Food research globally is getting more and more confined to the private industry sector and with funds coming from large corporations there are a few Universities in the US which undertakes dedicated research for the benefit of the sponsor. The million dollar question that begs for an answer is who will do the much needed technology development and service system for the small and medium scale enterprises which cannot invest in research. Take the case of India where more than two thirds of manufactured foods in the market come from the SMEs and the so called unorganized sectors and there is no place for them to go in search of technical assistance due to the skewed policies of the government. What is the real alternative to such a disgusting environment in the country which is getting more and more loaded in favor of large scale players, both domestic and international, after the much touted economic liberalization process of mid nineties of the last century?
Till the advent of the much hyped NIFTEM set up with much fanfare a couple of years ago in Haryana, the major focus of food research was being carried out by CFTRI, a national public funded R & D organization located in Mysore. What are the reasons for the Government at Delhi to discard CFTRI and set up a brand new Institute like NIFTEM right from the scratch is some thing the tax paying citizens of this country was never informed. Billions of rupees are being showered on a organization with zero credentials to take up R & D in areas like tech development, technology training and development of management personnel supposed to be tailor made to the needs of food industry. A critical look at the performance of NIFTEM will show that nothing much has been achieved so far and even if the organization is able to assemble a decent group of scientists to perform some of the tasks assigned to it, it can take another decade before some results are visible at the ground level. This raises the question regarding the sins and omissions of CFTRI which caused its demise (almost) prematurely?)
Whether the prime movers of NIFTEM like it or not, CFTRI is the only public funded research organization with the highest concentration of food scientists and technologists in the world. Its post graduates in food technology are still being grabbed like hot potatoes by the industry even before the final results are out! Same is true with the milling technology course, a unique venture with milling industry collaboration and being industry sponsored those coming out go straight into the shop floor with minimum learning period. Is it not unfortunate that CFTRI had to pay the price for not being subservient to a haughty bureaucrat in the Ministry of Food processing a few years ago? It is crystal clear that unless an organizations pay obeisance to Delhi bureaucrats funds will not be provided for its growth. Another cause of decline of CFTRI is the incompetence of CSIR, the mother organization led by people who cannot see beyond their nose! Bringing subject "innocent" ( or is it ignorant?) "leaders" to rule the institute overlooking years of experience of the locally grown but reputed food scientists was another folly for which the organization had to pay a heavy price.
Why did the food industry shirked its responsibility in saving CFTRI? Can it be due to its traditional "yes sir" syndrome, always paying obeisance to the sarkari babus traditionally? Did CFTRI play its role as the premier R & D agency in India, for that matter in the entire South Asia? The answer may not be entirely favorable to this once famed institute which is a pale shadow of what it was during its glorious days under Directors like late Dr V Subrahmanian, late Dr Hossy Parpia and Dr Bansi Lal Amla. Progressive exclusion of food industry from decision making regarding selection of R & D projects over the years made the organization irrelevant to the manufacturing sector, especially from the small and micro enterprises section. The ivory tower research which even to day the institute is carrying out can further exacerbate the situation.
It is in this context that a recent report from California is music to the years of erstwhile scientists of CFTRI, still living, who were responsible for developing this institute into a world class set up with international recognition and reputation. University of California at Davis is a well recognized academic institution with many food technology stalwarts coming out of it during the last 7 decades and its renewed dedication to the subject is reinforced by its new $ 100 million plan to form an integrated and coordinated R & D network among various food science disciplines which were working in isolation pursuing unrelated research during the last several years.
The World Food Center in California, that is proposed to be created will incorporate more than 30 centers presently in the Campus working on areas like food, nutrition and health. If the expectations of the planners do fructify, world would see an institution similar to the reputed Brooklyn Institute working on every aspect of food ranging from policy to genomics. It is further envisioned that this Center would be working with other universities and research centers across the U.S. as well as worldwide. The fact that this Center would function under the direct supervision of the Chancellor further enhances its importance and seriousness. Interestingly the required funding, estimated at $ 100 million is expected to be garnered from the food industry with liberal donations but with no strings attached. When the Center takes shape eventually it has the potential to bring together teams of experts from around the world to develop solutions to the challenges of feeding a hungry planet.
Is there any one in India with such a far sighted vision to consolidate food research as is being attempted in California? With politicians and bureaucrats holding the reins of power and controlling the purse such a possibility is very remote. But visualizing a World Food Center built around CFTRI and another equally competent DFRL both at Mysore is too tempting to be brushed aside. There are more than 30 research institutions and departments in half a dozen universities working on specialized areas of food within a radius of 150 km from Mysore under different administrative control which can be woven into a network with unified command structure and common program of intense relevance to food industry in the country. When CFTRI was at its peak health it had about seven regional centers acting as eyes and years for seeing and listening to the problems of industry in various states. It is sad that they were starved of funds, human resources and infrastructure leading to closure of most of them and what ever is remaining are limping along eking out a bare existence! If this is not shortsightedness, what else it is? Probably creation of a financially autonomous apex body for food research with national mandate for food technology development in an integrated manner may be the need of the time. Wishful thinking? May be!