July 21, 2017

Imagine if consumers and farmers could measure the nutrient density of fresh produce on farms and in stores in seconds. Consumers would demand nutrient-dense produce because they could see it empirically at the point of sale. Farmers would get a premium for more nutritious crops. Higher prices would motivate farmers to develop farming practices that increase nutrient density in addition to yield. The result? A market-driven, sustainable way to improve the health of millions of people.

The Bionutrient Food Association is trying to make this happen, and Our Sci is going to help.

If you’re an informed foodie/techie, your probably rolling your eyes. There are lots of real problems with this utopic-sounding plan. Well, you’re right… but Our Sci wouldn’t take this on if we didn’t think it was possible, so stick with me.

Here’s the plan…

Build a device to measure nutrient density

Reality check — there is no device capable of measuring every nutrition-related compound of interest. Doesn’t exist. Instead, our strategy is to correlate reflectance data in the UV/VIS/NIR spectra to broad classes of nutrients using standard lab methods (US Pharmacopae, USDA, ASME, etc.). NIR reflectance instruments, like ScIO, have built a lot of hype and failed to deliver… literally.  The concept of building correlations between UV/VIS/NIR and reference data not new. Examples include estimating total carbon in soil (both us and others), total cannabinoids in marijuana, dietary fiber and other compounds in fresh produce, and drug identification in pills.

What we’re attempting is one step beyond those examples — nutrients in fresh produce are present in very small quantities, and their relationship to UV/VIS/NIR will be more complex than the aforementioned examples. Proof of concept work will determine the level of granularity and breadth of compounds that we can predict. Arguments about the tech would take a post of its own and I’m sure I’ll write it at some point… but for now let’s assume we can crack that nut. Next problem: spectral data can’t actually ‘see’ the compounds of interest, so this magic only works if you have a sufficiently large and detailed reference database. Sending a sample to a lab to measure a relatively small number of compounds costs 100s of dollars per sample, so building that reference dataset is no small feat. Enter part 2 of the plan…

Run a national survey of nutrient density in stores and on farms

That’s going to be pricey! We’re working on strategies to generate revenue from collecting the reference data, and lowering the cost of collecting it. We think that even without a device, an effectively designed survey would produce a dataset which could help direct purchasing decisions today. There are many organizations and even individuals interested in making this data publicly available and we are pursuing them as funding partners.

To lower costs, the Bionutrient Food Association’s membership base can help collect the samples. Also, we’ve partnered with Health Research Institute, where we can poach (with permission of course!) incoming samples from other projects/clients and collect measurements using our device alongside their lab measurements.

Make it a movement, not a product

Measuring nutrient density willy-nilly with no feedback mechanism to farmers will not change the food system. We need to establish a conduit between farms and consumers so nutrient density information is traceable. We also need to allow researchers (from academia, industry, and engaged citizens) to identify and share insights from the data. Furthermore, we can help everyone in the system self-organize experiments to test harder problems. Sure — you can mine consumer data to figure out which farms are making the most nutrient-dense tomato. But what if you want to know how tomatoes impact heart disease? Then you need to be able to organize an experiment and invite consumers to join, collaborate, and communicate over time.

Important experiments should be run in the real world, with real people. Well designed collaboration software and public data (with reasonable guards in place for privacy) make those interactions easier and more likely to happen.

Still skeptical?

Ok, one last pitch: even if UV/VIS/NIR reflectance doesn’t work today, some day a new technology will be able to predict the nutrient content of food, easily, accurately, and cheaply. When that day comes, companies will sell you the device. The data streams will be closed, and mined for insights sold to the highest bidder. Researchers will have to pay to use the data (the public won’t see it at all), slowing the pace of learning about how food nutrition impacts human health. The best insights will be kept by the companies, patented, and turned into products (super-food extracts or new drugs or whatever) and sell back to us at 100x markups. It’s not a dystopia — it’s reality. Think I’m overstating it? It’s already happening to your social data. Consumer Physics, the company behind the ScIO which delivered wildly late and completely overstated what the device could do, is now under a patent dispute. Yay, progress… for lawyers, at least.

So more than anything else, this collaboration is about getting ahead of the problem.

Let’s put our flag in the ground: information and technology relating to our food supply should be a public good.

The full campaign, details and project plan are available at the Real Food Campaign section of bionutrient.org. Go follow them on Facebook and Twitter. You can read more from me and other Our Sci folks at our-sci.net.