Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Water crisis-How food and beverage industry can help global water conservation efforts

Recent reports from Delhi "state" where a new government took over the reins assuring 20000 liters of water free to every family are indeed scary when the country is facing acute shortage of drinking water in almost all parts. While quantitatively this may be sufficient, what is missed about the quality of water supplied under the so called protected water supply system in almost all towns and cities are supposed to have. Besides the tendency for many families to consume more than that is necessary and waste this precious natural resource is indeed appalling! It is true that government in any country should have the onus to ensure that every citizen is provided with clean air and clean water in adequate quantities which is not taken seriously by any government in India since independence. In stead precious money is being invested on distributing freebies on an alarming scale.under the pretext of food security! If even a fraction of this money spend on food subsidies, a substantial portion going to the pockets of undeserving people, had been invested in on potable water infrastructure projects, the current day problem of water scarcity and mal distribution would not have been so acute to day.

There is a consensus that it is time for launching a coordinated global action program to reduce the amount of hidden water used in food and drink production. Can this be true? The amount said to be used as of now thus is really mind boggling and if the average per person is computed it is still considered very high. According to some experts we must set a global target to reduce the amount of water used in food production worldwide at least by one fifth within 5 years from now which may not be difficult to achieve. If we refer to the UN data base each person consumes between 2,000-5,000 liters of water directly or indirectly through the food consumed every day working out to a staggering figure of 7.3 lakh liters to 18.25 lakh liters annually!  According to health pundits on an average a person needs at least one ml of water for every calorie consumed and imagine the minimum requirement for food intake only by 7 billion people in this planet. This is the bare minimum we need for just survival. Then there are other needs like cleaning, bathing and other daily chores to keep diseases away for which additional water is needed. 

By a rough estimate we use around 70% of all freshwater available for agriculture and allied activities while industrial sector absorbs another 20%, leaving just about 10% for domestic use. But this supply dynamics cannot remain static with the ever growing population calling for increased food production and greater quantity of water for industrial and domestic use. From where are we going to get this additional supply? If futuristic need projections are to be taken seriously, our water needs may burgeon to more than 7 trillion cubic meters in another 35 years! What will be the impact of such a situation on the habitats of people? Simple, almost 70% of them would be living in water starved areas while to day the corresponding figure is just 7%! Under such dire predictions can the world close the eyes praying to God to save us without doing any thing ourselves? 

Sure lot can be done if we take a common sense approach to solve the impending water crisis. Efforts by all including individuals, families, educational institutions, industries, farmers and every one having a stake in preventing a water famine in future must put their heads together to cut down on water use, conserve it and deploy modern technologies to recycle water. Efforts must be redoubled to reclaim pure water from sea water and brackish water bodies through low cost technologies, as Israel and gulf countries have shown to the world. If this has to be converted into an action program there are some essential steps that need to be thought of. Primary responsibility of the governments world over must be to reorient their food production policies to cut down on water usage by different stake holders by 20% within a matter of 5 years. Though industry is using less water than farmers, there is considerable scope to reduce its water foot print through technically sound solutions including water recycling in a big way. Probably it can get support from the governments through financial and other incentives to adopt them in a big way to see the impact almost immediately. How effective government cajoling can be seen in Tamilnadu where rain water harvesting has been made mandatory in the city of Chennai way back and the water shortage there is no more a critical issue.substantial investments in water management technologies and water purification processes are inevitable and the world cannot shy away from this responsibility any more. It is known that world will need 60% more food by 2050 to feed the population than and even with the best of technologies an extra 20% of water will have to be secured to make the extra food required by then.

As for food and beverage industry water is a critical input there cannot be any compromise on water need if product safety is to be ensured. Operations like raw material washing ,cleaning , formulation, steam generation, packing etc need water and that too germ free water and there are continuous improvements being achieved by food scientists to reduce the water needs to as minimum as possible.  Water recycling is an area which needs urgent attention and government has a big role in facilitating and encouraging the industry to go in for massive recycling efforts through appropriate and practical quality and safety standards and financial incentives. It is time we realize that water is not an individuals problem or a particular nation's problem but it a global problem requiring cooperative global efforts.


Monday, March 23, 2015

Food gluttony that can destroy modern society -Why is man hurting himself through the food?

Food is a controversial subject being blamed for diseases caused by under eating as well as over eating. Hardly a day passes without any report blaming lack of food or imbalanced food for the under development of millions of people in the poverty ridden continents of Asia, Africa and South America. On the other hand same food is being implicated in causing a variety of modern day diseases among people in affluent countries, obviously due to over eating or consuming nutrition deficient diets. It is most unfortunate that food that sustains life on this planet is a cause for such a situation. It is not realized that food is like a weapon with multidimensional implications. If used wisely it can be a friend of human beings and if misused it can be a real threat to the lives of those who do not respect its virtues. Is it not a paradox that while some people struggle to get even the barest minimum of foods to survive there are others who indulge in gluttony and also waste foods unconscionably without a though for the poor? Is it not an irony that more money is spent to day across the world to fight health disorders and diseases caused by too much foods consumed than to eliminate the scourge of infection, malnutrition and under nutrition? 

We all grow up with this basic assumption dinned into our years that man needs a minimum of 2000 kC, 50 g of proteins, 50 g of fat and some micro nutrients essential which are not made in the body. Since last 3 decades dietary fiber and essential fatty acids were added as essential components of our diet. Interestingly these paradigm of health and nutrition remained almost static during the last hundred years except for some minor modifications. Has man changed much during this period? Of course the life styles of people who lived healthily hundred years ago were drastically different from the situation obtaining to day. The proportion of hard working people to the total population has been dramatically reduced during this period and the so called sedentary living is a rule to day than an exception! Why is that our great fore fathers produced children prolifically while to day two children family is the norm? Because they needed hands to help them to look after their avocation, be it agriculture or business. To day a farmer's son is unlikely to stay back in the farmland to carry on his father's tradition and culture and is more likely to end up in the urban ghettos that sprawl across hundreds of towns and cities across the country. Probably they want to earn fast and have no patience which is the most important trait of a farmer who has to fight with nature's aberrations and other uncertainties inherent in agriculture. 

If we look at the disease density in the urban areas and rural areas, though dependable statistics are hard to come by, many impartial observers agree that occurrence and prevalence of diseases like obesity, diabetes, hypertension in our rural hinterlands are relatively low. They are more vulnerable to water borne, air borne and food borne diseases due to acute safe water scarcity, utter lack of hygiene and less than healthy living environment. Ultimately it boils down to inadequate purchasing power and dilapidated infrastructure they suffer since decades with government not doing much to improve their lot. It may not be correct to blame the government alone for not doing many things which are within their ambit of action because lack of education and exposure to basic knowledge about good living also contributed to this Catch 22 situation. Hopefully this could change over the next few years if education facilities are expanded and employment opportunities are created. 

Why this talk about older generation and the present generation vis-a-vis food and health? During the last two decades thousands of studies have been undertaken to find solutions to modern day problems of health and invariably these studies focused on evolving methods and techniques to deal with diseases caused by over eating and wrong eating. Billions of dollars have been spent by several countries to deal with their citizens who have no control on the foods they eat and suffer from life style health disorders.While diseases like diabetes or blood pressure or heart disease are not curable easily but only to be managed through a plethora of drugs on which the pharma industry are making trillion of dollars churning out such drugs. There are two vital differences in the life styles of older generation population and the new generation in terms of physical work and quality of foods consumed.  Good old foods mostly unprocessed food grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, raw edible oils etc of yesteryears have yielded way to "unnatural foods" made by the food industry devoid of most of the nutrients including health protecting phytochemicals. As for physical work to day's generation has a living style not based on physical work but on intellectual work operating computers and mechanized gadgets in practically every walk of life. What is the necessity for such a person to have same calories, proteins and fats if they are not spent doing physical work? Naturally the excess energy accumulates in the body contributing to bloated bodies with expanded waistlines and consequent health related disorders. 

The restricted calorie diets and their favorable impact on life span has been brought out by a few studies pointing out why there is a need to cut down on calorie consumption, especially for those who lead a life with minimum body movement or exercise. To day's rush to develop remedies for the consequences of wrong eating or over eating is some what misplaced though as they may serve the limited purpose of medically dealing with those crossing the Rubicon knowingly endangering their lives. How ridiculous it is for perfectly normal people to pop in pills after leading an undisciplined eating regime to get relief for the ill effects of their indiscretion! Bariatric surgery and similar surgical intervention cannot be a routine procedure while many weight reducing medications should not have been there at all!  

Look at the latest "research" in this area  where some over enthusiastic scientists have come out with a modified chemical substance made from inulin, a natural oligofructosan found in Chicory, Jerusalem artichokes etc which is claimed to "kill" the appetite in human beings to a significant extent. On one side, highly attractive and tasty foods are created for the consumers to "enjoy" eating and then new chemicals are invented to curb their consumption! What a paradox! Both the food industry and the well being industry make money in this convenient alliance! Dietary discipline is what is needed to maintain the health and that is why dietary guidelines are formulated from time to time for the benefit of the consumers. Recent development of Inulin propionate esters (IPE), prepared from in the laboratory by reacting Inulin with propionic acid anhydride is being touted as a solution to curb the tendency for uncontrolled ingestion of food.       .  

In the case of IPE there is some rationale because Inulin is a soluble dietary fiber that does not contribute to any calorie, passing through the upper GI tract into the large intestine undigested. Obviously human body has no means of digesting this fiber but the microbiome inhabiting the gut feast on them producing short chain fatty acids considered beneficial to the health in many ways. What is so special about IPE? IPE is a combination of two naturally occurring substances inulin and propionic acid and therefore cannot be considered as a new chemical synthesized by scientists. Short chain fatty acids, (SCFA) which are organic acids with 1-6 carbons in their molecules have been known to exert influence on the metabolic system in the human body and among the most important ones are acetic acid, propionic acid and butyric acid which together make up 95%of the SCFAs in the gut. Propionates just make up about 25% while acetic acid happens to be the major SCFA. As propionates were found to exert a significant influence on excretion of gut hormones involved in satiety, it is often considered as a substance of therapeutic value. If so, is it possible to increase its concentration in the gut to a level that can exert significant influence on quantity of food eaten? This is where IPE comes into picture.

SCFAs are produced in the gut by microorganisms that reside there using residual food components not digested in the GI tract till they pass down to the large intestine. These include resistant starches, dietary fibers, sugar alcohols, undigested proteins etc but the concentration produced is not enough to exert any significant influence on satiety. If propionic acid levels in the large intestine can be increased, it can exert influence on gut hormone excretion that can achieve satiety fast. IPE can be made with different levels of esterification involving the hydroxy moieties in the fructose molecules of inulin. Higher the extent of esterification more effect it will have on satiety. IPE when ingested goes through the GI tract all the way to large intestine where microbes deesterify it to release propionic acid at levels that are effective in creating satiety and stop gluttony. If these findings are confirmed by other studies, IPE may become the darling of the well being industry and thousands of products incorporating IPE are likely to flood the market in the coming years. 

The question mark that why man is hurting himself through the food gluttony widely seen to day, may never be answered and no matter what remedies scientists come up with, the immediate provocation and seduction by good foods can never be resisted. As long as this continues, like cigarette and alcohol, food will cause lot of damage for those with fickle mind and irresistible cravings for junk foods! Sadly modern food industry, well being industry and pharma industry will be reaping the benefits from man's "Himalayan"  folly!  


Saturday, March 21, 2015

Organized retail market sector in India-Inefficiency at its peak!

Shopping for daily needs is a chore no family can afford to ignore. From time immemorial buying and selling formed an integral part of human society and the barter system of the old world changed to cash and carry during the 19th and 20th centuries after monetization in the form of coins and notes during the last two hundred years, Modern days cash purchase is disappearing in many countries and credit and debit cards rule the roost. Imagine how cumbersome was the shopping experience in the olden days, compared to what we see to day with an array of super markets and Malls ready to cater to every whim and fancy of the consumer, at least in a few developed countries. The retail space in India is more or less monopolized by the so called unorganized sector shops, estimated to be about 14 million in number, though this figure will have to be taken with a pinch of salt but it is true that they are omnipotent in India in every nook and corner.

With the advent of the policy of encouraging foreign investment in the retail sector Government of India dramatically liberalized its FDI policies a couple of years ago but the response from international giants in this field has been at best lukewarm. Probably the wide spread presence of bit players, with average vending area of just 100 s.ft, in huge number and some of the pre-conditions stipulated for FDI, very few outsiders seem to have sufficient courage to invest in this sector. The domestic retailers in the organized sector with a vending area of over 500 s.ft and registered with sales tax, income tax and regulatory authorities who ventured into this sector more than a decade ago smelling big money are all struggling now, not able to displace the traditional shopping outlets to any significant extent. Not even 5% of the $ 520 billion retail market is in the hands of these large retailers with franchising and chain stores, most of them not able to come out of the red till now. More over their presence is restricted to large metros and small towns with practically no penetration into rural areas. Some how the retail industry appears to be forgetting the reality in India where there are more than 5.5 lakh villages and about 70% of the population eking out a living in these areas. Probably they must have realized the potential logistical nightmare in extending their operations to the rural hinterlands.

Why is that in spite of all the statistics doled out on the retailing potential in the country, organized retailing has not been able to get any significant toehold in this business? There are many reasons, most important one being the gross inefficiency in management of large sized stores as a consequence of which repeat buyers are reluctant to patronize them. Added to this more than two thirds of the buyers/shoppers are teen agers and youngsters with an impatient mind, having no time to waste in a supermarket which does not measure up to their expectations and aspirations. 91 % of them own at least one smart phone with which they can make fast purchases through on-line e-commerce portals. There are one million retailers now shopping on-line through various portals and they seem to be clients shifting their loyalty from super markets to e-commerce sellers. It is amazing that in cities like Bangalore e-traders are collecting orders on-line even for perishable goods like fresh fruits, vegetables, eggs etc and delivering the orders at the door step of the customers within a matter of few hours! Who will prefer going to the supermarkets as they function now with no accountability and sensitivity to consumer's woes when they visit their outlets.

What can these unfortunate investors do to expand their market reach and get out of the present "rut". Many things, most of them being simple and common sensical. These include better designed aisles, posting of aisle attendants to help to assist the consumer, adequate aisle width that will ensure a "collision-free" walk, convenient ferrying carts that move without wobbling, child carrying provisions in the shopping carts, special arrangements for physically challenged category of buyers, adequate toilet facilities, avoiding in-house maintenance and restocking periods to clash with the prescribed shopping times, scientific display arrangements, price tagging without any confusion, multiple billing counters, avoiding "guided buying" tendency where only a particular brand is displayed giving no option to the buyers, avoiding stocking only jumbo packs to the exclusion of small sized packs, product return policy for unsatisfied customers to return the product within a specified period and ultimately making the shopping experience a hassle free and pleasant one. 

Deployment of untrained personnel, cluttered atmosphere, over crowded billing counters, undue delay at the cash counters, unresponsive shopping assistants, suspicious viewing of the customers, absence of separate dedicated billing counters for senior citizens and small buyers with a few items purchased and above all the unhealthy environment of the shopping place are order of the day as far as most supermarkets are concerned. Loyalty programs where ever exist are not at all customer friendly. Discounts offered on many products from time to time are not of a magnitude that will attract consumers to their outlets like a magnet. Many super markets selling fresh fruits and vegetables force the customers to stand in separate queues to weigh and affix price tags and often bulk buyers crowd around such counters giving little respite to regular buyers. Those supermarkets without integration of their operations with farms where fresh produce are raised will not be able to survive for long because of quality problems. 

Under the Indian conditions it is not going to be easy for large buyers to establish as viable players unless some of the drawbacks and inadequacies as cataloged above are addressed with some seriousness. When a consumer walks into a supermarket his biggest expectation is that the materials sold are of superior quality compared to that offered by others. Then comes his desire to get his requirements at a price he considers reasonable. Supermarkets will have to offer attractive discounts to attract repeat buyers. They have a big advantage in that the ambiance, vast strolling space and wide range of products they can offer are some thing their competitors viz the small traders can never counter!  In contrast the legendary "mom and pop" stores have the singular strength in the form of "personalized" service which contributes to establishing some sort of  "kinship" between them. Considering all these imponderable factors, only very efficient super markets can survive in India.


Thursday, March 19, 2015

What is "healthy food environment'?-Can a public policy create it?

Remember how our thinking about smoking changed over the last fifty years? What was unimaginable then, namely banning smoking in public places, is now a reality in almost all countries across the world. Why did this happen at all? Because of the overwhelming evidence that tobacco is too dangerous to the people and the society as a whole, and a collective approach was needed to curb the smoking practice with a punitive regime that would push more and more people out of the vicious circle of smokers. Warning on the cigarette packs, high taxation on tobacco products and banning of smoking in public can be considered as restriction on the personal freedom, yet we did it and the result is there for all to see. It is not that tobacco has vanished from the face of this planet as such a thing can never happen when more than 7 billion people are living in this world with at least a few who can be considered incorrigible to follow the societal values. We can see this in alcoholism and psychotropic drug addiction with some not amenable to reforming them selves easily. Can food be the next mass action issue and the world has to unite to bring sanity among the people vis-a-vis addiction to unhealthy foods?

It is not that world is not doing any thing in this regard as every country is concerned about the adverse impact of "bad" foods on the health of its citizens and to a limited extent preventive policies are put in place to curb consumption of bad foods. Unfortunately different people have different notions when it comes to defining a bad food though every one agrees to the need to safeguard the safety of foods from fraudsters and uncaring food handlers and processors. But unsafe food is not the only bad food though such foods bring about damage to health and life quickly. There are thousands of food products manufactured and marketed by the food industry which harm the health slowly over a long period of time and they are also bad foods to be restrained from reaching the vulnerable consumer. Here is where class action is needed with contributions from the government, activists, legal fraternity, consumer groups, public bodies etc through concerted effort and coordinated programs. 

There appears to be some movement by the legal fraternity in the US to sue the food industry collectively for the cumulative damage wrought on the citizens there through manufacture and marketing of health damaging foods over the last several decades. This reminds us about similar action taken in suing the tobacco industry some years ago through American judicial system with a huge success and it is history that the tobacco industry had to shell out billions of dollars as reparation for its failure to foresee the adverse consequences of suppressing evidence about the dangers of smoking and luring innocent citizens into the dangerous practice of smoking! Similar legal challenge against the food industry cannot be ruled out in that country and if the industry continues to indulge in shenanigans without caring for the well being of its constituency, viz the citizens who provide them with their "bread and butter", a day may not be too far away when they will be forced to face the ignominy that literally "killed" the tobacco industry in the last millennium!  

Without waiting for any move to punish the industry can there be any other alternate options to the consumer community and the policy administrators to do some thing to reverse the present trend of increasing consumption of bad foods and consequently the rapidly hurtling of the country into the abysmal health trap with no hope of redemption? It is in this context that we have to appreciate new initiatives sprouting in many local communities and civic administrations in the form of encouragement to local foods, grading of foods on a uniform health scale and trying to create a healthy food "environment" that will help the much harried consumers to pick and choose foods which are least detrimental to his health. The present labeling system will have to give way to more efficient declarations in terms of nutrition and health. The traffic light system of labeling comes to our mind which has been implemented in some countries which helps "innocent" consumers in avoiding products with "red" light indication and going in for more and more "green" light labels. The healthy food environment movement which originated in Canada which aims to change the community environment and societal attitudes, deserves admiration because of the soundness of its concept and ease with which such environment can be created in public places.

To understand this concept better we have to look at out present food environment and observe how the consumers are behaving when selecting their foods. If we have an environment where only 100% junk foods are available on the table, even the best intentioned consumer will have to eat unhealthy foods only as there is no other alternate option to him. Even if a small sprinkling of healthy foods are included on the table, only iron-willed consumer will go straight to these foods, vast majority rushing to take tastiest foods but unhealthy in nature! Therefore reversing the situation by changing the menu to include predominantly healthy foods and just a few items of unhealthy items, may help many consumers to pick the healthy ones, creating a chain effect and in due course such food service settings will become a "done" thing in many public functions. 

According to the Canadian pioneers of this new strategy to lure away consumes from the clutches of unhealthy foods, an optimum mix of foods for creating a healthy food environment could be to include in the mix of foods offered about 50% high nutrition products, 40% moderately nutritive foods and about 10% junk foods so that no one can complain that one is forced to eat foods not liked by him. This presupposes that foods are graded according to the nutritive value and those who arrange foods are aware of the system. It is here that those in the community with some expertise in food and nutrition can help the organizers to choose the items on the menu as per their health promoting values. As a thumb rule foods made from whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, poultry meat and fish with no added sugar, salt and saturated fats can be considered healthy while those made with partially refined raw materials but containing high nutrition components like dairy ingredients, high fiber food components and nutrient rich materials like fruits and vegetables can be considered as moderately healthy foods. Junk foods are just empty calorie rich items containing low levels of health boosting nutrients like proteins, vitamins and minerals, mostly rich in sugar and fat.

Can this approach be tried first in the canteens of state assembly complexes and Lok Sabha buildings, to be progressively introduced in all canteens working in various ministries in the states as well in the center. Railways can be another organization which can try this approach though there could be resistance from many passengers. But with a little bit of patience and perseverance, there is no reason why it would not be a success eventually. Further spread of this concept among thousands of bus stations across the country and temples with large foot prints should also be possible. Future licensing of restaurants must be linked to compulsory inclusion of healthy foods in the menu at least to the extent of 50% of the menu! If even a part of this ambitious program is implemented, the present government in Delhi might become the darling of the nation, remembered by the young generation which will be the long term beneficiary of this visionary attempt.


Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Changing face of Indian agriculture-Mechanization vs manual operations

How often we hear the bland statement that rural India is responsible for feeding a population estimated at 1.20 billion in India and 70% of India's population is engaged in agricultural and other rural based activities, being the residents of more than 5 lakh villages across the country. However what is not clear is whether so many people are really needed to produce the quantum of foods being harvested year in and year out? There was this situation during the early stage of growth of this country when the technological base of agriculture, especially use of mechanical implements was indeed very weak, with most operations in the field being carried by the labor available locally. Over the years India's technological base has expanded and there is indigenous manufacture of many mechanical implements liker tractors which can fill the places of many manual workers with much more efficiency and it is no wonder that many well to do farmers are shifting to mechanized cultivation at least partially in many parts of the country, especially in Punjab and Haryana. Probably part of the productivity achieved during the last few years can be attributed to this factor. If this is so one wonders what ever has happened to the displaced labor caused by such mechanization trend? 

There is a strong feeling that the frenetic pace at which migration of rural population into urban areas must have some thing to do with declining opportunities for gainful employment in the farmlands in the country because of perceptible transition from predominantly labor oriented operations to a machine based production regime seen all over the country, though it is more in some states and less in some others. One of the amazing phenomena associated with this transition is that it flies contrary to the theory that small land holdings that characterize the land holding pattern in the country does not lend itself to mechanized farming unlike that existing in western countries where farm sizes can be 1000 acres and above in most cases. Look at the land holding pattern in India which brings out the stark reality about the predominance of marginal farmers in the agricultural landscape of the country. Almost 63% of the landholders have, on an average holding size of less than an acre of land to till while about 19% are relatively better placed by farming on a piece of land about the size of 3 acres per family. On the other end of the spectrum, 1% of the farming population own on an average 35 acres of land.per person. Others fall in between with average size holding in the range of 5 acres to 35 acres. The million dollar question that begs for an answer is how far such a landscape is amenable to mechanized farming? 

No doubt Indian agriculture is going through a transformation with governments, both at the state and central levels pumping in enormous money for sustaining the livelihood of the farmers, especially the so called marginal farmers. Minimum Support Prices offered to more than two dozen commodities and many farmer welfare programs are able to provide sustenance to millions of farmers. But at the same time more farmer suicides are taking place with a monotonous regularity defying any logical explanation. Billions of rupees worth of loans are being written off every year with politicians competing with each other in announcing such write offs! If India can boast of food grain stocks that is capable of ensuring food security we have to thank our hard working farmers who toil under adverse conditions like frequent droughts and floods. But can this situation continue indefinitely and will the farmers continue to stick to their land if agricultural activity becomes a perennially losing avocation? Land fragmentation in India is inevitable under a government regime where inherited land holdings by successive generations get shrunken in size and obviously becoming more and more non-viable. These inherited land pieces are not easily salable due to severe restrictive policies of the state governments with financially capable entrepreneurs barred from buying agricultural land. A classical Catch 22 situation!   

A recent report by one of the agencies under Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) provides interesting information regarding the changing agricultural scenario in the country. According to this report, Indian farmers, in spite of enormous hurdles and limitations are increasingly using more and more power based mechanical devices replacing the human element to manage their lands. India is known for its bullock driven economy till a couple of decades ago with agriculture contributing substantially to the national GDP and man and the beast combination successfully brought about the green revolution in the last millennium achieving the much desired food self sufficiency. Even to day many agricultural and social experts are not willing to write off the poor oxen which was an integral part of the rural settings across the country. A 1000 animal village with 60% milking cows and the rest dry cows and oxen is being propagated by the government of India for the integrated development of a village which can sell its milk for generating income while the byproducts from the animals like cow dung can produce cooking gas as well as manure for the farms belonging to the villagers. How far such novel schemes will succeed in an era when people are exposed to the convenience inherent in mechanical implements based agriculture remains to be seen.    

If ICAR findings are to be believed, Indian agriculture is going through a far reaching change mode beginning two decades ago. The share of human power available for carrying out the various operations in farming seems to have come down to less than 5% while draught animals' share also hovers around another 5%. More than 90% of the power is estimated to be drawn from mechanical sources like tractors and power tillers ( 47%); electric motors (27%) and diesel engines (16%). Compare this with the situation obtaining 40 years ago when 60% of the power was provided by humans and animals - 15% by farm workers and 45% by animals. These estimates are based on an average value of power that a human or a draught animal or any of the machines generate per unit of land. An average human being notionally capable of yielding about 0.15 kilowatt power per hectare of land worked while a tractor can give 30.21kW. .

It is true that overall farm mechanization in India has just reached about 40% which may be a low figure when compared to 95% levels prevalent in many developed countries. Thus 40% of farm operations for major crops are done by mechanical power sources and 60% is still being done by non- power sources like humans and bullocks.which generate only 10% of the total power available in farming. Naturally such over dependence on non-power sources has its own limitations in terms of efficiency. To day tractors are used mainly for initial land preparation by most farmers.while many use mechanical means for threshing and irrigation. Free supply of power for pump sets has helped those farmers having more than two acres of land while marginal farmers are denied this vital input free. Core operations like transplanting, weeding, fertilizer use etc are still done by farm workers. The small size of land holdings does not permit use of power driven tools for these operations. The use of power tillers and other farm machinery is facilitated by their easy availability on rental basis for a cluster of villages. 

Many social experts feel that such rapid mechanization trend can create a human problem because machines are bound to displace humans in the farm hinterlands of the country resulting in huge unemployment and under employment. However the national statistical figures available most recently tell a different story. According to the figures from the government there were 111 million cultivators and 75 million agricultural labourers in 1991 working to about 185 million people directly engaged in farming activities. Look at the latest figures and what a change has come about defying any rational explanation. As per the 2011 census there were 119 million cultivators and a whopping 144 million agricultural labourers, making a total of 263 million people working on land. If population increase during this period  is factored, as against a population increased of 43% during the last twenty years, the number of landless agricultural laborers registered an astonishing increase of 93%. The primary reason for this is that there is nowhere else where this army of under-employed people can find work, forcing them to crowd into agriculture or related rural work. It also pushes up migration to cities in search of jobs. 

The MNREGA, a novel initiative from the government to provide sustenance to persons not finding income generating activities, especially during the non-agricultural season in many rural areas has definitely helped to alleviate the situation to some extent. According to some estimates government had spent over 2 lakh crore rupees between 2007 and 2014 on this much touted welfare scheme though there is nothing much to show vis-a-vis permanent assets created, as per the original intention of the planners. Another paradox that is glaring is that there are not many takers for jobs offered under MNREGA with more than half the allocation remaining unspent for want of demand! Probably this program may have to be revisited for bringing about appropriate changes immediately to serve the purpose and create assets in the area of operation. 

If there are 144 million landless agricultural laborers hanging around the villages, largely under employed, what is the government going to do to prevent such a colossal waste of human resources year after year which is bound to go up if the present trend of agricultural mechanization continues at the current pace?  As there does not appear to be any clear policy orchestration still, are we going to see more and more people in the rural areas being pushed to poverty due to this?  In the light of the big push being given to the "Make in India" policy of the new government in the coming years, why not create massive industrial townships with adequate infrastructure for skill development in many rural areas with supporting family care facilities so that the vast population of under employed people, wasting most of their time, are absorbed by the industry on a regular basis? After all per in acre employment, agriculture cannot compete with industry and boosting manufacturing sector can be a sure way of utilizing the otherwise wasted man power. Reports from China indicate that large scale shifting of rural population to specially built smart towns and transferring the land to giant American agricultural companies with most modern technology and deep pockets are being attempted to expand the food production to meet future needs of a burgeoning population. This is not to suggest that we must ape China but the idea of rehabilitating rural population through such novel out of the box thinking is necessary to save the country from a potential melt down in our rural hinterlands causing turmoil all around.


Thursday, March 12, 2015

Calorie is not a calorie! How can that be?

It is universally admitted that too much sugar consumption can be harmful to health, especially in the long term but today's obsession with sugar gives a new twist to the controversy with people taking extreme positions to justify their views, without giving a chance to moderates for stating a balanced view. It is a famous idiom that "consumption of any thing in excess can become a poison, even if it is an elixir" and it applies to all foods, whether sugar rich, protein rich, carbohydrate rich or salt rich. Giving a new twist to the sugar controversy, in a recent publication an expert food professional has propounded a theory that "calorie in not a calorie" to highlight his view that calories derived from different foods can have varying effects on human body and cannot be expected to be equal in its impact on body. Can it be true? Let us examine.

According to this pundit, certain calories cause disease more than others. "Eat less, exercise more.' has been the gospel truth for reducing weight during the last 3-4 decades. Recall the history of American citizen's journey through the times during the last forty years and it does not require a brilliant brain to see that the policy makers have been consistently barking at the wrong tree attempting to improve the health of the citizens. First there was this euphoria about their supposed discovery that too much fat contributes to undesirable weight gain and distortion of the body. The industry willingly got into this band wagon turning out hundreds of products with low fat or no fat and interestingly the consumers trusted that these foods are good for their health. Imagine trillions of dollars raked in by the industry during the last 30-40 years exploiting the under current of fear among the consumers regarding the danger of becoming too fat! Then carbohydrate became the villain of peace and the industry grabbed this opportunity to promote low carb foods which were supposed to prevent weight gain. But no one bothered to check whether all carbohydrates are equally bad.

It is now that many pundits are opening their eyes and there is almost a near unanimity that natural foods as they are, cannot do any harm if consumed in moderate quantities. If any single player is to be blamed for to day's unenviable health situation mankind has boxed itself in, it is the food processing industry which for its own reasons created unhealthy foods through more and refining techniques, losing in the process vital nutrient components like dietary fiber, vitamins, minerals and many health protecting phytochemicals. In creating such a "Frankenstein", no doubt the food scientists, technologists and engineers aided the industry in developing processes and machinery that literally 'kill" the food and make it almost "toxic", to say the least! Testing the food for its nutritional value and health credentials cannot be done in isolated laboratories and values like PER, Digestibility, BV, etc can be only a rough guide for understanding the general characteristics of a food. These values for the same food can vary enormously among individuals and such variations according to ethnicity, region, environment, genetic history and many other variables can make significant difference in assessing foods and their health value. 

Coming back to sugar, the view that calorie derived by the body from white sugar is much more dangerous than that obtained from complex carbohydrates through its metabolic system, has some rationale behind it. The terrible obesity epidemic that confronts the US is not abating inspite of cutting down on fat, increasing exercise regimen and other recommended methods and in fact obesity rate seems to be increasing unabated. How an one explain a new born baby coming out as an obese one though it had neither the access to the so called bad foods or wherewithal to exercise while in its mother's womb? Naturally it pays for the sins of its mother who is obese herself! One of the most startling discoveries in recent years has been that sugar is an addictive substance and the human brain considers it as an addictive creating more and more cravings for the same like tobacco and alcohol products. Consumption of sugar products thus creates a vicious cycle of more and more eating whether the body needs it or not leading to uncontrolled weight gain.

The industry sensing an opportunity to rake in more money, knowingly or unknowingly, strains every nerve to develop more and more products containing more and more sugar and as the organoleptic qualities of these products are such that it is humanly impossible to resist consuming them as frequently as possible. For the last few years policy makers in many countries have realized the dangers of sugar, especially the added ones by the manufacturers, and have been advising the industry to cut down on added sugar to protect the health of the consumer. Unfortunately the action taken by the industry cannot be termed as responsible with many of its members continuing to indulge in sweetening their products excessively under the excuse that reducing sugar would affect the eating quality of these foods and of course their business too!. They use camouflaged terms like cane juice concentrate, brown rice syrup, fruit puree, corn syrup, high fructose syrup and many others to mislead the consumers about the presence of sugar in their products. Voluntary action can be effective only when all manufacturers collectively agree for a certain line of action which is not happening now. Probably mandatory restraint may have to be put in place to arrest this dangerous trend at national as well as international levels.

According to American Heart Association recommendations maximum levels of added sugar should not be above 24 g or 6 teaspoons per day for a woman, 36 g or 9 teaspoons a day for a man, 20-32 g or 6-8 teaspoons a day for children of 9 years and older and 12 g or 3 teaspoons for children between ages 4 and 8 years. If this is accepted imagine how much sugar is consumed through processed foods which are available in the market from a single serving?. For example yogurt is one of the most nutritious foods having very high probiotic properties and young children can considerably boost their immunity functions by consuming 1-2 cups of the same daily. But what did the industry do to this healthy product? Sugar, flavor and a host adjuncts have been added to create texture, color and texture of the product with the result that a single serving will supply about 7-15 g of sugar to a kid of 5 years old that is almost the entire day's recommended maximum! This kid will be ingesting more sugar through out the day when other food products like chocolates, biscuits, soft drinks, ice creams, pastry products etc and it is no wonder that such kids are right candidates for recruitment to the "obesity brigade" before reaching adulthood!   

Sugar's impact on the body is by now well recognized. It is known to alter the body's hormones and stimulate the need to consume more food. As with some recreational drugs, sugar spikes dopamine, a neurotransmitter that controls the brain's reward and pleasure centers and more demand is made, unconsciously, by the body to have more sugar with satiety not realized. Naturally one needs to consume more to get the same sugar high.every day. Sugar consumption, like alcoholism, is considered to be contributing to development of fatty liver, which in turn can cause liver failure, cirrhosis and ultimately liver cancer. At least this is the hypothesis that is being put forward by many health experts though clear cut scientific proof is yet to emerge. Nonetheless it is a possible risk and a warning that sugar must be avoided or restricted to the minimum. Body's energy needs can easily be met from other foods like food grains, plant oils and proteins which constitute the every day diet. Our palate enjoys sweet sensation and therefore this drives our desire to have more sweetened products to get the pleasure they provide in the oral cavity. Unless this urge is resisted with all the will power we have, sugar will continue to dominate our life leading us to our own extinction!  


Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Malnourished and under nourished children in India-A reality check

Food, health and life are intricately interlinked and unless there is a balance and moderation in food intake, health is bound to be seriously affected adversely. An oft repeated question is whether the world to day is a better place to live compared to that which existed 5-6 decades ago? If the yardstick for measuring the quality of life is the health, definitely it is much worse than before. There is terrible inequality in accessing available food across the population with opulent countries enjoying a surplus of foods which are very often wasted ignoring the pitiable living conditions of millions of people spanning the three continents Asia, South America and Africa. The two aspects of food which are important to be kept in mind are quality and quantity. In many developed countries quantity of food available, if taken on an average, is more than sufficient to meet the calorie needs of their population. What is sorely missing is the quality of food consumed by them which leaves very much to be desired. Look at the health status of people in the US where more than half the population is over weight while almost one third is afflicted by obesity epidemic. This raises the inevitable question as to what constitutes a good diet and what happens if the diet is not based on factors that influence maintaining of good health.

As a thumb rule,human beings generally need about 2000 kCal, 50 g of proteins, 50 g of fat, 25 g of dietary fiber, 8 essential amino acids and two essential fatty acids which human body cannot make and vitamins and minerals. Water, though not considered a nutrient is also essential corresponding to an intake of 1 ml per calorie ingested. This is supposed to be a golden guideline for preventing development of many health disorders in life and can be easily met by judicial combination of natural food ingredients like cereals, pulses, milk, nuts, fruits, vegetables with or without animal based foods like meat, egg and fish. If the above assumption is correct why is that Americans eating rich foods including an abundance of highly nutritious animal based products still suffer from many diseases to day? Answer to this lies in the fact that the cereals they consume are highly refined devoid of practically all natural nutrients, most calories coming from highly refined white sugar or HFCS, heavy consumption of fat rich foods such as fried ones, baked goods etc and eating too much animal products. It is only recently that a scientific study in the US brought out the startling truth that eating even a small amount of whole grains about 33 g a day can reduce the chance of premature death very significantly! 

What about situation that is obtaining in India? Here again there are sufficient foods available in the country to meet the needs of every citizen but the access to these foods is constrained by economic factors. For many poor people constituting almost 40% of the country's population high quality foods like milk, pulses, egg and meat in sufficient quantities are beyond their reach. This problem is all the more intractable in the rural hinterlands of the country where most poor people live eking out a dreary existence. The highly unpredictable agricultural situation and lack of opportunities for engaging in income generation avocations make matter worse! The much touted Food Security Act does promise almost 1000 kCal of food in the form of very low priced cereals like rice and wheat, while other needs like proteins, fat and some of the essential nutrients are ignored in the scheme of things. All government programs designed so far and being implemented are just to keep hunger away among the poor people but do not bother about the quality of the food distributed under the social responsibility umbrella. 

The most recent circus government is doing under the FSA is giving away rice at Re 1 per kg and wheat at Rs 2 per kg for almost two thirds of the country's population whether all of them really deserve them or not based on economic criteria. The existing school feeding programs are also heavily loaded in favor of cereals. There are supposed to be about 7 lakh kitchens staffed by 26 lack cooks cum helpers serving about 11 crore children in thousands of schools across the country, probably the largest socially oriented scheme any where in the world. This is no doubt a tremendous feat worth appreciating and admiring. Unfortunately these numbers hide more than what they reveal. The program claims to provides about 300 kCal of energy and 16 g of protein for every kid though no one knows how far this target is fulfilled by cooking foods in these school kitchens out of cereals supplied by the government. Providing calories and proteins once a day may be theoretically adequate partially as far as nutrition is concerned but does it fill the tummy of the child who comes to the school hungry? Hardly! Many kids are reported to be coming to the school with empty stomach and wait eagerly till lunch time to get their share of meals cooked at the school. If this is so can the children be expected to concentrate on the lessons taught in the class rooms?

Some pundits have suggested that government should consider providing break fast also to the school kids besides the midday meals   May be a good suggestion but where is the end for such freebies , especially in a country like India not considered to be very rich to squander its resources? A honest citizen often wonders what is the role of the government in welfare of a citizen? A family which spawns a child has no responsibility to look after it and see through its adulthood and further till it can stand on its own legs? Look at India to day where there are government freebies for practically every thing from conception till the end whether they deserve them or not! If government has to give free medical service, child care service, educational service, housing service, subsidized transportation, special allowances for female children, heavily subsidized food grains, pension for old age population and widows, write off loans taken from government banks, provide subsidized fertilizers to farmers whether rich or poor and many other hidden economic help, what is the role of the parents? In this case if breakfast and lunch are provided at school, what else parents have to do? How can a child consider his parent as his own if they are not providing him with food at home? After all government is even giving jobs under NREGA for at least 100 days that puts about Rs 15000 in the hands of many laborers who declare that they do not have any other income.With Rice and Wheat being made available at Rs 1-2 per kg where is the problem in feeding the children at home? If low response to the NREGA scheme as reported in Karnataka is really true, poor people might be hard to find who are enamored by the Rs 15000 that can be earned by working for 100 days! May be there are a few genuine cases with extremely low income who must be identified  as targets for such freebie schemes.             

Many NGOs and international bodies are lamenting that 1 out of 3 children in India is malnourished and world's largest malnourished children live in India. It may sound shocking that 50% of childhood mortality is attributed to malnutrition and under nourishment. Similarly another stock claim is that 46% of children below 3 years of age in India have low Body Mass Index (BMI) which is supposed to be a manifestation of undernourishment and malnutrition. They further aver that inadequate food in quantity and nutritional quality during pregnancy, lactation and after birth are responsible for this sordid situation. One of the critical deficiencies being focused is essential fatty acids (EFA) like Omega-6 and Omega-3 fatty acids which are necessary for proper development of brain, eyes and preempting onset of diseases like CVD, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, Alzheimer's, dementia and others during growth later. Plant foods are not considered excellent sources of these essential fatty acids and well to do population derive them from fish and marine food sources. But two plant sources Soybean and Sunflower seeds can be significant sources of EFA , both Omega-6 and Omega-3 and all the programs presently running under the food service schemes must consider including one or more of these oil seeds in the meal recipes being followed.  

Monday, March 2, 2015

Obsession with "freshness" in foods-Unjustified loss of foods is the result!

Is it not strange that a vast majority of consumers will go to any extent to access to the so called "fresh foods"? What do they get by relentlessly pursuing the "fresh" mantra, some times paying prices much higher than that for processed foods? Can it be an obsession that is passed on from generation to generation because of the low population in olden days, lack of processing technologies and plenty of foods available within easy reach ensuring easy availability of ever fresh foods? Or this is nothing but the eating disorder fancifully known as "Orthorexia nervosa" when people over obsessed with pure food lose interest in eating altogether? Other wise how can we explain the obsession of many people with freshly obtained milk from the cow or buffalo, to be milked right in front of them at the farm, ignoring ready availability of dairy milk nearby? This is all the more puzzling because this fresh milk is brought home to be boiled for a long time before use! Same is true with fruits, vegetables and lot of other foods. This syndrome is visible while buying packed foods also with consumers looking closely at the manufacturing date before buying, ignoring those with older manufacturing date! 

Most interesting is the case of vegetables and it is a usual sight to see house wives buying the same from road side vendors believing they are fresh and taking home to promptly over cook them destroying its texture and flavor. After all when these vegetables are used to make dishes the major taste and flavor come from the spices and other adjuncts used rather than that of the vegetables used! Probably people are not aware that to day's technological prowess enables food industry to deliver fruits and vegetables in prime conditions as they resort to cold storage, cold display, controlled atmosphere packs etc and super market can supply fresh produce which can be much superior to that offered by the road side vendor. Usually vegetable vendors get their supplies from the local Mandis where farmers bring them without any preharvest and post harvest precautions, leaving them wilted and "exhausted"! Why is that frozen food industry in India is not able to prosper during the last 2 decades? Frozen food industry is more or less confined to ice cream products with a few ready to "heat and eat" products and the frozen food space occupied in a typical market is practically insignificant compared to the space occupied by main stream products. This industry is paying the price for Indian consumers' obsession with fresh foods or despising of "old" foods!   

The density of refrigerators in the Indian households is fairly high and some of the brands of refrigerators available in the market can rival any foreign markets across the world. Still there are innumerable families not using them for keeping the foods overnight for consumption next day if they can afford. With microwave ovens also gaining foothold in India, habits are changing and many nuclear families do store foods for use later in conjunction with microwave heating. Some of the Indian foods like cooked rice and preparations based on rice are not amenable to storage beyond a certain time and such stored products are difficult to be made tasty " again" in spite of microwave heating. Same is true with wheat based products like roti, bread, uppuma, semia etc. It is a question of compromising a little bit vis-a-vis the eating quality of recooked cold stored foods which the younger generation is learning to live with. Does it portend a change in perception over the next few years? If so the food industry can look forward to better days.

The preference for or obsession with fresh foods, whatever one may call it, is not unique to Indians. According to a recent report emanating from the Gulf countries, it seems tens of thousands of liters of milk, and huge volumes of bread and other perishable food products are being thrown away in countries like Abu Dhabi and Dubai every day because of consumers' attitude towards foods which are not fresh according to their perception. .A large number of people in the UAE are so obsessed about freshness of food that they refuse to buy products dated a day or two before the date of purchase, albeit the products being safe to consume and being well within the shelf life. Out of about 8 lakh liters of milk marketed in UAE every day about 16-32 thousand liters are reported to be wasted because of the tendency on the part of the buyers, probably most of them Indian immigrants, to reject the products processed earlier, with 2-3 days still remaining for expiration. These consumers, who hardly know the implication of their attitude, are paving the way for good food products going waste running to millions of dollars in value. It is least realized by the consumers that In the long run, this can also boomerang on them with hike in prices for the wasted categories of food products becoming a reality. Imagine thousands of liters of precious milk of good quality being dumped in the drains every day in these countries because of consumer weariness in accepting the reality that freshness need not always be associated with quality and good health!