Monday, February 29, 2016

The great dilemma that is agriculture! Balancing between production and pollution

"Food insecurity" is a subject talked about very often because of two critical factors-population explosion and progressive reduction of food crop yield attributed by many to the global warming phenomenon. During the last 10 years frequent droughts and floods in different parts of the world have adversely affected agricultural out put significantly. Though technologies are continuously being developed and deployed to achieve increased yields, farmers in most undeveloped, under developed and developing countries still remain impoverished due to economic factors. In a country like India farmers are choosing the route of suicide to get them relieved from the unbearable burden of life. Recent climate talks COP21 (Conference of Parties to the 1997 Kyoto protocol ) that took place in Paris in November 2015 were concerned more with global warming due to uncontrolled green house gas emissions by all countries irrespective of their economic status a small but significant step was taken to bring focus on the food security in the world in the coming years and a realization seems to be dawning on wise people that climate change is intimately linked to food production and unless it is tackled there is no hope for survival of the human race. The ambitious target of reducing global warming and restricting global warming by not more than 2C by achieving zero net anthropogenic green house gas emissions by the second half of this century. was a bold decision. These decisions are to be given legal frame work of agreement between April 2016 and April 2017 in New York aas per the Paris agreement. Some of the decisions arrived at the Paris conference can have far reaching implications for all the countries though a mute question still remains as to how far actionable steps will be taken in the coming years. . 

It's become a catch-22 of our times: the global food system is both a villain and a victim of climate change. Agriculture accounts for almost a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, and yet floods, drought, and the planet's increasing climatic variability play with the fate of our food. Continuing on the current climate trajectory will mean a future of profound food insecurity, especially for developing nations.
This week, these concerns have been prominent on the agenda at the COP21 climate talks in Paris. For the first time at a COP conference, agriculture had its own dedicated focus-day, held on Tuesday by the Lima-Paris Action Agenda (LPAA), a partnership established between France and Peru to showcase and strengthen on-the-ground climate action in 2015 and beyond. "For years, agriculture, food systems, including oceans, including forests, have been knocking hard at the door—and now there's movement starting," said David Nabarro, former special representative of food security and nutrition for the United Nations, at the LPAA agriculture press briefing on Tuesday afternoon.
That door should have been yanked open a long time ago, considering that our food systems are due to bear so much of the brunt of climate change. But there are strong signs of progress. The world needs creative solutions if we are to reduce agricultural impact and feed everyone on the planet (an estimated nine billion by 2050)—and some of the best have recently been aired at the talks.
Here are three that caught my eye: each places our global food system squarely on the climate table.

The first step in prioritising food systems is to confront what will happen if we don't. On Tuesday at COP21 the World Food Program and the U.K.'s Met Office Hadley Centre launched a new, interactive mapping tool that predicts, in unprecedented detail, how future climate scenarios could influence food security, especially in the world's developing nations. Based on five years of meteorological and agricultural research, the Food Insecurity and Climate Change Vulnerability Map shows how food security could change at the individual country level, either worsening or improving depending on three variables that users can tweak on the map: time scale (you can choose between the present day, 2050s, 2080s), emissions (low, medium, high), and adaptation (high, low, none).
As a starting point, the map could help countries forecast their food security risk and inform their planning, says Richard Choularton, chief of climate and disaster risk reduction at the World Food Programme. "The results of the analysis can provide some insight into vulnerability at the national level, when the specific factors behind the index are unpacked." For example, in one country road access might emerge as the main limit on food security, in another it might be the variability of rainfall. The map also shows what can be achieved if reduced emissions are paired with increased adaptive measures—like climate-smart agriculture—to make food systems more secure. "What's most important, especially in the context of Paris, is that mitigation or adaption alone is not enough," Choularton says. "We need a very serious combination of both."
The planet's soils naturally hold vast quantities of carbon—two to three times more carbon than the air. Releasing it through unsuitable, soil-degrading agricultural techniques will contribute to climate change and also reduce soil health—but, if we keep more carbon locked in the soil, it has the power to both mitigate climate change and increase agricultural productivity. On Tuesday as part of the Lima-Paris Action Agenda, hundreds of partners joined to launch '4/1000', an initiative designed to increase the storage of carbon in the earth: "If we were to increase the amount of carbon in the soil by just 0.4% then we would compensate entirely for the increase of carbon in the atmosphere—just to show how huge the potential is," says Frank Rijsberman, CEO of the CGIAR Consortium of International Agricultural Centers, one of the partners contributing to the initiative. As part of 4/1000 the CGIAR itself is proposing a $225 million project that aims to increase carbon storage by promoting better farming techniques in developing world agriculture. Methods like agroforestry and reduced soil tillage could keep carbon enclosed in the soil, leading to a 20 percent boost in yields, and in theory offsetting greenhouse gas emissions by 15 percent. The benefits will be three-pronged, says Rijsberman: "We will mitigate greenhouse gas emissions; adapt agriculture to climate change and thus improve food security; and improve ecosystem functioning."
An estimated 1.3 billion tons of food is lost and wasted annually between farm and fork, producing 3.3 Gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent each year. On Tuesday at COP21, the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and the International Food Policy Research Institute announced that to counter it, they'relaunching a new platform that will encourage G20 member countries, the private sector, and NGOs to pool their resources toward the goal of fighting food waste. Today, that new forum—called the G20 Technical Platform on the Measurement and Reduction of Food Loss and Waste—goes live. The platform is designed to "provide up to date information on policy, strategy and actions for food loss and waste reduction, and share best practices across countries—something which is badly needed," says Anthony Bennett from the Rural Infrastructure and Agro-industries Division at the FAO. G20 member countries—which include China, Brazil, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States—along with other countries, will be encouraged to use the forum to share what works for them in cutting food waste, and what doesn't. As the platform grows, it will also feature a database of low-cost, accessible technologies available to tackle this problem. The hope is that the platform will become a place where countries can unite and ultimately scale up their efforts to reduce the global impact of food waste. These are just three of the many projects worth knowing about: as part of the Lima-Paris Action Agenda, several other food-focused initiatives were launched this week, touching on everything from low-carbon beef to the sustainable management of marine food systems. 

No one should have any quarrel with the contention above that Carbon emission, carbon lock up and enormous food waste taking place around the world are the most critical areas which need to be tackled. Reckless use of fossil fuels, especially by the industrially developed countries for ensuring a luxury life style speaks of a mindset that sacrifices will have to come from poor countries in the form of mandatory reduction of carbon emission though they are on the threshold of exciting economic growth and improvements in their living conditions. Similarly the enormous food waste that is taking place in advanced countries is depriving the poor people of their food needs for survival in the continents of Asia, Africa and South America. Use of these wastes considered enormous go for landfills generating green house gases that contribute to global warming. The responsibility to arrest the catastrophic climate changes rests both with the poor as well as the rich countries of this planet and a give and take approach only can produce tangible results in the coming years.                                                 


Monday, February 22, 2016

Anti-obesity oil -Is it a new innovation or rehashing of the old Japanese technology?

It is true that obesity is assuming epidemic proportions in countries like USA where almost one third of the population is either overweight or obese. Therefore any suggestion that can help to deal with highly dangerous global situation is worth getting a close attention provided it is logical, scientific and practical. What is tragic is that there is no unanimity about the exact cause of obesity though different experts opine differently defying any consensus. While consumption of saturated fats and trans fats, carbohydrates, white sugar and high fructose corn syrup are all implicated in one way or the other with obesity, the bitter truth is that humans are themselves responsible for this scourge visiting them through reckless dietary system combined with sedentary life style. There is unanimity that putting on body weight is directly linked to an imbalance between calorie intake and calorie expenditure and if the intake is more than what is necessary, even God cannot help in preventing increased body weight!. Though the theory is so simplistic to understand and to be acted upon by the people, the desire to eat good food ( purely from taste angle) over rides the need to keep the body weight constant for an adult. In other words, the will to moderate food consumption according to one's body needs seems to be lacking in case of most consumers resulting in over consumption. One of the curious facts is that healthy foods are invariably less tastier that nutrient light junk foods with lots of calories loaded in them and naturally such foods more or less create a sort of irresistible addiction, repeatedly attracting the hapless consumer!.

Billions of dollars are being made by the so called nutraceutical industry through peddling of hundreds of products claiming the magical properties of shedding body weight though their credentials are suspect. With food safety authorities choosing to look the other way without coming to the help of the citizen through appropriate control measures, the antiobesity products industry has a roaring time with their uncanny marketing strategy to trap vulnerable people like a "spider trapping its prey in its web"! In parallel with this development, another segment of the industry peddles "exercise" machines and crash "weight shedding courses" for the benefit of overweight people minting enormous fortunes. Who can forget the "famous" (or notorious?) Atkins diet or the South Beach diet and similar weight control regime peddling companies who were able to attract millions of people, scared about the ill consequences of high BMI which can cause a plethora of diseases including diabetes, hypertension, CVD, kidney ailments etc, crippling the life style even at an early stage of life. 

Latest to get the spot light is a romatic product going by the captivating name "antiobesity oil"! Though there are some traditional oil based concoctions in the market coming mostly from China and India, the new offering by the above name got a focused attention during the recent scientists conglomeration at Mysooru in the first week of January this year. According the flamboyant innovators, the antiobesity oil they just discovered could "maintain healthy body weight", provides "clean energy"  and "is not stored" as fat in the body. This product is claimed to have been developed for the "first time" in India from sunflower seed oil and it is "one of the kind in the world"! Added to this the antiobesity oil prepared at Mysooru is safety assured unlike similar ones developed elsewhere in the world, so goes the claim. According to the innovators this product is chemically identified as diacylglycerol oil which is supposed to be edible because the only difference between an edible oil as we are used to at present and their new product is that one of the three fatty acid molecules in the triglyceride oil products has been knocked off by controlled lipolysis. If the new product can be commercially made and approved by the food safety authorities in the country it can be a speciality edible oil for use by obese people to reduce their body weight. Of course the food industry needs to be convinced that the technology is "commercially workable" and economically viable. 

Let us look at the claim that such a product has been made for the first time in the world in India. Looking back one cannot forget that in early 2000 a product called "Enova oil" was developed and marketed in Japan claiming that less of this product is stored as visceral fat in the body unlike triglycerides which are the basic chemical entities of all edible oils. This product also boasted of unsaturated fatty acids which are known to reduce undesirable LDLs and raise desirable HDLs in the blood. However this product was abruptly recalled from the market because of several safety and health issues. One of them was the formation of glycidol during deacylation of the oil, an artifact implicated as potentially carcinogenic. Besides the ratio of Omega- 6 to Omega-3 fatty acids was 10:1 in Enova oil whereas most healthy vegetable oils have this ratio 3:1. High percentage of Omega-6 acids is reported to be associated with higher blood pressure and chronic inflammation. Thus the charmed marketing run of Enova oil abruptly ended in September 2009. Though the manufacturers promised to come back with the product soon, till to date there is no sign of this product, leading one to conclude that the technological and health problems were serious enough for the company to abandon it for ever.  

Another interesting fact which did not come to surface when the benefits of diacyl glycerol were glorified by the innovators pertains to its suitability for use as a frying fat. Most Indian preparations expose them to high temperatures between 160C and 210C and many conventional oils do cause frothing and foaming if the free fatty acid content is high in them. Also the mono glycerides of fatty acids are recognized as an excellent emulsifying agent in preparations where stable water in oil emulsions are to be made and in most counties their use in small quantities as emulsifier is approved as safe. According to FAO-WHO Alimentarius Commission daily intake of 12.5 to 25 mg of monoglycerides per kg body weight is considered safe. This works out to about 0.75 to 1.5 gm intake daily through all the foods consumed by an average person weighing 70 kg. Such data on diacyl glycerol are not readily available though it is generally assumed that the lipolytic enzymes present human body may be able to dispose of the product without much harmful effect. Against such a background if the new so called anti obesity oil is really going to be made for Indian consumers, adequate safety studies and tolerance limits will have to worked out before its clearance as a cooking oil..