fact of history as to how many Asian countries have switched over to wheat dominated diets in the aftermath of some of the wars fought in the Asian theater with Americans dominating them

The most recent example of diversion of food materials to non-food purpose comes from India which is the top most country in the world in guar bean production. Guar bean is not a component of the staple diet in the country but the cluster beans constitute a significant vegetable in the diets of people in some areas in the country while the dried beans are consumed in the sate of Rajasthan as a regular food. It may not be totally correct to say that guar bean was used only for food purpose because its viscosity modifying properties made its processed versions a useful component in many food products. More over its nutritional value is limited to the dietary fiber it contains in abundance. A hardy crop, Guar bean is grown in the arid regions of Rajastan which accounts for more than 82% of production in India. High levels of Galactomannan, a polysaccharide component in Guar makes it a valuable additive in dairy products including ice cream, cheese, puddings, cold meat products, besides being an important substance for the paper and textile industry, ore flotation process, explosive materials and fossil fuel extraction. With 85% of the seed made up of dietary fiber, it is considered an important source of pro-biotics that facilitate growth of beneficial gut microorganisms. Partially hydrolyzed guar gum better known as PHGG when ingested causes fermentation in the large intestine generating valuable volatile acids of great significance to good health.    

With the end of fossil fuel gluttony in sight, the fuel industry, looking for expanding the available fuel supply through many alternate options, seems to have struck rich when enormous gas reserves were discovered under hard rocky terrains in countries such as the US. Sheer logistics of extracting this valuable energy source posed problems which have now been overcome by the so called fracking technology involving release of this gas reserve by cracking the rock surface and using guar gum based liquid medium to flush out the gas. The requirement of the fracking industry is gigantic and due to this demand pull the prices of guar bean derived products are sky rocketing literally creating a bonanza for the poor farmers of Rajasthan. While this is a good sign which will see modernization of guar mills that convert the seed into a fine powder, food industry is likely to suffer as high prices are going to be a great barrier in continuing to use this additive in food formulations. A closer inspection of milling facilities will reveal the primitive conditions under which the seed is processed and the health dangers faced by the workers employed by the industry. What is disturbing is the push for explosive expansion of guar cultivation by the organized sector that has the potential to displace many established staple crops, eroding the food supply further in the coming years.    

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