Tuesday, February 25, 2014


The much touted Food Security Act (FSA) has been rolled out by the "vote eager" government expecting rich dividends during the forth coming general elections in the country. Now that 67% of the population have a "right to food" (whatever that means!), the million dollar question is how to manage the delivery of food grains promised to the right beneficiaries? Going by the experience so far no one in the country is happy with the post-FSA experience and even the government has no clue as to how to achieve even a fraction of what is promised under the Act! Many helpless citizens wonder why the existing Public Distribution System has been side lined, though it has many defects and deficiencies. According to international experts the most efficient way of delivery is through a voucher system that can ensure not only grain security but also nutritional security. Comparison of different delivery systems makes interesting reading and the following extracts of a report by International Food Policy Research Institute provide compelling reasons as to why the voucher system is the most efficient one. 

"WHEN times are tough, how should governments in poor countries ensure their citizens remain fed? In the past most of them used subsidies to keep food prices low for all their citizens. But these policies have become unsustainable: the cost of maintaining Egypt's food subsidies, for instance, nearly doubled between 2009 and 2012. And much of the money goes to the wrong people. In Burkina Faso, Egypt and the Philippines less than 20% of spending on food subsidies goes to poor households. In the Middle East and North Africa only 35% of subsidies reach the poorest 40%, the IMF reckons.
Motivated, in part, by a desire to curb growing budget deficits, many countries are replacing broad subsidies with policies aimed more directly at the needy. But what form should the targeted aid take? Earlier this month Iran introduced free handouts of food to replace its subsidy schemes. Other countries, such as Indonesia and Malaysia, have chosen instead to provide extra cash benefits to the poor. So far, vouchers have been the least popular option. Proposals to introduce food-stamp schemes in such countries as Malaysia have been rejected on the basis they were too American and un-Asian.In this section
A new paper* by researchers at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), a think-tank, suggests that might have been a mistake. The authors analysed the results of an experiment conducted by the World Food Programme in Ecuador in 2011, which compared handouts of food, cash and vouchers—all conditional on attending nutrition classes. The study found that direct handouts—Iran's new policy—were the least effective option. They cost three times as much as vouchers to boost calorie intake by 15%, and were four times as costly as a way of increasing dietary diversity and quality (see chart). Distribution costs were high, and wastage was also a problem. Only 63% of the food given away was actually eaten, whereas 83% of the cash was spent on food and 99% of the vouchers were exchanged as intended. Food transfers have also been the costliest option in similar projects in Yemen, Uganda and Niger, according to John Hoddinott at IFPRI.
In Ecuador there was little difference in cost between handing out cash and food vouchers, the other two options. But vouchers were better at encouraging people to buy healthier foods because of restrictions on what items could be exchanged for them. It was 25% cheaper to boost the quality of household nutrition using food vouchers than it was by handing out cash.A switch from universal subsidies to vouchers could be the most efficient way of boosting health as well as relieving poverty. This is overdue in many countries, according to Lynn Brown, a consultant for the World Bank. In Egypt subsidising starchy grains and bread has resulted in 70% of adults being overweight and 29% of under-fives being stunted. Either vouchers or cash handouts might reduce the bias against healthier foods (unsubsidised dairy products and vegetables) inherent in the system. But as Iran's populist giveaways show, the politics of cheap food can easily crowd out the economics."

One of the most disturbing features of the FSA is that it arbitrarily decides that 67% of the Indian population needs subsidized foods without any valid basis. It is also condemnable because of its over emphasis on cereals ignoring other protective foods like milk, egg and pulses. Its impact on agriculture could be disastrous with farmers taking up more and more cultivation of cereals like rice and wheat ignoring pulses and oil seeds. With the suspension of the Aadhar based delivery system where one gets the subsidy through the Banks, how the Scheme is going to be managed is any body's guess. It is most unfortunate that the modern India, even after 67 years of independence has not been able to evolve a documentation system to identify low income families who deserve government support for survival. In absence of reliable and dependable data, one suspects that most of the workers in the unorganized sector of the labor market are much above the poverty line requiring no prop from the State! In other words public money is squandered on them for the sake of considerations other than merit. How long this will go on, bleeding the Nation perpetually? The next government must take courage in its hand to drastically retool this project eliminating millions of undeserved beneficiaries from this doling bonanza!  

For further reading refer: http://www.economist.com/news/finance-and-economics/21596987-why-food-vouchers-are-policy-worth-considering-developing-countries-feeding



Human beings, most of them, have a mindset regarding the freshness of foods they consume. This is especially true with many communities in India which consider preserved food as some thing not of desirable eating quality. Probably this is due to the fact that food is a material that can change its taste and other eating characteristics fast with progress of time at ambient conditions of temperature and humidity. Naturally those working in armed forces doing duty on far way and difficult terrains represent a microcosm of the Society and they also prefer to have "fresh" foods for their day to day dietary needs. Food technology as it exists to day had evolved over the last one century from simple traditional processes like sun drying and pickling and sugar steeping into a multitude of processes that can retain most of the sensory quality with minimum distortions. Still given a preference consumers will opt for fresh foods as obtained from nature directly without the intervention of process technologies!

Food technologists world over face stiff challenges in extending the life of foods but dramatic expansion of knowledge in food science and engineering have enabled them to meet these challenges successfully. But there is one area of technology where the challenge is much more formidable with very little success recorded. This is in developing a satisfactory technology that can keep the food in trim condition without affecting the typical eating characteristics of each one of them. Of course mechanically preservation of any food can be done assuring reasonable life of 12 months or less. Similarly technologies such as vacuum packing, ionizing radiation, freeze drying etc can even give shelf lives up to 2-3 years, However in all these cases the consumer will have to compromise on their expectations vis-a-vis optimum eating quality as some changes do take place either during processing or during storage. Pizza is such a product which is so non-homogeneous in nature that it is next to impossible to keep it for more than 3-4 days without affecting its aromas, texture and taste. Imagine the trials and tribulations of a group of scientists in developing an awesome technology for increasing the life of this much liked and typically American staple to more than three years. Extracts of a report from a US laboratory is recounted below for a better understanding and appreciation of this feat    

Pizza with a three-year shelf life will soon be joining the US Army's field rations menu. These infamous MREs (Meal, Ready to Eat) have a long and checkered history, acquiring such sobriquets over the years as "Meals Rejected by Everyone" and "Materials Resembling Edibles." Pizza has long topped the list of requested meals, but the task of providing a palatable slice of this complex food that will survive the required three-year shelf life has foiled all attempts. Now, the folks at Natick's Combat Feeding Directorate have achieved a minor miracle in food technology: stopping time for a slice of Pizza
MREs are the basis for feeding assault troops engaged in battlefield combat action. Each MRE provides 1300 calories of high-fat, high-sodium nutrition suited for active combat duty. Individual MREs come sealed in a four-layer plastic pouch measuring about 10 x 6 inches (25 x 15 cm) and weighing about a pound and a half (0.68 kg). The nominal shelf life of an MRE is three years at a storage temperature of 80 ºF (27 ºC), but they must also be able to survive short exposure to temperature extremes from -60 ºF (-51 ºC) to 120 ºF (49 ºC.) MRE packaging must be able to survive parachute deployment from an altitude of 1250 ft (380 m), and a free fall drop from 100 ft (30 m). Much more difficult than satisfying these physical and chemical requirements, however, is satisfying people's instinctive response to a food. The problem is well known in humanoid robotics, where it is called the uncanny valley. If the characteristics and behavior of a humanoid robot are very close to those of a natural human, people will accept the robot as an entity that might be a friend. If the approximation of human characteristics is poor, the robot will still be acceptable as a separate, non-humanoid entity. However, if the robot appears close to human norms, but not close enough, the robot will be rejected as strange and dangerous.

People also have an uncanny valley when it comes to food acceptance. It is often easier to come up with a new dish than to try to reproduce one that is enjoyed and valued. A new dish will be evaluated on its own merits, while a reproduction will be compared to an existing standard. For example, a slice of pizza which has a soggy crust and an oversweet taste will be evaluated differently than a sweet tomato bread pudding with cheese and meat topping. It all comes down to expectations, but our expectations can present extremely powerful barriers to surmount. So how do you make a slice of pizza that will survive three years unrefrigerated that still appears, smells, tastes, and has the mouth feel of a fresh slice of pizza? Natick senior food technnologist Michelle Richardson took on the task after non-soggy sandwiches entered the MRE choices in the 1990s.

"Pizza is a complex food consisting of four major components: bread, sauce, cheese, and sausage (pepperoni in this case). Each of these components has different characteristic levels of moisture, acid, and texture, which must combine harmoniously to produce a slice that will generally be viewed as a "good pizza." In contrast, another combination of bread, sauce, cheese, and sausage made from a hardtack biscuit covered with ketchup, Roquefort cheese, and finely chopped hot dogs won't remind anyone of a good pizza. Richardson had to reach deep into her bag of tricks to pull off the new pizza. The pizza dough had to be enhanced with humectants, substances like propylene glycol or sorbitol, that bind moisture within the bread. This both reduces the possibility of bacterial growth and the tendency of the sauce to make the crust soggy.

Another problem encountered with bread products is that they go stale with time. Contrary to popular opinion, staling is not caused by the bread drying out (which would be counteracted by humectants). Instead, the moisture in the bread migrates within the bread, causing the starch granules to recrystallize. In the end, Richardson and her assistants used gums and enzymes to hold the water within the starch granules, making the pizza crust shelf-stable. The challenge with pizza sauce is to keep the moisture held within the sauce, thereby preventing separation of the components and maintaining the sauce's freshness and mouthfeel. A mix of glycerin, rice syrup, and other sugars were used to make the shelf-stable pizza sauce. For enhanced shelf life, a low-moisture cheese is usually called for. However, one usually expects a pizza to have a reasonably soft, stringy cheese, properties usually not found in low-moisture cheeses. While Natick had used a low-moisture (probably Mozzarella) cheese in other dishes, this cheese became too browned in cooking, making the pizza look burned. This problem was addressed by altering the cooking schedule (time and temperature) and through making blends of various cheeses.

Pepperoni is both fermented and dried, resulting in an acidic, low-moisture sausage that is resistant to most bacterial growth. However, the low pH of pepperoni can encourage mold growth. The result of natural bacterial processes, this is a component which is difficult to control within narrow limits. Beyond the process of making pepperoni, the most important factors in rendering the sausage shelf-stable are osmotic drying and surrounding the pepperoni (and the entire pizza) in a nitrogen atmosphere.A native of Rhode Island, which has a sizable Italian population, Richardson says she set the bar high: "When I first started developing this, me and my daughter would go and taste pizza because I wanted to use that as my benchmark." The Natick pizza MRE is being prepared for final testing. In particular, several types of pepperonis and pizzas are being tested, both for spoilage and for soldier acceptance, to decide what version will make the final cut. We trust it will not disappoint".

Of course proof of the pudding is in the eating and whether the Armed Force personnel will heartily welcome this Pizza version remains to be seen. Looking at the results so far there does not appear to be any strong reason to suspect that this new innovation may be damp squib! What is notable in the above effort is the use of knowledge in microbiology, food chemistry, food engineering, packaging science, physical chemistry, sensory science and analytical chemistry in an integrated way to evolve the technology. India needs such high caliber scientific endeavor to technologize hundreds of ethnic foods for which many people including army personnel are craving for! Most of them have very limited shelf lives and use mostly manual processes to make making them unavailable in many parts of the country. Indian food scientists must wake up now and do some thing in this area.

For further reading refer to: http://www.gizmag.com/three-year-pizza-army-mre-field-ration/30941/?utm_source=Gizmag+Subscribers&utm_campaign=50a6aa78e1-UA-2235360-4&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_65b67362bd-50a6aa78e1-90820233


Thursday, February 6, 2014


The reported remark by a minister in Tamil Nadu that his government "will" make farmers stake holders in food processing industry makes one laugh or cry depending on how knowledgeable one is regarding the pitiable condition of agriculture and the farmers in India. Concept wise the above statement is fantastic and will be a boon to the farmer if the government can make it work. Unfortunately the minister did not elaborate how this can be done! In a country where farmer suicides are rampant and agricultural productivity one of the lowest in the world, what is required is to strengthen the farming infrastructure in the country before talking about processing the crops into value added products.

Talking about the viability of farming in India, it is nothing but hypocrisy to imagine that all is well in the country because of government's huge subsidy doling and loan waiver schemes during election times. There are many agri varsities in the country which boast of a host technologies for boosting land productivity but only a few farmers get the benefits due to limited funds for extension activities. Added to this water availability is a big constraint and in allocating water resources, industry is invariably preferred over agriculture. The recent revelation that many irrigation projects built in Maharashtra for the benefit of farmers are diverting water to giant distilleries owned by local politicians, bears this out. Major crops depending on rains show variation in production year after year if rain fall is below normal. Under these circumstances how can any one think of integrated food production and processing systems?

If Amul dairy is a success in the case of live stock farming, it is largely due to linking of inputs like feeds, veterinary services and marketing under the aegis of that doyen late Dr FV Kurien. Why the country has not been able to replicate what Dr Kurien achieved during sixties, seventies and eighties of last millenium, is a point worth pondering over. Agriculture Market Produce Marketing Centers (APMC) are supposed to be providing decent prices to the crops brought by the farmers in a transparent manner but these centers are monopolized by mafia groups which manage to cheat the farmers by "ganging up" and through cartelizationHonest business in agri produce in the country is unthinkable under these conditions.

It was with grate fanfare that foreign investment policy was changed to accommodate international retailers in the Indian market. The "hope" was that these retailers will invest billions of rupees to establish the much needed infrastructure to procure, transport, preserve and market the perishable produce through out the country. Why would these players be doing what the government is supposed to do unless they have an agenda to recover their investments through under pricing of the agri corps procured from the farmers to sell the same to consumers at low prices? It does not make any sense to the ordinary intelligence of a citizen in this country!  

There is no evidence to show so far in any part of the world in support of the contention that entry of international retail chains has benefited the farmers. It is true that consumers get products at relatively cheaper rates and this has been attributed to the economy of large scale handling. In countries like USA the land holdings are of huge size and hardly a few thousand farmers have to be dealt with by the retail chains to source their materials. Added to this most farms in the USA receive government subsidies to compensate for low price realization in the market which enable them to sell their produce at lower prices. In contrast India has millions of farmers with average land holding less than an hectare in size and where the agri operations are costly. If these farmers are forced to sell their produce at low prices, they have no other alternative except committing suicide!

Ideally farmers' cooperatives similar to Amul are the answer to make them richer and prosperous like milk producers. But the political class in the country does not allow this to happen because of the fertile ground provided by such societies for grooming politicians! In stead of pumping billions of rupees in the form of subsidies, Government must organize agri cooperatives with each panchayat playing an active role and building up the supply chain with appropriate infrastructure for storage, transportation and terminal markets. The practice of minimum support price must be given up once cooperative organizations start operation in a big way. These cooperatives can always decide what prices are reasonable and plow back the profits to its members. This is the only way to make the farmers stake holders in food industry.

If there are many cooperative dairies working successfully in the county, why such farmers cooperative also cannot work economically making the farmers partners in creating wealth across millions of villages across the country?Just like these dairies, agri cooperatives can build their own cold storage and low temperature transport infrastructure for safeguarding the quality of their produce before delivering the same to the market or set up their own processing facilities to create branded products that can be sold through the existing retail market system or their own retail outlets.