Sunday, January 27, 2013


French people are supposed to be the most healthy in Europe and this phenomenon has been extrapolated so far to their prolific consumption of Red Wine which is supposed to contain that magical organic substance Resveratrol. The anti-aging properties of this chemical has been well documented though there is no unanimity about such claims. To add to this confusion another group of scientists now claim that it is not the Red Wine alone that is responsible for the good health of French population but prolific consumption of specialty cheeses like Roquefort and Camembert may also be a factor that has to be reckoned with for this phenomenon. Here is a take on this new findings which need to be confirmed with more intensive and focused studies.

Blue cheese which are famous include Roquefort, Gorgonzola and Blue Stilton which are produced extensively in Europe though France and Italy have their own branded blue cheese products popular locally. why is that blue cheese is called so, though all cheeses are made from white milk? Obviously because of the distinct ble or bluish grey or bluish green tint appearing on the surface of these varieties as a result of growth of the mold Pencillium Roqueferti introduced either before curdling or after cheese is made. Incidentally Roquerfort is a town in France where this product originated and abundance caves in this area with high density of the mold had helped the people there to ripen cheese in an atmosphere containing the natural mold. Though products made here are still considered as genuine, modern technology has enabled the dairy industry to make blue cheese under controlled temperature and humidity conditions optimal for the growth of this mold.

For those uninitiated to eating of cheese, blue cheese can be a disaster because of its putrid like sharp smell, caused by the metabolites of the mold as well as the bacterial species present. Brevibacterium  linens commonly present also contributes to the characteristic flavor and taste of blue cheese. World production of all types of cheese is estimated to be around 20 million tons with the US accounting for more than 30% of the production. Interestingly the US is not the top consumer of cheese and countries like Greece and France boast of annual per capita consumption rates of 32 kg and 27 kg respectively. Compare this with the wine consumption rate in these countries to get a clearer picture of the effect of high cheese consumption and wine drinking. While France's per capita annual consumption of wine is a whopping 8 liters, that in Greece or America is way down compared to that of France.

The so called French paradox refers to the unusually healthy status of French population in spite of very high consumption of Cheese, a rich source of saturated fat supposed to a deciding factor in cardiac disease and in contrast America has the highest obesity and other food related disorders among all countries in the world! Whether the high consumption of cheese and wine is responsible for the sound health of the population there is a matter of deduction. Probably more studies are required to come to any meaningful conclusion to this surmise. There is no doubt that Cheese is a healthy food viewed from any angle being rich in Calcium and Protein of very high quality though the high saturated fat content may be a negative trait. Whether cheese fat really is atherosclerogenic is a disputable issue because the milk fat, called Ghee in India is extensively consumed for centuries without much damage to the consumers.

According to some scientists the process that occurs as the cheese ripens into blue cheese is considered good for a healthy gut, slowing arthritis, and arresting the ageing process. Interestingly blue cheese exerted its effect most efficiently in acidic environments, such as the lining of the stomach. As the cheese has significant anti-inflammatory properties, its regular consumption suggests regular consumption can potentially ward off heart diseases that are so common these days. Compared to regular cheese, mold ripened versions like Roquefort, Camembert and other fermented cheeses seemed to have some metabolites possessing the unique ability to counteract the debilitating factors that lead to such diseases. It is a fact that France has the lowest rate of cardiovascular mortality in the developed world. The empirical observation correlating heart disease incidences with blue cheese consumption may spur future research efforts to isolate, identify and extract active principles excreted by the Pencillium species in products like blue veined cheeses.


Tuesday, January 22, 2013


Are you a regular milk consumer? Of course who does not consume milk in one form or the other as a part of the daily diet, especially in a country like India where more than 75% of the population is vegetarian by birth or economic compulsions. It was not long ago that milk distribution was in the hands of the so called dairy farmers who supply liquid milk to each and every house-hold. As these milk suppliers are small, owning 1-12 cattle, their reach is also limited to a few house-holds near their area of dwelling. Many senior citizens of to day might not have forgotten the olden days when they were young, the very familiar sight of a cow or buffalo coming to their houses early morning, milking being done in front of them so that no water is added by the supplier and enjoying the taste of fresh milk. The Varghese Kurien-led white revolution ended this era with almost all urban families depending on factory processed pasteurized and packed milk delivered by milk agents with contract for distribution service from a central dairy.

It may be far from truth if one believes that the old milk supply mode has completely disappeared to day. In fact in many small towns and suburban areas small dairy farmers are still thriving either because consumers have logistical problems in accessing to processed milk or there is inadequate supply of the product in their area. These consumers have to depend on "fresh" milk supply from the local dairy owners and the delivery mode is through cans and other vessels and bottles. One of the advantages here is that the milk from the unorganized sector is always cheaper to the extent of 20% compared to that of packed milk. Though India is considered the top notch nation among the milk producers world over, the extent of milk production that goes through the organized sector is still not very substantial, bulk of it consumed locally without routing through the collection net work of organized dairy units.

Is it the economic reason the major consideration for the consumer to patronize local milk vendors or is there any other factor that weighs heavily in the minds of people to opt for local milk in preference to packed milk? It appears there is another important factor that drives people into the open arms of local milk vendors even in areas where packed milk is available. Many consumers walk to distant milk sources in order to buy "fresh" milk at any cost! This phenomenon is attributed to the "mindset" or the "obsession" of many consumers for freshly milked product which they think is much superior to pasteurized milk. It is a common India psyche that any food which is old is invariably inferior in taste and nutrition! There are many consumers to day who refuse to consume frozen foods because of the same belief. How far they are justified in nurturing such beliefs?

Pasteurization of milk is an innocuous science based process which neither destroys the freshness nor reduces the nutrition. Modern processes treat the fluid milk at high temperatures for a few seconds only and the heat input under a closed system is insufficient to affect the flavor or nutrients in any way. In fact this process improves the safety of milk dramatically by killing all disease causing microorganisms. It is conveniently forgotten by those proponents of fresh milk that when fresh milk is brought home it is subjected to "cooking" in a milk cooker for long time and they do not seem to be much bothered about its effect on flavor or nutrients by this extremely rigorous heating regime.

What about the quality of fresh milk supplied by the local vendors? If the food safety authority in India is to be believed more than 65% of milk vended loose are adulterated, mostly with water. But a significant proportion is also mixed with many injurious substances like urea, detergents, used oils etc putting the health of the consumer in jeopardy. It is a common knowledge that India is the pioneering country that perfected the "art" of counterfeiting animal milk using man made chemicals entirely, eliminating the need for a cow or a buffalo! What is perplexing is that unless such milk concoctions are analyzed in sophisticated laboratories, many consumers will never be able to find out truth. Those who separate cream every day for making butter and ghee can only find out whether the milk is pure or not. During the ghee making process, such milk samples yield voluminous residues which are more fluffy devoid of any flavor typically associated with pure milk.

If consumers are afraid of adulteration, it is advisable that milk is always purchased from organized dairy units, if accessible. To day pasteurized milk can be preserved for 48 hours if unopened under cooler conditions and sterilized milk with 6 months life can be very safe. With milk surplus being reported all over the country, it is imperative that the distribution net work of dairy processors is expanded with much more vigor so that it is accessible to every nook and corner of this country. The impetus for criminals to adulterate milk is provided by the less than dynamic management of hundreds of dairies in the country and uniformity of quality and conformation to national standards are invariably the casualty when it comes to products from some of the public dairies. But, in spite of all their inefficiencies, they still provide a bulwark against unsafe and dangerous milk duplicates being churned out by unscrupulous criminals masquerading as milk vendors!


Monday, January 14, 2013


It is a sad day for India when the highest court in the country, contrary to the recommendations of its own technical expert committee (TEC) succumbed to the half truths and untenable claims put forward by the GOI and allowed to continue with trials involving genetically modified food crops. Of course one consolation is that the apex court did not hand out a total clearance for the trials but wanted its TEC to look into the governments claims and put before it for a decision in six weeks time. Those antagonists of GM food crops have been waging a war on GM crops convincingly claim that research in this area is fraught with many dangers which are difficult to anticipate with to day's limited knowledge. Two of the most contested claims of GM food lobbyists are that GM food crops are safe for human consumption and GM crop cultivation will not contaminate the environment leading to extinction of the original strains of plants on which mankind was depending heavily for survival. 

One of the most blatant lies uttered by the government attorney before the honorable court is that GM technology will increase yield of food crops dramatically and only with this technology the country can manage to meet the target for food production that is required to feed the nation adequately! No where in the history of agriculture so far any scientist has proved that GM technology can increase production and only losses due to pests can be minimized which in turn may reflect on the over all yield, that too marginally. Almost all countries in this planet who produce much more food than India with lesser acreage have achieved the same without recourse to GM technology. If India is stuck at the bottom of the list of land productivity the reason is not far to seek and the first Green Revolution which was hailed at that time turned out to be a game changer in destroying the soil health across the farm lands in this country using liberally chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The fact of the matter is that it may take ages to recondition the farm land health before productivity can be raised substantially.

At this juncture one must ask the most pertinent question as to why Government of India did not allow genetically modified Bt Brinjal into the country if it was so sure about its safety to the consumer and environment? It was done after extensive consultation by the then Minister for Environment who came to the conclusion that enough data was not available to clear the new GM Brinjal for country wide cultivation. Citing the example of the US where 80% of the products available in the market in that country contain one or more GM ingredients does not become relevant in India because American consumers are being fed these foods without them actually knowing about it! By now it is well established that the American government which is influenced in its every food policy decision by powerful GM crop lobby consisting of monolithic giants who have invested billions of dollars in developing most of the GM crops. The oft repeated claim that in spite of using GM foods and ingredients derived from them, Americans have not come to harm so far, is not sustainable when the ground reality is that more than two thirds of the population there are sick due to over weight, obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other afflictions and till to day no one has been able to conclusively prove that massive consumption of GM food, day in and day out, has not contributed to this sorry situation.  

Coming to the contention of the attorney of the government before the honorable court, one can understand the extent of deception by listening to his sworn statement before the Supreme court which is reproduced below: "The government pleaded that recommendation of the apex court-appointed Technical Expert Committee (TEC) for banning field trials of the GM crops be rejected as the use of biotechnology in agriculture can bring second green revolution in the country. "Revolution have been saturated at the producer and consumer level and the methods of conventional breeding are showing very marginal increase in yield. Further, the use of inputs like fertilisers, pesticides and irrigation schemes is expensive and unsustainable. Hence biotechnology could bring in a second green revolution," the Centre said. Appearing before a bench headed by Justice Swatanter Kumar, Attorney General G E Vahanvati contended that field trial should be allowed to go on as the demand of food for growing population could be met only through the GM crops. "...Bearing in mind the far reaching implications of this matter on food security and the pressing requirement of continuation of the ongoing research on application of GM technology in improving agriculture productivity and production, it is humbly prayed that the proposed recommendation of the interim report of TEC to impose ban on field trials should be rejected outright," the Centre said in its affidavit". Opposing the TEC's recommendations, the Centre contended that genetic method is the only way for increasing the farm output to ensure food security in the country. "There is a need to increase food grain production from the current estimated supply of 257 million tonnes to 345 million tonnes by 2030. With no further possibility of increasing Net Sown Area, the only recourse left to meet the requirements of country's food security is through increase in productivity."

What is interesting in the above statement is that the government was trying to confuse the court by using the word "biotechnology" interchangeably with GM technology which is not ethical as GM technology is just one branch of biotechnology which is a marvelous tool in the hands of scientists to do hundred and one things for the benefit of mankind. If a government is bent on riding piggy back on American GM lobby without considering the vital interests of the Indian population by allowing the GM crop giants to set shop in the country, it will be a sad day for the country whose agricultural diversity is likely to be destroyed and the health of the people, most of them poor with sub-optimal health conditions, to be further jeopardized.


Saturday, January 5, 2013


A prison by whatever name one calls it, invariably evokes scare and dread among laymen because of its association with criminals and under trials. Probably brutality stories emanating from some of the major prisons in the county have further brought down the image of prisons among citizens. In spite of many developments that attempted to modernize the prison system in India and many other countries, this stark image of prisons is unlikely to fade away so easily. It is not that convicted prisoners with brutal crimes behind them should be housed in air-conditioned cells with all modern facilities including high class foods but still their basic essential needs ought to be met to lead a normal healthy life within the precincts of the prison. It is against this context that recent reports from Kerala high lighting the development of some prisons into good quality catering units must be appreciated.

China is the country which perfected the "art" or better call it the "practice" to use forcefully prisoner population for productive work, turning out cheap consumer products benefiting the society at large. Of course the human right activists frown upon such practices but honestly there should be no bar for utilizing the manpower in the prisons for useful purpose, the only rider being that there should not be any physical torture for forcing them to do work. There are many countries where reformist seal is perceptible when prisoners are motivated to better their education and skill though appropriate facilities and conducive environment. In some countries many convicted prisoners for mild law violations are given social work as punishment with minimum restriction on their movements. Probably open prison system that is being propounded for long may not be realistic in the near future though working for that goal is admirable.

Every country is faced with the dilemma as to what to do with its prisoners who form substantial numbers in countries like India, China, Indonesia, Brazil etc because they form a population whose productivity potential is locked up and they are not provided with another opportunity to prove that they have really been transformed. If capital punishment is banished all over the world as being propounded by the United Nations, the alternative option of life imprisonment punishment will contribute to increased prison population in the coming years. A global consensus on prison reforms can unleash a force that can be harnessed for the welfare of the very society against whom the culprits have committed the crime. Probably innovative ideas like prison schools and universities, captive training units and such knowledge upgrading schemes can go a long way in reforming most criminals.

One of the objections to engage the prison population for manufacturing and other activities involved in value addition services is that they are paid very little compared to regular industrial labor. Probably this can be tackled by evolving a wage computing system that will be equitable in nature. The cost of facilities for housing and managing the prisoners can be deducted from the standard wage due to them and rest can be credited to the account of the prisoner for eventual withdrawal at the time of discharge. This will hopefully give the prisoner enough motivation to behave in an exemplary manner earning money as well as commutation of the sentence for good behavior. Of course the issue is not as simple as one thinks and lot of scientific, psychological, managerial, social and logistical inputs are necessary for evolving a workable and equitable prisoner rehabilitation program.    

Taking the example of the Central Prison, Poojappura, in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, it is remarkable that this dreaded prison has improved its image significantly during the last few months through its reformist agenda and is no more a place which the public do not like to enter. This is thanks to the food items being prepared and offered to the public utilizing modern facilities in its kitchen. It may be recalled that late last year this "Prison" started selling chapathi from its kitchen and public seems to have been bowled over by this offering with the items sold off in no time! Now comes the news that the Prison has added to its portfolio of products items like Idli, vegetable curry, chicken curry which too have become "hot" items gobbled up by the public! Probably the initial incentive must be the relatively low prices at which their items are sold compared to public restaurants in the town. During the last two years food preparations in hotels and restaurants have seen a price escalation of 100-150% with no rhyme or reason and Kerala is always considered as a price sensitive state with the consumers fiercely resisting such artificial inflationary tendencies.

Imagine a Prison selling 50000 chapathi packets, 8000 Idlis, 4000 chicken curries and 2500 vegetable curries a day! during the last one year the prison department is reported to have contributed about Rs 35 million to the Exchequer through its food selling program! Interestingly the products are not promoted commercially unlike other public restaurants and selling is done through two outlets, one in front of the Central Prison and the other in front of Women's Prison nearby, besides four mobile outlets. talking about mobile outlets, one is reminded of the Food Truck movement in the US which has become a craze in that country in no time and credit must go Kerala for experimenting (or introducing first time in the country) with mobile catering units almost similar to Food Trucks in the US. It will be interesting to study how the prison department is managing this" extra curricular" activity in spite of its heavy burden in administering the regular responsibilities of managing the prison system as a whole. May be a fit subject for the business schools in the country to take up this "phenomenon" for management case studies. How about other prisons in within the state and outside to follow the lead given by the Central Prison in Thiruvananthapuram? Why not?


Tuesday, January 1, 2013


Growing plants using nutrient mineral solutions in  water without soil was realized during eighteenth century and this laid the foundation for the modern hydroponics industry which is valued at $6-8 billion world wide. Soil is not necessary for growth of plants and it only plays a minor role to provide grouting of the plant and act as a reservoir of nutrients for the roots to tap them. Originally conceived as solution culture to day there are large scale production systems in a dozen countries using the technology of soil-less cultivation to grow a variety of plants that include tomato, capsicum, cucumber, lettuce, leafy vegetables,some herbs and flowers, covering a space equivalent to 20,000 to 25,000 hectares. Major producing countries with strong foundation for hydroponics include Spain, Germany, Australia, Canada, USA, Singapore, Taiwan, Japan, China and New Zealand. 

Why is that world had to go for a production system that requires man made artificial facilities entailing huge investment and precise control protocols? There are many advantages seen by those who depend on hydroponics over the conventional land based cultivation. Though the term Aquaponics was popularly used earlier it is relatively late that world started using the term Hydroponics, possibly to distinguish it from culture system that produces aquatic plants and marine species. Most important consideration for adopting Hydroponics is its relatively tight control over the quality and safety of produce raised leaving very little to chance. Added to this land constrained countries like Singapore, Japan and Taiwan have to resort to Hydroponic System since this has the flexibility of vertical integration of the production facilities.

During the last two decades Hydroponic production technology has seen revolutionary development with the cost of investment progressively coming down and several different versions being made available as viable options. Whether it is the static solution culture, continuous flow system or Aeroponics farmers have many options to suit the investment capacity. It is no wonder the productivity potential of Hydroponics is dramatically increasing with each passing day due to continuous innovation and development. In a typical case Hydroponics system is found to be capable of increasing crop yields more than 100% of that produced by the best land based farms in the world. Yields of a crop like  tomato can be as high as 2 tons to 2.5 tons per week from an area of 12,000 s.ft through hydroponics while in case of lettuce the yield reported is in the range of 3000 heads per week from an area of 20,000 s.ft. With such high yields, no wonder hydroponic system is becoming more and more popular and it is a question of time before it becomes a main stream technology establishing itself as the most preferred production system in the world.

Talking about various other advantages, water economy, optimum use of nutrients, less susceptibility to diseases, safer crops, pesticide use practically non-existent, ease of harvesting, uniform yield and assured stable production 24/7.round the year. Here are some of theses advantages reported by practitioners of hydroponics. (a) Water Conservation- Hydroponics uses much less water, savings being  almost 90 and it also keeps the water clean. (b) No Pesticides are needed as disease vectors are not able to thrive in the system easily. (c) No Herbicides are used as weeds rarely thrive in such an atmosphere. (d)  No commercial fertilizers are necessary, the nutrients used do not pose the risk of run off into streams and aquifers (e) Land Conservation as more produce is obtained from less ans less and less land; this becomes more dramatic when hydroponic system is vertically integrated. 

Organic foods industry is presently in a melting pot with its capacity for production being limited while demand is growing exponentially. There are many practical constraints being faced by growers of organic foods with high chance of produce contamination when they are grown on land. Hydroponics system is most suited for producing relatively clean products as the green houses are almost quarantined with minimum chance of exposure to unpredictable and unmanageable environment around as it is the case with land cultivation. Probably hydroponics may yet emerge as the main stream production route for organic foods and such a situation as and when emerges further push can be expected for fast developing technologies for many other crops besides the restricted few now available.