These are the three key elements of the Bionutrient Institute:
1. Bionutrient Meter measures nutrient density.
"Nutrient density" is a general term encompassing many components, from minerals to vitamins to organic compounds. Current measurement methods are lab based, expensive, and time-consuming, and measure a single or a small number of nutrients.
We propose to create a fast, inexpensive, field-based device – the Bionutrient Meter – to measure a broad range of nutrients of interest in crops. Because many nutrients such as minerals come directly from the soil, we will also identify fast and inexpensive soil quality measurements to help drive improved farmer practices.
The techniques to calibrate such a device using existing technology require a library of reference data. In other words, it is necessary to have both the device and the data simultaneously. This “chicken-and-egg” problem – needing the device to get the data, but needing the data to make a useful device – has stalled previous efforts due to the scale of in-house development required.
However, we will combine the hardware development, country-wide collection and sharing of data from BFA members and partners and the Health Research Institute, a nonprofit lab capable of collecting the reference data with expertise in nutrition and human health. This partnership will reduce the development costs and yield a more appropriate, accessible product developed by and for the community.
2. Crop surveys identify ranges of nutrient density in produce.
The Bionutrient Institute is conducting surveys of farms, markets, and stores across the United States, generating a fully public database of food quality using established lab methods.
In the short term, the surveys will help build a nutritional database to calibrate the handheld nutrition sensor for the Bionutrient Meter. It will also provide a completely unique dataset for public health and nutrition researchers to understand the sources and drivers of food quality. And it will track the quality of fruits and vegetables in a more granular way so that future changes in quality can be measured.
In the long term, the surveys will result in faster, low-cost testing methods, both in the lab and in the field, so that consumers and farmers can quickly and easily identify high-quality produce. The ultimate outcome we seek is to inform consumers and farmers about food quality in real time, resulting in improved supply and demand of nutritious food.
3. Open-source platform tracks food & farming data.
We propose to create a platform on which to collect and analyze data and to provide feedback and collaborate about food quality and farming practices. This platform will provide a springboard for organizing research that can further enhance food quality and farming practices. Because the information will be freely available, the broader public will also have easier access to nutrition-related data.
To achieve these goals, we will build on two existing open-source projects called Our-Sci.net and FarmOS. Each project is already independently successful: Our-Sci.net is a software + hardware platform for collecting, analyzing, and sharing data so researchers and communities of practice can create successful, global research projects. FarmOS is a farm management system (asset tracking, field maps, etc.) to save farmers time and money, and to simplify compliance with certification programs such as USDA Organic Certification.
Our expectation is that through funding and establishing this platform, hundreds of millions of research dollars will ultimately be spent to create data held and exchanged in this public commons. Similar to the evolution of the Human Gene Project, its role will likely change over time.