GM Mustard deserves the green signal

Let’s speed things up Cultivation’s been delayed too long
HIMANSHU SHARMA Let’s speed things up Cultivation’s been delayed too long

Its higher yields can be a game-changer. To allay fears, it can be commercially grown in a few areas and its effects monitored

The introduction of genetically-modified crops has invariably been mired in controversy in our country with science staying in the sidelines in the theatre of shrill noises — for and against.

The minister-inflicted moratorium on Bt brinjal seven years ago is a clear case in point. Concern about private sector control over technology was the dominant theme then.

Now that a body of scientists — the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee — under the ministry of environment has recommended commercialisation of genetically-modified (GM) mustard seed developed by a national public institution, any lingering concern over private sector dominance would be misplaced.

New Delhi must have the courage to bite the bullet and clear the introduction of technology seed for commercial use without delay. The Supreme Court too needs to lift the stay on it before growers are able to access the seed.

Transformative potential

When commercialised, if the performance of the seed comes anywhere close to the results of field trials, it has the potential to be a game-changer for the oilseeds sector.

To be sure, our country is among the world’s largest importers of edible oil. We pay a humongous price in foreign exchange of about $10 billion (₹65,000 crore) annually to import various oils aggregating to about 14 million tonnes, representing two-third of domestic consumption demand.

Our oilseed yields have been notoriously low for over three decades (just about 1,000 kg a hectare) when other major origins have made rapid strides in output per unit of land by modernising agriculture.

There is now a dire need for us to harvest more from the same piece of land and it can be done only by creating conditions that promote higher yields, improve oil content and enhance nutritional value.

Obviously, infusion of technology in agriculture is now becoming a necessity rather than a matter of choice.

Going forward, land constraints, water shortage and climate change are sure to adversely impact Indian agriculture with the attendant risk that our import dependence may worsen and food security might be compromised.

From a food safety perspective, it must be stated that fears over GM foods are overblown.

Take our own example. Bt cotton was introduced way back in 2003 and for well over a decade, large quantities of derivative products or byproducts of GM cotton — cottonseed oil and cottonseed cake/meal — have entered our food chain, directly or indirectly.

There have been no reported cases of adverse effect on human or animal health.

Cost-benefit analysis

To err on the side of caution, it may be desirable for the Government to examine various scenarios that may emerge in the event of any decision (for or against) and do a cost-benefit analysis of each of the scenarios. There are different dimensions of the issue that need to be examined. These include social, technological, economic, environmental and political aspects.

Popularly known as the STEEP approach, it may be an appropriate tool to test costs and benefits of a decision.

Social — Is the proposal/decision socially desirable?

Technological — Is the proposal/decision technologically feasible?

Economic — Is the proposal/decision economically viable?

Environmental — Is the proposal/decision environmentally friendly?

Political — Is the proposal/decision politically acceptable?

If the answer to each one of these questions is ‘Yes’, then one can say with reasonable certainty that the decision could prove to be right and sustainable.

Addressing the questions

One way to address some of the concerns — biosafety, environment — is to permit commercial cultivation of GM mustard in specific locations, say in a dozen districts across the growing region of western and northern India for one or two seasons.

It will generate sufficient data for scientists and policymakers; also, it will allow lead time for environment impact and other related studies.

As commercial cultivation would be restricted to a few select districts, it would facilitate effective monitoring and evaluation with the help of State governments and agricultural universities with overarching monitoring responsibility resting with the Centre. It will also allow the study of grower and consumer acceptance of the modified crop.

We should actually be accelerating technology infusion in agriculture. Information technology, biotechnology, satellite technology, nuclear agricultural technology and nanotechnology have the potential to offer solutions.

Strengthening farm production and productivity cannot brook any delay. It would of course be naïve to think GM tech is a magic bullet that will take care of all of the country’s farm-related problems. In terms of investment, as a nation we should be doing a lot more for agriculture than at present.

The apathy among policymakers in addressing agriculture-related issues including structural problems that stymie growth is most unfortunate. We need to take giant strides in different directions to boost agriculture. Surely, one of them is infusion of multiple technologies in agriculture.

G CHANDRASEKAR

The writer is an agribusiness and commodities market specialist

 

Meat startups : The clean up could actually help

Most of the meat consumed in India comes fresh from the neighborhood butchery which neither maintains any hygiene, or storage practices. Most of them are not licensed. With FSSAI in place, obtaining a license would require them follow the mandated good manufacturing practices and good hygiene practices, the knowledge for which is lacking in the roadside slaughter houses. This would mean a certain amount of market consolidation and movement towards the organized players.

Sooner or later, as part of the crackdown, the hygiene and health aspect of this is sure to start getting highlighted. This will be done by the establishments to justify the cleanup and will be countered by the meat producers associations to prevent the customers from moving away from meat. This will raise general awareness on food safety amongst the consumers and move them to products with proven supply chain for such a high risk food product.

However, the uncertainty on whether FSSAI will be able to rise up to the occasion to enforce the requirements is questionable. The problem at hand is just too huge, and the enforcement officers have neither the competence nor the willingness to clean up the system. It has been over 6 months since the last date to register all food establishments with FSSAI expired (4th August 2016 was the last date), yet food continues to packaged and sold without establishments having a license.


Most of the meat consumed in India comes fresh from the neighborhood butchery which neither maintains any hygiene, or storage practices. Most of them are not licensed. With FSSAI in place, obtaining a license would require them follow the mandated good manufacturing practices and good hygiene practices, the knowledge for which is lacking in the roadside slaughter houses. This would mean a certain amount of market consolidation and movement towards the organized players.

Sooner or later, as part of the crackdown, the hygiene and health aspect of this is sure to start getting highlighted. This will be done by the establishments to justify the cleanup and will be countered by the meat producers associations to prevent the customers from moving away from meat. This will raise general awareness on food safety amongst the consumers and move them to products with proven supply chain for such a high risk food product.

However, the uncertainty on whether FSSAI will be able to rise up to the occasion to enforce the requirements is questionable. The problem at hand is just too huge, and the enforcement officers have neither the competence nor the willingness to clean up the system. It has been over 6 months since the last date to register all food establishments with FSSAI expired (4th August 2016 was the last date), yet food continues to packaged and sold without establishments having a license.



Disclosure: Ramesh is a Consultant at Quality & Food Safety Consultants, that helps companies meet food safety requirements for their establishments in the food chain. He can be reached at ramesh@qafsc.com_

Opportunities in food safety in India

J for Junk : Experts want label on unhealthy food

FSSAI concerned about smoke

Smoking is the process of flavouring, browning, cooking, or preserving food by exposing it to smoke from burning or smouldering material, most often wood

Considering the harmful health effects of smoked and barbequed foods, the Food Safety Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) under Union Health Ministry has directed all Food Inspectors across India to ensure that code of practice for the process is followed properly in their respective states.

Smoking is the process of flavouring, browning, cooking, or preserving food by exposing it to smoke from burning or smouldering material, most often wood. Many chemical contaminants are formed during the combustion of fuel both in the smoking and direct drying process. Examples include polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), dioxins, formaldehyde, nitrogen and sulphur oxides (relevant for formation of nitrosamines etc).

Furthermore, heavy metals are also found in combustion gases. The types and amount of contaminants depend on the fuel used, the temperature and other parameters. According to doctors, cancer is a primary human health risk of exposure to PAHs. Experts have also linked PAHs exposure with cardiovascular disease and poor fetal development.

While the short-term symptoms of exposure to these compounds are eye irritation, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, and confusion, long-term health effects may include cataracts, kidney and liver damage, and jaundice.

“Commercial and domestic food preparations such as smoking, drying, roasting, baking, barbecuing or frying are recognised as possible source of these contaminants. FSSAI has adopted the Code of Practice for the Reduction of Contamination of Food with Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH) from smoking and direct drying processes from Codex Guidelines,” said Kumar Anil, Advisor (Standards), FSSAI in his letter to State Food Inspectors.

“We have asked the state food inspectors to sensitise stakeholders and encourage them to follow this code of practice during the process of smoking and drying so as to eliminate the contamination of food with PAHs,” he said.

The FSSAI has said that the Code of Practice and the guidelines could also be used as the basis for information to consumers. Processes such as smoking and direct drying provide a wide variety of food textures and flavours and consequently a broader choice for consumers. Many types of smoked and dried fishery products like Masmin, smoked meat products like sarep, aakhuho are traditional food items, where these types of processes have been used to prolong the storage period, keep quality and provide flavour and consistency required by consumers.

The extension of shelf life may also have an effect on the nutritional value of foodstuffs, such as preservation of the vitamin content.

“Foods as sold in restaurants and by roadside vendors needs to be quality controlled and repeatedly inspected from multiple angles; excessive use of processed and smoked foods, use of trans fatty acid containing oils, reheating in same oil, for hygiene etc.

This is no small job; and human resources for containing these food related problems is inadequate in India,” said Dr Anoop Misra, Chairman at Fortis-C-DOC and National Diabetes, Obesity and Cholesterol Foundation.

Efficient cold chain network critical for fostering agricultural growth

Year 2016 was a landmark year that saw the central government make some bold moves to better ensure transparent governance. We can Reflect back and laud on the milestones, in addition GST and demonetisation took the nation by as much surprise and acceptance, setting the tone for a promising 2017. 
As the Union is awaited, the national sentiment estimated by popular public polls suggest a unanimous consensus on the priority the agrarian economy needs to take this year, more in terms of offsetting the impact of the decisions made last year and raising the benchmark for the new fiscal. While agriculture’s share in India’s economy has progressively declined to less than 15 percent due to the high growth rates of the industrial and services sectors, the sector’s importance in India’s economic and social fabric goes well beyond this indicator. Therefore, 2017 should be the year of reviving productivity, improving quality of production, conserving the food, building capacity and creating local and international market that can open avenues for the farmer community to double their income by gaining improved access to consumers through improved infrastructure.

 

The single most grave issue that needs quick redressal is that of the dwindling profit margins. With cash, the primary mode of transaction in the agricultural sector, having taken a hit with demonetization, farmers who depend on cash for their day to day dealing are unable to hold their crop for as long as it is perishable. 

 

Fostering agricultural growth
Although the country achieved remarkable economic growth, growth in productivity has stagnated over time affecting the farmers. To revive this, the government should reduce excessive reliance on exports to developed economies by shifting to a development approach. In order to boost agricultural productivity steps must be taken to empower farmers through knowledge transfer on best irrigation practices, post-harvest food conservation measures across farm to fork; and enable them with technology that can raise the bar in creating produce of global export quality. This will help curtail food losses; improve profitability and control inflation. 

 

Government should adopt, assess and implement programs from other sectors that has proved to be a best practice in optimising utilisation and minimising waste. Government should consider linking the production centers to the consumption centers through grids. These if synchronised between producers and suppliers can connect key production areas with centralised distribution channels that ensure last mile delivery of the produce in the desired quality. For example, there are a few flowers which can be harvested four times a day and have a demand both locally, mid distance markets, long distance markets and export markets. By knowing the markets and timing the harvest the producers can meet the demand and have a higher share of wallet with reduced loss. 

 

However, this would need an efficient network crises crossing the country. These networks, for example, will connect Theni and Chennai in Tamil Nadu, Cochin to Coimbatore and Chennai to Bangalore etc. This network of well-equipped efficient cold storage facilities can serve as a warehouse for movement of perishables. 

 

Grid to connect markets and farms 
Capacity building and promoting training farmer communities on issues such as quality management, local level market development etc. will help further this motive. Professionalising farmer producer companies (FPCs) will be a strong enabler to better profitability, value creation and quality in agriculture. 

 

Ravichandran Purushothaman, president, Danfoss India

Ravichandran Purushothaman, president, India

Consumption patterns in southern regions of Chennai, Cochin, Bangalore must be matched with production from these areas and connecting farmers to markets in these locations supported by infra and technology like digital markets for better price realisation and increased food safety must be high priority. Food processing must be given the necessary impetus and NABARD must be capitalised by Rs 10000 crores to support this agenda. Food processing is a sunrise sector for employment generation in both rural and urban markets. New innovation is needed in business models to reduce food loss.

 

Another important factor to look into for prioritising agrarian economy is by having a better coordination between the center and state departments in distribution of funds. It may be useful to have more autonomy to states in the last mile distribution of the funds as also in deciding the size of infrastructure requirements as these will differ locally.
For capacity building and training we have several successful pilots for specific crops across the country. It may be useful for the center to create a central database of these and allocate funds towards training and capacity building of farmers in the specific crops in various regions.

 

Diversifying into other sectors 
The 2017 should also focus more on diversifying into other sectors such as horticulture, which has emerged as Indian farming’s bright spot outpacing the production of food grains by a whopping 31 million tonnes in 2014-15. The government needs to formulate cropping pattern in such a way that it ensures the agricultural producers in finding national and international markets and good remunerative prices for their products. The potential of the sector emanates from its ability to generate more income and greater employment opportunities. 

BS-27012017

Agriculture – a fertile ground for digitisation

 
 
Photo: Bloomberg

Photo: Bloomberg

The numbers around India’s agriculture sector are staggering. It accounts for nearly 15% of India’s gross domestic product. It constitutes 10% of the overall exports. Over 58% of rural households depend on the sector as their principal means of livelihood. Most importantly, it feeds more than 1.2 billion people.

Driven by a growing population, in particular an expanding middle class with higher incomes, the sector has seen a sustained increase in demand, especially over the past decade. India, however, continues to face significant bottlenecks in feeding nutritious food to a large chunk of the population, leading to issues around chronic undernourishment and malnutrition as well as lifestyle diseases.

To feed the currently undernourished population, India would require a 3-4% increase in food supply. With the population expected to grow even further, the strain on the sector is likely to grow more in the coming years.

Diet diversification

The generally observed trend is that rising incomes lead to diet diversification—away from staple grains and towards higher-cost foods like poultry, fruits and vegetables, and dairy products. This poses a whole new set of challenges for the sector.

While the dairy segment has been one of India’s success stories, it will require significant investments to improve its productivity and ensure that the sector sustains its growth to meet demand requirements in the coming years. In addition, substantial gaps in availability of livestock feed supply and competition for acreage from food crops pose fundamental threats to necessary dairy production.

Rising incomes will also drive higher consumption of edible oil. While India is one of the largest producers of oilseeds in the world, it imports around 55-60% of domestic edible oil consumption requirements. This poses a major challenge as high import dependence means an uncertainty in supply and potential for significant variability in prices.

Despite the move away frofrom them, staples like grains and pulses will essentially need to replicate production growth achieved between 2001 and 2011 until 2025 in order to meet demand from a growing population. However, a meagre increase in the land under production, coupled with plateauing yield growth, pose major challenges to achieving this. Inability to effect major improvements in yields could see a shortfall of as much as 11 million tonnes of foodgrains by 2025.

At the same time, multiple other issues, such as double cropping, lack of crop rotation, lack of time for soil recreation, are putting further pressure on fertility and yields.

Digitizing growth

This is where the use of technology can be of immense help. Technologies such as automation, decision support system and agriculture robots are being widely adopted in the sector globally. Farmers are using the Internet of Things and smart sensors to get access to valuable information like soil moisture, nutrient levels, temperature of produce in storage and status of farming equipment. The sector is also ripe for the use of big data analytics and artificial intelligence, technologies that have been deployed successfully in various sectors across the globe.

However, the digitization and use of technology in agriculture has, thus far, been taking place in confined application fields. The logical step for the sector, especially in India, would be to build an all-inclusive digital platform.

An inclusive platform will be able to provide end-to-end services for farmers—from selecting crops, optimising plantation timings, seeding and fertilization rates based on plants’ actual needs and regulatory requirements and limits. All the data collected during a crop’s cycle can be compared with other farmers who grow the same crop in similar conditions. Lessons learnt from one field can be applied automatically to another to maximize output. Our analyses show that such an approach can help to improve the yield of major broad-acre crops by between 20-30%.

Game changer

Establishing such a digital platform will not only help improve yields and meet the growing demand, it will also be a game changer for the sector.

Firstly, it will help to track produce from farm to the table. In the process, it will reduce wastage in the value chain—a huge issue in India currently—and improve food safety. Technology can help detect pathogens and allergens before they reach consumers.

It can also help address the price discovery issue. The current wholesale market format suffers from a transparency challenge. With no data on volumes, prevailing prices or inventory levels, there is little information for buyers or sellers to make informed decisions. This information gap is a barrier to the entry of new players and, hence, increased competition and better price discovery.

Finally, it can also help trigger an “uberization” of the sector by bringing farmers in touch with profitable customers and help build sustainable partnerships to improve farming productivity.

Meeting India’s growing food demand requires improvements on multiple fronts: availability, affordability, consumer awareness, quality, safety and access to food. A holistic digital platform can help address these and catapult Indian agriculture to the next level.

Debashish Mukherjee is a partner at AT Kearney India.

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