Real Food Campaign: Tools for Transparency

Concentrations of vitamins, minerals and micronutrients have steadily decreased in fresh fruits and vegetables over the past 50 years.1  Over the same period, degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and heart disease have risen to epidemic levels.2 Simultaneously, aquifers and ecosystems have been polluted due to the effects of agriculture along with desertification and wearing out of millions of acres of land.

Human health, environmental health, and soil and crop health are deeply interrelated.

While we understand the correlation is not causation, we also know that understanding complex relationships requires a lot of data over a long period of time, far beyond a one-off academic project.

We need a comprehensive plan to understand and revitalize our food supply, starting today.

That's why the Bionutrient Food Association is initiating the Real Food Campaign. Our goal is to make the nutritional content of food visible, and leverage market forces to both understand and heal these interrelated systems.

Imagine going to the farmers market, flashing a light at several different carrots, and comparing their nutritional value in real time. Some are nutrient-dense, others nutrient-deficient. Which one would you buy? Would you begin to choose food based on how good it was for you and your family? Would you tell your friends?

We believe measuring nutritional value would cause consumers to purchase better food, breeders to select for better food, and farmers to grow better food. We are building the open source Bionutrient meter to make those measurements possible in stores and on farms, elevating nutritional value to one of the most demanded characteristics of food throughout the food supply chain.

Healthy food comes from healthy plants, and healthy plants come from biologically vital, ecologically regenerative, and carbon-rich soils.

Our objective is to economically incentivize the entire food supply chain to focus on nutritional value as a key metric. We are launching the Real Food Campaign to create this incentive. We believe this will drive solutions to underlying ecosystem, environmental and human health issues.

To achieve this, the campaign has three critical objectives.

  1. Create a handheld sensor to measure nutrient density.
  Advances in spectroscopy, the science by which this sensor would operate, enable the production of inexpensive, handheld consumer-oriented sensors (~$200) that can measure nutrient density with a flash of light. Engineering a prototype will take 12 months and $78,000. The sensor will be calibrated through the survey (see (2) below) and a consumer tool would be available in 36 months at a total project cost of $800,000. The hardware and software will be fully open source, and the long-term design goal is to integrate the hardware into cell phones so consumers don't need to carry separate equipment.

  2. Identify the spectrum of variation in the food supply, and use it to calibrate the sensor.
  Documenting the variation of nutritional content in produce is key to both calibrate the sensor and to expose the unseen variation in crop quality. Once visible, this variation will drive public discussion of food quality and raise awareness of the project. For 2 crops, in 2 locations, across 3 years, we expect this survey to cost $136,000. Adding a crop in 2 locations would increase the cost by $30,000 per crop. The survey data will be held in a public domain database, spurring public and private entities to further develop tools and software to increase in food quality.

  3. Identify management practices which produce the highest quality crops by collecting and analyzing shared data on an open platform.
  To support nutrition-driven agriculture, we need rigorously collected and comparable data on food nutrient density. Most academic research uses single factor analysis on one or a small number nutritional compounds, but to track and improve crop and soil health in the real world we must account for a multitude of factors. A transparent and open data platform will allow researchers, farmers, and consumers to evaluate best practices across communities. This collaborative approach will build a culture of data and knowledge sharing which benefits growers of all sizes on all continents. Proof of concept for this platform will cost $136,000 over 1 year, and a fully integrated platform would cost $1.5 million over 4 years.

1 Davis DR et al. "Changes in USDA Food Composition Data for 43 Garden Crops, 1950 to 1999." Journal of the American College of Nutrition. 2004;23(6):669–682.

2 National Council on Aging: "Top 10 Chronic Conditions in Adults 65+ and What You Can do to Prevent Them."