The future of fresh produce: a skeptical optimist’s view

The future of fresh produce: a skeptical optimist’s view

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 Go follow them on Facebook and Twitter. You can read more from me and other Our Sci folks at

Posted by gbathree in Blog Posts, Nutrition
Agriculture needs an open solution stack

Agriculture needs an open solution stack

Farmers may not know about FOSS, but they know when they’re getting the short end of the stick.

There’s lots of talk about big data and tech in agriculture… and it falls into two main camps – there’s the ‘machines replace farmers’ camp, ranging from automated tractors, to automated home gardening, to home food computers.  These projects are interesting and full of promises but require something of a revolution to actually scale.  Then there’s the ‘farmers buy my black box service’ camp, a multi-billion dollar industry already providing tech services to mostly large farms – Monsanto, John Deere, DuPont all have platforms for collecting data and providing real time feedback (precision-ag, as it’s called), and there’s a huge number of startups working in the same space.  These services tend to be expensive and extremely closed (though some effort is going into creating common APIs at least…), and despite all the hype they are pretty underused on most actual farms.  Worse yet, most of those little startups want to get bought by the big guys… so the future of that space is one of consolidation and monopoly, like many other parts of the ag industry.

Both camps leave typical farmers scratching their heads…  either I’m irrelevant, or I need to pay many thousands of dollars per year for software I’m not sure I need?  Why is [insert big ag company’s name here] taking my data, repackaging it, and selling it back to me in the form of ‘precision ag’?  As a small to medium sized farmer, why can’t I find technology that’s useful but also affordable?  As the son of a farmer, I know that farmers are practical people – if it helps their bottom line, they’ll usually do it, but it doesn’t mean they like it.

Solution stack: “In computing, a solution stack or software stack is a set of software subsystems or components needed to create a complete platform such that no additional software is needed to support applications.” – Wikipedia

I think it’s time we invest in an open solution stack for agriculture.  Platforms and software that can deliver value to farmers today, at a reasonable cost, in a competitive ecosystem that can produce enough value for companies to succeed without fleecing farmers to pay Venture Capital firms and the bottomless stomachs of investors.  That’s not to say a healthy ecosystem of closed and open technology won’t continue to exist, but there is definitely room for alternatives.  There are good analogies here to other software stacks, like LAMP, which is still used in most websites on the internet.  LAMP allowed the web to grow faster, at less cost, with more flexibility and ultimately created more options for the end user, yet closed competitors continue to exist and fill specific market demands.

So… what functionality do we need in an open ag solution stack?

  1. Get data from sensors + the environment.  APIs to connect to existing sensors.  Access to APIs which output weather data, soil data, market information, accounting info, etc.
  2. Get data from humans.  A mobile app which can collect data from farmers, farm workers, accountants, etc. about what’s going on in the real world.
  3. View the farm and the business.  Farmers need to see maps of fields, get updates in real time of activities, get reminders about what’s next and where, etc.
  4. Get analysis and feedback.  Take inputs, run a model, generate (push) outputs.  Maybe catch a pest outbreak before it destroys your field.  Maybe pick the best time to sell your wheat.  Maybe wait a week to fertilize to avoid a rainstorm on Thursday.  That kind of thing.

These are the very basic components – like any ERP it could include so much more, or so much less depending on what the user wants.  By making a base layer of functionality available and low cost, we can move the business opportunities up the chain to services built on top of or connected to the stack.  Pay for Quickbooks to do your taxes, but use their API to integrate your financial data into your farm decision-making.  Pay Precision Hawk to do drone flyovers of your field to improve the quality of your maps, and integrate the maps into the open ag stack.  Pay an agronomist for consulting, but integrate their crop models to get real-time feedback through the open ag stack to increase accuracy and save you (and the agronomist) time.  This allows more efficient and higher quality code as many companies are invested in the same code base.

Another benefit of an open ag stack is the ability to share data.  New analytical tools can generate real value from shared data, but the current options for farms is either to forfeit their data to large companies through closed platforms (exchange data for a service model), or to keep their data completely isolated (exchange money for privacy model).  The first represents a loss of control and of value to the farmer.  The second fails to benefit from shared resources.  An open platform could allow a more flexible, middle option, where data is optionally shared fully, anonymized, or kept private, and the shared or anonymized data is accessible to all.  This would be a boon to researchers to create new methods or identify trends, and to farmers to improve decision-making.

There is some movement already towards an open solution stack. The GODAN initiative is supporting data sharing in agriculture and nutrition by improving data accessibility and collaboration between governments and NGOs.  This could lead to standardizing ag data to improve interoperability between different sensors and software.

FarmOS is a drupal based farm management platform, which emerged from the Farm Hack network.  Now used on over 200 farms across the US, FarmOS is expanding its capabilities and Michael Stenta, the main developer, is committing more time to the project.  Our-Sci is a startup which is using the software framework developed for the PhotosynQ project at Michigan State University.  Our-Sci is a research framework for data collection, sharing, and analysis.  It’s effective for creating and standardizing new methods, and developing feedback based on sensor and survey data.

But a great deal more is needed, as well as a coherent plan for development in the future.  The more organized our development, the easier for developers to contribute helpful code and the more usable a solution for farmers.  If you are interested in contributing to the creation of this open ag stack, please contact us to get involved.


Posted by gbathree in Blog Posts, Other Applications