Wednesday, December 24, 2014

From food to fossil fuel-Guar bean's long journey!

India is the top most guar bean producing country and this humble seed is a vital source of a variety of gum used extensively by the food industry for viscosity and texture modification properties. There are also other edible gum sources from plants but guar gum is preferred for its extraordinary properties liked by the food processing industries world over. Besides there are gum like materials derived by modification of starch which also find application in some products. Guar gum became "famous" after the fossil fuel industry found that it is essential for extracting underground fossil fuel products through the process of fracking which has made America self sufficient in its energy requirement. This diversion has made guar gum more and more expensive and in spite of the fracking industry trying its best to find effective substitutes to it, not much success has been achieved so far.

The guar price which peaked at one time to about $15 per kg has crashed to a more sedate figure of  about $ 2 per kg at present. What future guar gum will have is some what uncertain as furious efforts are on hand to develop universally acceptable fracking fluid sans guar gum in the US. Also efforts are on to cultivate guar in Texas region in the US though the production there is still minuscule and the fracking industry still looks to India for bulk of its supply. Guar gum has become so dear to the oil industry there that many leading players are stocking the same to avoid escalation of prices in the international market in the near future. The pull from other industries like textiles, paper, explosives, mineral ore processing, food processing, pharmaceutical manufacturing etc also is a contributing factor to the escalating demand for guar gum. Guar gum and its modified version Partially Hydrogenated Guar Gum (PHGG) have properties such as solubility, stability under acidic conditions and heat that make it a choice for many of these industries.

Though Jodhpur in Rajasthan is closely associated with guar gum industry as large number of processing plants are located nearby, Kutch region in Gujarat account for more than 70% of country's production. The country produces about 3 million tons of guar beans and out of 1 million tons gum derived from it 90% is exported for use mostly for hydraulic cracking to extract gases from the shale underground. Almost 70% of the international demand comes from oil and gas industry. Imagine the gas industry in the US needs guar beans harvested from one thousand acres in India to dig a well and what efforts go for achieving this production at the farm level. A valid and relevant question that does not get a satisfactory answer is how far the farmers are benefited by this gas industry boom in the US? Like all other agricultural commodities guar beans also are susceptible to manipulations by middle men who invariably gorge a major part of the sale proceeds with no one able to control their activities. Probably the growers must be getting only a fraction of the money involved in guar beans trade!

The recent crashing of petroleum prices has added to the worries of the growers in India because an oil production cut is a distinct possibility which in turn may affect demand very significantly. Whether fracking industry will also resort to production cuts is some thing which cannot be predicted as of now. In the long run, guar beans growers will have to be weary about their future and if alternate crops can be raised in their lands that could be a better alternative option. Such a trend is seen when erstwhile guar farmers are shifting to cotton, sesame and cumin in large numbers due to steep fall in demand and their income from this crop. Food industry which uses guar gum for many functional applications like baked goods, ice cream, dairy products, fried foods, emulsification, antistaling etc probably may shift to guar gum  and partially hydrogenated gum (PHGG) as the current prices are considered reasonable. Also produced are Hydroxy Propyl Guar (HPG), Carboxymethyl Hydroxy Propyl Guar (CMHPG), metal complexes with Boron, Titanium, Aluminum, Antimony, Zirconium and Chromium all of which have properties suitable for different industrial applications. Besides the health connotations associated with guar may raise its stature further as it is considered a dietary fiber source and many health foods are right candidates for its wide scale use. While guar gum as available in nature is fermented to the extent of 75% in the gut, PHGG is 100% fermentable producing desirable volatile free fatty acids. They are regarded as pre-biotics because of their action in the intestine.  

There is also another face to the guar gum industry which many do not know. A casual visit to the so called guar mills can expose the indifferent and unhealthy working environment where thousands are employed at wages not considered comparable to other industrial workers. What is appalling is the "dusty" environment within the mill resulting from the inefficient machinery used by the owners spewing out fine particles of gummy cotyledon which are inhaled by the workers causing serious lung disorders. There does not appear to be too much concerns on the part of the government to protect their health through strict control measures. We only see the glamorous side of the industry which boasts of bringing in sizeable foreign exchange to the national kitty!


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