A) Science and Technology, Defence, Space
1. Cultured Meat Vs Conventional Meat Vs Plant-based Meat (IE)
- Context: The Singapore Food Agency (SFA) approved this week the sale of a lab-grown meat product. This is the first-time cultured meat has been cleared for sale anywhere in the world.
- Last year, in India also, the Maharashtra government and the Institute of Chemical Technology signed an agreement with U.S.-based non-profit Good Food Institute to set up a Centre for Excellence in Cellular Agriculture.
Why is this a big deal?
- In its June 2020 Food Outlook Report, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) stated that world meat output was set to contract to 333 million tonnes, 1.7% less than in 2019.
- The disruption has been caused mainly by Covid-19, but it has added to already widespread fears about zoonotic diseases, especially African swine fever and highly pathogenic avian influenza. This provides an opportunity to the alternative meat industry.
What is Cultured Meat
- Cultured meat involves applying the practices of tissue engineering to the production of muscle for consumption as food.
- Sometimes also known as clean meat or in vitro meat, it is an emergent technology that operates as part of the wider field of cellular agriculture
- The technology for production of cultured meat involves expanding stem cells then differentiating them into muscle cells.
- It is biologically exactly the same as the meat tissue that comes from an animal.
Potential benefits of cultured meat
- Cultured meat could deliver reduced:
- water use,
- greenhouse gas emissions,
- eutrophication potential, and
- land use compared to conventional livestock meat production.
- Livestock contributes to global warming through unchecked releases of methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
- The increase in demand of animal meat will significantly increase levels of methane, carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide and cause loss of biodiversity.
How is lab-grown or cultured meat different from plant-based meat?
- The latter is made from plant sources such as soy or pea protein, while cultured meat is grown directly from cells in a laboratory.
- Both have the same objective:
- offer alternatives to traditional meat products that could feed a lot more people,
- reduce the threat of zoonotic diseases, and
- mitigate the environmental impact of meat consumption.
- In terms of cellular structure, cultured or cultivated meat is the same as conventional meat — except that cultured meat does not come directly from animals.
- According to the Good Food Institute (GFI)’s 2019 State of the Industry Report on cultivated meats, compared to conventional beef, cultivated beef could reduce land use (by more than 95%), climate change emissions (by 74-87%) and nutrient pollution (by 94%).
- The report adds that since cultivated meat is created in clean facilities, the risk of contamination by pathogens such as salmonella and E coli, which may be present in traditional slaughterhouses and meat-packing factories, is significantly reduced.
- It does not require antibiotics either, unlike animals raised for meat, thereby reducing the threat posed to public health by growing antibiotic resistance.
2. China’s “artificial sun”- a nuclear fusion reactor (TH)
Context: China successfully powered up its “artificial sun” nuclear fusion reactor for the first time, state media reported, marking a great advance in the country’s nuclear power research capabilities.
- The HL-2M Tokamak reactor is China’s largest and most advanced nuclear fusion experimental research device, and scientists hope that the device can potentially unlock a powerful clean energy source.
- It uses a powerful magnetic field to fuse hot plasma and can reach temperatures of over 150 million degrees Celsius, – approximately ten times hotter than the core of the sun.
- Located in Sichuan province and completed late last year, the reactor is often called an “artificial sun” on account of the enormous heat and power it produces.
What is Fusion?
- Fusion is the energy source of the Sun and stars.
- In the tremendous heat and gravity at the core of these stellar bodies, hydrogen nuclei collide, fuse into heavier helium atoms and release tremendous amounts of energy in the process.
- Fusion reaction is a nuclear process by which nuclei of two light elements fuse to produce a fast, heavier nucleus and an even faster nucleon, i.e. a neutron or a proton.
- There is a small mass difference, say m, between the initial and the final reaction products which gets converted into energy through Einstein’s equation E=mc2, c being the speed of light.
- This energy comes out in the form of kinetic energy of the product particles and can be converted into electricity by conventional technologies.
- For such a reaction to occur, the reacting nuclei need to have enough kinetic energy to overcome the repulsive electrostatic barrier between any two of them.
- For this to happen in laboratory experiments, the reacting particles need to be heated to very high temperatures, more than the temperature at the core of the sun.
- At such high temperatures, matter remains in plasma state, a collection of charged particles.
- Twentieth-century fusion science identified the most efficient fusion reaction in the laboratory setting to be the reaction between two hydrogen isotopes, deuterium (D) and tritium (T).
- The DT fusion reaction produces the highest energy gain at the “lowest” temperatures.
- A Deuterium and a Tritium nucleus fuse to produce a Helium nucleus and a neutron.
- In a plasma undergoing fusion, the reactions can be self-sustained, as part of the kinetic energy of the resulting charged Helium can be used to maintain the very high temperatures required to sustain the fusion reactions.
- Three conditions must be fulfilled to achieve fusion in a laboratory:
- very high temperature (on the order of 150,000,000° Celsius);
- sufficient plasma particle density (to increase the likelihood that collisions do occur); and
- sufficient confinement time (to hold the plasma, which has a propensity to expand, within a defined volume).
- At extreme temperatures, electrons are separated from nuclei and a gas becomes a plasma—often referred to as the fourth state of matter. Fusion plasmas provide the environment in which light elements can fuse and yield energy.
The following advantages make fusion worth pursuing:
- Abundant energy: Fusing atoms together in a controlled way releases nearly four million times more energy than a chemical reaction such as the burning of coal, oil or gas and four times as much as nuclear fission reactions (at equal mass).
- Sustainability: Fusion fuels are widely available and nearly inexhaustible.
- Deuterium can be distilled from all forms of water, while tritium will be produced during the fusion reaction as fusion neutrons interact with lithium.
- Terrestrial reserves of lithium would permit the operation of fusion power plants for more than 1,000 years, while sea-based reserves of lithium would fulfil needs for millions of years.
- No CO₂: Fusion doesn’t emit harmful toxins like carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Its major by-product is helium: an inert, non-toxic gas.
- No long-lived radioactive waste: Nuclear fusion reactors produce no high activity, long-lived nuclear waste.
- Limited risk of proliferation: Fusion doesn’t employ fissile materials like uranium and plutonium.
- Radioactive tritium is neither a fissile nor a fissionable material.
- There are no enriched materials in a fusion reactor like ITER that could be exploited to make nuclear weapons.
- No risk of meltdown: A Fukushima-type nuclear accident is not possible in a tokamak fusion device.
- It is difficult enough to reach and maintain the precise conditions necessary for fusion—if any disturbance occurs, the plasma cools within seconds and the reaction stops.
- The quantity of fuel present in the vessel at any one time is enough for a few seconds only and there is no risk of a chain reaction.
- Cost: The average cost per kilowatt of electricity is also expected to be similar to that of a fission reactor, slightly more expensive at the beginning, when the technology is new, and less expensive as economies of scale bring the costs down.
Fission vs Fusion
- Both fission and fusion are nuclear processes by which atoms are altered to create energy.
- Fission is the division of one atom into two, and fusion is the combination of two lighter atoms into a larger one.
- They are opposing processes, and therefore very different.
- Nuclear fission releases heat energy by splitting atoms.
- Nuclear fusion refers to the “union of atomic nuclei to form heavier nuclei resulting in the release of enormous amounts of energy.”
- Both fission and fusion are nuclear reactions that produce energy.
- Some scientists believe there are opportunities with such a power source since fusion creates less radioactive material than fission and has a nearly unlimited fuel supply.
- However, progress is slow due to challenges with understanding how to control the reaction in a contained space.
- Fission is used in nuclear power reactors since it can be controlled, while fusion is not utilized to produce power since the reaction is not easily controlled.
3. Monetary Policy Committee (MPC): Outcomes and Policy Stances of the RBI (TH)
- Context: With retail inflation remaining elevated, the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) of the Reserve Bank of India, headed by Governor Shaktikanta Das, has decided to keep the policy rates unchanged for the third time in a row in the bi-monthly monetary policy announced on Friday (December 4).
- This effectively means lending rates in the banking system and EMIs on home, auto and personal loans will remain more or less steady.
- The Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) left benchmark interest rates unchanged and retained an ‘accommodative’ stance as it prioritised support for the economy over ‘sticky’ inflation amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
What are the current policy rates?
- The six-member MPC voted unanimously to leave the policy repo rate — the rate at which the RBI lends funds to banks — unchanged at 4 per cent.
- The central bank has slashed the repo rate by 115 basis points since late March to cushion the economy from the fallout of the COVID-19 crisis, including the lockdowns to check the spread of the coronavirus.
- The Marginal Standing Facility (MSF) rate and the Bank rate remain unchanged at 4.25 per cent.
- The reverse repo rate — the rate at which the RBI gets funds from banks — stands unchanged at 3.35 per cent.
Why has the policy panel opted for status quo on rates?
- The MPC is of the view that inflation is likely to remain elevated, barring transient relief in the winter months from prices of perishables.
- This constrains monetary policy at the current juncture from using the space available to act in support of growth.
- “At the same time, the signs of recovery are far from being broad-based and are dependent on sustained policy support,” the RBI says.
- The substantial wedge between wholesale and retail inflation points to the supply-side bottlenecks and large margins being charged to the consumer.
Understanding the Policy Stances of the RBI
- Theoretically, the Indian central bank gives three main types of forward guidance/policy stance to markets—
- accommodative (in other words, the central bank is telling the market to expect a rate cut anytime),
- tight (to indicate an impending rate hikes) and
- neutral (which doesn’t have any particular meaning. This means anything can happen anytime).
- Sometimes the RBI goes a step further and mentions words like:
- ‘easing’ (meaning, double sure—the rate cut is here and now), and
- ‘calibrated tightening’ (not sure what it means—aren’t all policy actions ‘calibrated’ in some way?).
- But many a time this forward guidance turns out to be useless for markets. The real events may unfold differently from what the RBI says in its policy stance.
The joke on ‘neutral’ stance
- Since everything is dependent on data, the only rate stance that makes any sense, and can never go wrong, is ‘neutral’.
- That’s because when in neutral stance, the policy action can swing both ways. No complaints. But then, why we need a stated ‘neutral’ stance at all?
- The MPC will have to be neutral anyway to become flexible enough to tweak its rate decisions as per the situation demands. In that sense, every central bank is ‘neutral’ and will have to be ‘neutral’; it’s implicit in their kind of work.
- It’s perhaps time the RBI does away with certain jargons, instead goes for rate decisions depending on data, which is what it does anyway even now.
Are the open market operations of the RBI only to ensure adequate liquidity or are they used to enable further transmission?
- OMO [open market operations] is basically a liquidity instrument.
- The RBI has several instruments to infuse liquidity. OMO remains in our toolkit.
- RBI has forex swaps which it had introduced last year.
- Term repo is also something which has been added.
- So far as the RBI is concerned, OMO will be done to deal with the liquidity situation, either to infuse or suck out liquidity.
- The RBI does not manage yields. Yields are market driven.
- There are reports that the government is asking for ₹30,000 crore in interim dividend. But the Bimal Jalan Committee report suggested that there will be no interim dividend.
Monetary Policy Committee (MPC)
- The Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) is a committee of the Central Bank in India (Reserve Bank of India), headed by its Governor.
- It is entrusted with the task of fixing the benchmark policy interest rate (repo rate) to contain inflation within the specified target level.
- Repo rate is the rate at which the central bank of a country lends money to commercial banks in the event of any shortfall of funds. It is also used by monetary authorities to control inflation.
- Reverse repo rate is the rate at which the central bank of a country borrows money from commercial banks within the country. It is a monetary policy instrument which can be used to control the money supply in the country.
- It is defined and constituted under the Reserve Bank of India Act, 1934 to provide for a statutory and institutionalised framework, for maintaining price stability, while keeping in mind the objective of growth.
- The new MPC is to be a six-member panel.
- It will feature three members from the RBI — the Governor, a Deputy Governor and another official — and three independent members to be selected by the Government.
- A search committee will recommend three external members, experts in the field of economics, banking or finance, for the Government appointees.
- The meetings of the Monetary Policy Committee shall be held at least 4 times a year (generally the monetary policy review meetings take place at every two months) and it shall publish its decisions after each such meeting.
- The decisions on monetary policy are taken by a majority vote.
- And if there’s a tie, the RBI governor gets the deciding vote.
- The Members of the Monetary Policy Committee appointed by the Central Government shall hold office for a period of four years.
- Inflation Targets:
- Inflation Target: Four per cent.
- Upper tolerance level: Six per cent.
- Lower tolerance level: Two per cent.
- In case the inflation target is failed to achieve (2% higher or lower than the set target of 4% for continuous three quarters), the RBI has to give an explanation to the government about the reasons, the remedial actions and the estimated time for realizing the target.
- Another responsibility for the RBI is to publish a Monetary Policy Report every six months, elaborating inflation forecasts and inflation sources for the next six to eighteen months.
- MPC uses ‘headline inflation’ to take its decision. Headline inflation is the raw inflation figure reported through the Consumer Price Index (CPI).
4. Types of Economic Recoveries: K, V, U, W, L and Z shaped recoveries (TH)
- Context: India’s economy is firmly on the path of a V-shaped recovery after the collapse in the first quarter, and further improvement is expected in the third quarter, ‘notwithstanding some moderation’ in November’s indicators according to the Ministry of Finance.
- It attributed the recovery to the unlocking process along with ‘astute’ stimulus measures.
- The term ‘K-shaped recovery’ is used to describe what has been happening in varying degrees since the financial crisis of 2008: The growing gap between winners and losers among countries, economic sectors, companies, and, of course, people.
- For example: Industries like technology, retail, and software services have recovered from the industry and begun re-hiring, while the travel, entertainment, hospitality, and food services industries have continued to decline past March levels.
Other Major Types of Economic Recoveries
- If the economic disruption was just for a small period wherein more than people’s incomes, it was their ability to spend that was restricted, it is possible to imagine a “Z”-shaped recovery.
- In this, the GDP — and here we are talking about absolute GDP, not GDP’s growth rate — actually overshoots the trend path because of the pent-up demand.
- Imagine, deferred parties, salon visits, movies, purchase of new cars, houses and appliances etc. — all of them get bunched up together.
- But what if the economic disruption lasts longer resulting in several activities being forgone instead of being deferred?
- For instance, even the monthly haircut — when you go to the salon after 3 months, you have already lost 2 haircuts-worth of economic activity forever!
- In such a scenario, and assuming incomes and jobs are not permanently lost, the economic growth recovers sharply and returns to the path it was following before the disruption. This is called a “V”-shaped
- A V-shaped recovery is characterized by a quick and sustained recovery in measures of economic performance after a sharp economic decline.
- Because of the speed of economic adjustment and recovery in macroeconomic performance, a V-shaped recovery is a best-case scenario given the recession.
- But what will happen if this recovery is slower and takes more time because the economic disruption resulted in several jobs being lost and people losing incomes, drawing down on their savings etc.
- U-shaped recoveries happen when a recession occurs and the economy does not immediately bounce back, but tumbles along the bottom for a few quarters.
- Then the economy will follow a “U”-shaped In such a scenario, after the initial fall, the recovery is gradual before regaining its momentum.
- Since we are talking about a Covid-induced disruption, it makes sense to also look at a “W”-shaped recovery as well.
- This shape allows for the possibility of a V-shaped recovery, which is pegged back by a second wave of infections until of course, the economy recovers for the second time.
- The last scenario is the one policy-makers most dread. It is called the “L”-shape
- Here, simply put, the economy fails to regain the level of GDP even after years go by.
- As the shape shows, there is a permanent loss to the economy’s ability to produce.
C) International Relations
5. Qatar crisis explained (TH)
- Context: Rivals Qatar and Saudi Arabia, along with neutral Oman and Kuwait, said on Friday (December 4) progress had been made towards resolving the Gulf crisis that has pitted a regional group of nations against Doha.
- Saudi Arabia led its allies the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt to cut ties with Qatar in June 2017, accusing it of backing radical Islamist movements and Iran, charges Doha denies.
- They subsequently forced out Qataris residing in their countries, closed their airspace to Qatari aircraft and sealed their borders and ports, separating some mixed-nationality families.
- Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and non-GCC member Egypt imposed a political and economic boycott of Qatar in June 2017 over allegations Doha backs terrorism.
- And while Qatar is a member of the US-led coalition against IS, it has faced accusations from Iraqi Shia leaders that it provided financial support to jihadists.
- Yemen, the Maldives and Libya’s eastern-based government later followed suit.
- Qatar’s only land border was also closed by Saudi Arabia and ships flying the Qatari flag or those serving Qatar were banned from docking at many ports.
- Two states in the six-member Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) did not cut ties with Qatar – Kuwait and Oman. Kuwait has offered to mediate in the dispute.
- Kuwait and the U.S. have tried to mediate the rift as it undermined their efforts to form a united front against Iran.
- The US might be expected to want the crisis to end quickly because Qatar hosts the largest American military facility in the Middle East – al-Udeid airbase.
- Two sources familiar with Saudi thinking said Riyadh has softened its stance on a list of 13 demands to lift the embargo, including that Doha cut links to the Muslim Brotherhood, close Al Jazeera TV, shutter a Turkish military base and reduce ties with Iran, with whom Qatar shares a giant gas field.
- Later, diplomats from the four nations said they were no longer insisting Qatar comply with the demands and instead wanted it to commit to six broad “principles”.
- They were combating terrorism and extremism, denying financing and safe havens to terrorist groups, stopping incitement to hatred and violence, and refraining from interfering in the internal affairs of other countries.
Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)
- Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), political and economic alliance of six Middle Eastern countries—Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman.
- The GCC also has a defense planning council that coordinates military cooperation between member countries.
- The highest decision-making entity of the GCC is the Supreme Council, which meets on an annual basis and consists of GCC heads of state.
- GCC agreements typically focus on either security or economic coordination.
- It is bordered by eight countries: Iran, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia; Kuwait and Iraq.
- The term Persian Gulf sometimes is employed to refer not only to the Persian Gulf proper but also to its outlets, the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf of Oman, which open into the Arabian Sea.
- The Persian Gulf has several islands, and one of them is the state of Bahrain.
- Qeshm in the Hormuz Strait is the largest island in the Persian Gulf. The island belongs to Iran.
- The Persian Gulf also has the Bubiya Island of Kuwait, Tarout Island of Saudi Arabia, and Dalma Island of the UAE.
- Pearl-Qatar located in Doha and the World Islands in Dubai are some artificial islands in the Persian Gulf.
- It is only 35 miles wide at the Strait of Hormuz, its narrowest part.
- The waters of the Tigris-Euphrates river system drain into the Persian Gulf forming a massive river delta at the mouth.
- The area in and around the Persian Gulf is a rich reservoir of oil and natural gas.
- The coastal area around the Gulf is the largest source of crude oil in the world.
- Al-Safaniya, the world’s biggest offshore oil field, operated and owned by Saudi Arabian Oil Company Aramco, is also located in the Persian Gulf.
- The gulf also supports commercial fisheries.
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