Wednesday, September 25, 2013


Any chemical entity with some destructive potential is viewed with fear by humans and Hydrogen Peroxide (H2O2) is no exception to it. This is a chemical which can kill most bugs at optimum concentrations and cause grievous injury to human beings if not handled carefully. No wonder it is declared as a hazardous material when it comes to handling, storage, transportation and use. As it is not a stable chemical, tending to decompose into water and nascent oxygen at higher temperatures with high oxidizing potential, its concentration for different applications will require careful calibration for getting optimum result. Though it is historically established as a powerful disinfectant from time immemorial, only recently its use without any harm for applications in ensuring bacterial and viral disinfection is being appreciated. Probably its dirt cheap price is responsible for it being overlooked by the chemical and pharmaceutical industry which always go for high vale business! If H2O2 has been fully exploited, many of those expensive chemicals used to fight infections would not have been there at all, saving billions of rupees for the public!   

The atmospheric ozone is responsible for generating H2O2 through interaction with water and the so ubiquitous rain water which falls on the earth is, in fact, a solution of H2O2 that has many beneficial effects to protect environment and vegetation. It is believed, supported by some scientific studies, that rain water is much superior to irrigation water for better plant growth because of the H2O2 content in it. Interestingly rain water that falls through highly polluted atmosphere containing many chemical substances contains much less H2O2 because of its reaction with such oxidizable pollutants. Probably the practice by some progressive farmers to spray dilute solution of H2O2 (1000-2000 ppm)  on their plants is for making up the depletion this chemical in the rain water due to environmental pollution. It is suggested that even for house hold gardening, use of water containing H2O2 may be beneficial for better plant growth.

The fear of H2O2 is some what misplaced because it is a harmless chemical at levels less than 10% and pharma grade H2O2 is even used for infusion for treatment of some health conditions. Besides food industry also uses this chemical in the processing of cheese, egg and whey products. Aseptic packing technology depends heavily on use of 35% H2O2 in the process for cold sterilization of the carton material before filling with HTST treated products like milk, juice and other liquid products. H2O2 is globally available in different concentrations and qualities. While 3% solution of pharma grade is commonly available, others like 6% beautician's grade, 35% technical grade, 35% food grade and 90% rocket grade are offered for specialized users. 

H2O2 is a naturally occurring biological substance in human body, generated and decomposed through many biological reactions, all controlled by the body under different conditions. Primarily H2O2 is produced in places within the body, viz, Lungs, Gut and the Thyroid. Some of the enzymes involved in the body like D-amino acid oxidase and acyl-CoA-Oxidase produce this chemical through reaction with certain amino acids and fatty acids. Plasma amine oxidase and xanthine oxidase systems also generate H2O2. Since high production and accumulation can be dangerous to the tissues, H2O2 is contained in specialized cells in the organelles like peroxisomes which also contain H2O2 decomposing enzymes like Catalase in abundance. 
Human immune system is designed to be activated in response to infection by bacteria, virus and other transgressors when large amounts of H2O2 is produced by the white cells which, in turn kill the invading vectors, neutralizing their adverse consequences. If H2O2 concentration becomes too high it can cause grievous damage to the cell DNA and other critical proteins which many believe is responsible for serious diseases like cancer, diabetes etc.

Since extensive use of H2O2 for sterilizing water at home instead of chlorine has come to stay and as chlorine is not considered a safe chemical for domestic use, it is a question of time before this consumer friendly humble chemical becomes a universally accepted sterilizer for water, environment and food materials. A combination of H2O2, sugar and water is also reported to be an excellent pesticide spray that can destroy most of the field insects and pests at least cost with no residue left behind unlike the present day cocktail of poisonous chemical pesticides. Ease of using dilute solutions of H2O2 through conventional bottles with drop dispensing spouts make its use more convenient and as H2O2 solutions are stable for long at refrigerated temperatures or in domestic freezers a small stock of the product can always be kept for use after dilution through drop dispensers as when needed. 

Friday, September 13, 2013


One of the flagship programs of the the government of India viz Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA), which became the main plank for the UPA I to ride back to power was indeed revolutionary in concept. It is not a mean task to create employment opportunities for millions of people in the rural regions of the country who otherwise would have famished for want of sustainable income to survive. When people do not get work to earn a living in an environment of poverty, providing job at a decent pay for at least 100 days in an year is really God-sent. One of the criticisms against MNREGA is that the outgo of public money ostensibly for the pay out do not reach the intended beneficiaries to the extent expected. Also true is the view that the expenditure was not targeted to create permanent assets at the rural level.  

The government deserved full credits for lifting the wage rates across the country in a dramatic way with every sector of employment attaining the unbelievable growth rate of around 20%! To day the wages demanded by labor, even the most unskilled is in the range of Rs 200-300 per day while a little skill like masonry, carpentry, etc can earn as much as Rs 500-700! In contrast MNREGA was paying out a "measly" Rs 150 per day which has led to a situation where there are hardly any takers for such a low pay! The result is there to see in almost all states where funds under this scheme is grossly under utilized. As there is a minimum pay out guaranteed under MNREGA, labor started demanding higher wages from the private sector entrepreneurs including the land owners for doing jobs like tilling, planting, weeding, harvesting etc. 

In a place like Kodagu, the coffee growing heartland of Karnataka, plantation labor is such short supply that they have to be ferried from far away places for tending and harvesting the crops at costs considered exorbitant by any standards. Same is true with sugarcane cultivation in Mandya district of Karnataka where labor is treated with kid gloves, pampering to their every wish for getting them to the sugar cane fields! Free break fasts, tea and snacks and lunch are standard features in many of these places. Look at the construction industry which depends heavily on labor where an ordinary helper gets Rs 300 a day while a mason demands Rs 500 a day. In states like Kerala these daily wages can soar by almost 50%! Of course every one should be happy that more people are getting more money in their hands, provided it also contributes to increased productivity. Unfortunately this is not happening with absenteeism and boozing becoming more and more rampant!

One of the critical issues is whether such dramatic growth of wages is good for the country as a whole? The answer may not be easy to come but it definitely depresses agriculture to a very significant extent. While small farmers are finding it difficult to tend their land in an efficient way because of shortage of labor, big farmers are increasingly resorting to large scale use of mechanized machinery to do almost all operations connected with agriculture. Is it a desirable trend in the long run? Probably not because of its repercussions on food production. A dispassionate analysis of the present situation obtaining in the country will show that this country will have to suffer steep fall in food production in the coming years because of the consequences of large scale desertion of farmlands by small and marginal farmers as farm activity progressively becomes a losing proposition for these much neglected population eking out a miserable life with hardly any promise or hope for future. It is forgotten that almost 80% of food production comes from the small scale farming community and therefore destroying them will definitely tell on the food production in the country.  

In almost all states, the cost of farm labor is reported to have shot up making it beyond the absorption capacity of millions of small farmers. The cost of inputs like seeds, fertilizers and pesticides has been on an upward swing but not to the extent that can seriously hurt the farmers but it is the cost of labor that is pushing the total cost of cultivation dramatically. It is a common knowledge that the prices for agricultural produce have not kept pace with the escalating cost of cultivation. Recent surveys have revealed that farming is a labor intensive' activity,  with the cost of labor making up almost 50% of the total cost of cultivation of many crops. Is it not a paradox that net return on investment for many farmers is negative for most crops leading to a majority of farmers slowly being pushed 'below poverty line'? How can they survive and sustain themselves under such a hostile environment? Writing off loans and interest burden on these loans especially before the general election does not make any sense and at best it is a short term palliative to the problem. As a consequence of declining availability of cheap labor, acreage under many crops like Ragi, Bajra and Groundnut is progressively coming down. Where is this going to end up and what are its consequences? 

A reckless government announcing the implementation of the much touted Food Security Act, where are they going to find the required grains to be supplied to almost 850 million people, as guaranteed by this imposing Act? Importing is not an option as the required foreign exchange resources are not in the kitty and the measly reserve cannot be frittered away on such a scheme. How is the government going to arrest the fast migration of rural population, with no hope of farming sustaining them, into already bursting cities with very little infrastructure to let people lead a decent life? Future may not be bright as severe shortages are expected vis-a-vis cereals, pulses and oil seeds with the latter two on the import list perennially since a long time due to stagnant production during the last three decades. India happens to be largest importer of Palm oil in the world while for pulses there are only a few sources from where they can be imported. Even if the government is able to garner sufficient cereals to meet its obligations under the Food Security Act, nutritional insecurity is going to haunt the country for a long time to come. 

Wednesday, September 11, 2013


Why do more and more people opt for organic foods though they cost hell of a lot as compared to products of the main stream food industry? The answer is very simple. Because they are apprehensive about the safety of food products manufactured by the food processing sector which uses hundreds of chemicals for making a product that will have the required eating characteristics to please the consumer and adequate shelf life to cover the minimum period required for selling them in the market. Front of the labeling regulations insist on printing the expiry date and therefore consumer cannot be expected to buy old products with no life left before they can be consumed. There is a belief that organic foods are produced with no chemicals at any stage and are free from dangerous pre-harvest and post-harvest protectants to save them from insects and pests. Also some believe that organic foods are more nutritious than conventionally made foods.

Against such a background it is no wonder that the organic food sector grows almost at an annual rate of 15-20% touching a global sale of about 70 billion dollars in the current year. According to some experts if every human being switches over to organic foods, the family budget for food may inflate by 10% to 40%! Whether this due to opportunity cost or increased cost of production is again a matter of debate! Besides there is the issue of practicality regarding producing such huge quantities to meet the global demand. After all only 2% of the land under cultivation is dedicated to raising of organic foods and it is unlikely that it will grow sufficiently fast to produce significant quantities in the near future. Another disturbing development is the efforts in countries like the US to dilute the standards for organic foods to oblige the main stream food industry giants to get into this business through the back door. Otherwise how can any one justify the policy of the USDA which administers overseeing activities in organic foods area in introducing various "grades" like 100% organic, 95% organic, 70% organic and less than 70% organic? If this is not to fool the gullible consumers under government connivance, what else it is?    

The fight between organic food producers and main stream normal food industry throws out many interesting but contradictory claims and counter claims by the antagonists and the protagonists of either side. In a recent critique on organic foods, it was claimed that the increased price commanded by this category of products is not justified, looked from any angle. According to it there is hardly any difference between these two categories of foods in terms of "presence" of chemicals or pathogens or nutrient density. If this is so why the various national and international food safety organizations are perpetuating this fallacy and protecting the increased margins enjoyed by this sector? A million dollar question begging for a convincing answer! But it can be unequivocally stated that organic foods, even if they are absolutely not safe, comparatively they do less damage than their normal industry produced counterparts.

Here is a gist of the "opinion" on organic foods by an organization self styled to investigate truth and fallacies perpetuated by the food processing industry. 
   " * Pesticide residues are generally present on both organic and non-organic produce, and, on average, appear to be present in lower concentrations on organic products. However, while it seems obvious that food is healthier when not contaminated by pesticide residues, there is very limited/insufficient data available from reputable studies showing that legal pesticide residues pose any actual harm to humans when ingested at the levels permitted by law. Most of the studies tend to agree that any benefits gained from the reduction of exposure to pesticide residues achieved by consuming organic products are negligible. Know that this is a contentious area among scientists, with strong agendas in play.
    * Microbiological contaminants (e.g., bacteria such as E. coli) are generally present on both organic and non-organic products in varying degrees. Some research has found that organics have lower microbiological contamination, while other research has found the opposite. The presence of microbiological contaminants may not vary much (if at all) between the two product types; however, there is a lower incidence of antimicrobial-resistant strains on organic products.
    * Toxic metal contamination of organic produce has been found to be similar to that of non-organic produce, and most of the research has found the differences to be negligible.
    * Food additives are also limited in organic products and are therefore generally present in lower quantities than in non-organic products. However, most approved food additives don't appear to be toxic when used in conformance with established limits.
    * Other contaminants such as nitrates (found in synthetic fertilizers) appear to be lower, on average, in organic products, though they are still present. Some scientists have cited various instances in which organic foods have higher levels of secondary metabolites (e.g., polyphenolic compounds, antioxidants) as a positive feature. Others have indicated that this may pose a health risk due to the supposed increased presence of naturally occurring toxins (which some research has suggested are equally as potent as synthetic toxins), resulting from an increase in the plant's use of natural defense mechanisms".

Interestingly these critics also qualify their conclusions saying that at present many of the research conclusions with regard to organic vs. non-organic product safety are premature!. Most of the studies emphasize lack of data as a limiting factor in their conclusions. However they still aver that their conclusions are based on available data and applying simple logics! They have a point when it is claimed that there were more than 50 organic food recalls in the lat year in Canada and the US which cannot be easily ignored. Contaminants found in organic foods  include Salmonella, E. coli, Listeria monocytogenes, cadmium and mycotoxins. It is admitted that even though a great deal of care is taken in growing and harvesting the food under rigorous conditions monitored by approved certifying agencies, contamination can still be introduced anywhere in the production process for any food and organic foods are not immune to this problem.

Monday, September 2, 2013


Garbage is a dirty word for most people who strive to keep their place clean and tidy but it cannot be avoided in the modern industrial society and day after day the volume of garbage grows astronomically with vast diversity of its nature and composition. While organic waste can be of use for generating bio gas through fermentation, there are wastes that can be recycled or burned under controlled conditions. With urbanization taking place at a fast pace in many developing countries, the burden of garbage collection and disposal is increasing on most urban townships, many of them having no clue as to how best the waste can be managed. Till about a decade ago wastes were dumped in landfills and with land availability becoming a critical factor, many towns and cities are imposing landfill tax on private waste generators making it imperative to look for viable alternatives.

A well organized waste collection system should have provision for segregating it into biodegradable, recyclable and others not amenable to the two processes. But such efforts are fraught with tremendous logistical difficulties and even if logistical factors are managed, the citizens should have high sensitivity and awareness regarding the responsibility to segregate the refuse regularly before handing over to the collection agency. In well developed countries like the US and in Europe both civic sense as well as waste collection system are well developed and high volumes of waste are collected sufficient to industrial scale processing and recycling. It was only recently that many reports highlighted the plight of cities which do not have adequate facilities to process trying to send them to places beyond their borders! By now the world recognizes the bitter truth that garbage deserves respect and must be handled with care for preventing spread of infection and environmental degradation.

Interestingly India presents a contrasting picture with organized waste handlers and the rag pickers engage in a bitter struggle to lay their hands on the urban garbage! This conflict is best manifested in Delhi where there are thousands of rag pickers who are earning a livelihood by collecting the garbage in different parts of the city and after sorting out sell the same to earn a few bucks that help them to keep hunger away. As the city is growing at a frenetic pace the civic administration wants to entrust to organized waste processing companies so that citizens are assured of a garbage free environment. How far such a move will impact the waste management programs in different cities and towns in the country is an issue that needs to be resolved without affecting the livelihood of the rag picking community. The unorganized rag pickers seem to be bracing up for the challenge from the Big Brothers by organizing themselves into a union under the banner of All India Kabadi Mazdoor Mahasangh or AIKMM, its acronym.

Why should there be a conflict between the organized and unorganized garbage handlers? Probably the reason is because garbage, for the illiterate, urban, unskilled slum-dweller, is the only stable means to earn a living. Not all garbage is sought-after. Generally about 20 per cent of Delhi's daily output of 12,000 tonnes comprises inert waste, such as sand and stones from construction sites. But much of the rest is picked clean by rag pickers, who make India one of the most efficient trash-harvesting countries in the world. Fifty per cent of the waste is 'wet' or organic and yields treasures like bones worth Rs 1,500 a kg and hair worth Rs 2,000 a kg. But the real bone of contention lies in the last 30 per cent of the waste heap which comprise plastics and other recyclable materials fetching valuable returns. The civic bodies by planning to get rid of the daily piling of garbage invariably turn to corporate industry for practical reasons which seems to hurt the humble rag pickers who were in business for umpteen number of years. According to some reports, on an average a rag picker earns about Rs 30 a kg for plastic found in bottles and about Rs 21 a kg for used paper. The total recyclable market in Delhi is estimated at Rs 560 crore a year and no doubt this is not a small turnover by any standards. Probably this is the real reason why "the rag battle" takes place in major cities like Delhi.

If one goes by the experience of a city like Oslo, Norway, garbage is a precious commodity that is one of the most sought after source of sustainable energy. If reports are to be believed approximately half the city's population get energy for heating their homes by controlled burning of house hold trash, industrial waste etc. Burning of garbage generates heat and electricity is generated for the grid to supply to the city. Unfortunately this country is facing a unique problem of garbage shortage to run its efficient incineration plants. This problem is faced by many cities across Northern Europe where the practice of burning garbage to generate heat and electricity has exploded in recent decades and demand for trash far outstrips supply. What is the reason?

The fastidious population of Northern Europe produces only about 150 million tons of waste a year which cannot meet even 25% of the demand from incinerating plants that can handle more than 700 million tons. Interestingly Sweden seems to be building more and more plants! Same is true with other countries like Austria, Germany etc. In Sweden itself there is keen competition in buying garbage from other cities ferrying the same to the processing plants by all available means including by road and ships. It appears Europe is emerging as the single geographical entity that considers garbage as a commodity, realizing its value in terms of energy.

See what is happening in Chennai vis-a-vis waste management. In a desperate move the civic body wanted to impose a tax on those generating garbage in large quantities which is being resisted by the citizens as well as institutions like hotels, industry and others. Is it not a paradox that in Europe there is a huge shortage of trash while in India almost every city is bursting with garbage mounds strewn all around? Why there are no innovative efforts to harness this unlimited energy source? It is true that compared to the disciplined garbage collection mechanism in place in the western world, Indians are insensitive to littering every where they go and therefore the quantity generated has to be huge. Why not set up a number of incineration plants around such cities like Chennai which will go a long way to solve the country's perennial power shortage? The human angle can be tackled by incorporating the unorganized rag pickers into the management system for collection, segregation and delivery at different points in a city. Only to watch out is the reaction from human rights activists deploring the use of humans for such a low level, insanitary and potentially dangerous avocation, comparing it eventually with the old night soil scavenging prevalent decades ago.