If consumers could use a simple smartphone sensor to measure the nutrient density of food before they buy it, would their choices at the grocery store create a feedback loop effective enough to reward farmers for producing quality instead of quantity and shift production methods toward those that result in healthier products?
It's a big question with potentially sweeping ramifications, and at least one entrepreneur is well on his way to testing that theory on a broad scale.
Dan Kittredge grew up on an organic farm in Massachusetts and now runs the Bionutrient Food Association, an educational nonprofit that aims to increase food quality by empowering consumers with the technology to quickly analyze the nutritional attributes of virtually any food item, from milk, meat and oranges to prepared foods.
His first-generation version of just such a device consists of a small box, roughly the size of a chalkboard eraser, with a light sensor on one end that reflects back information and records it on a Bluetooth-enabled cellphone.
In another year or two Kittredge predicts the technology will fit inside a chip that can be implanted directly into the phone. Within five years he expects it to take the form of a downloadable app.
The goal of Kittredge's "real food campaign" is to put actual science behind claims that healthier soil and plants translate to healthier animals and humans, a contention that has remained largely anecdotal up to this point.
"It needs to be based on data. Science is our common language," he said.
Refractometers, which measure how light bends to produce a brix reading, are already becoming more common as a way to determine the concentration of sugars in plants, forages and produce.
"A refractometer is a good tool, but you have to take a chunk out of the apple, squish it up and get the juice to use it," Kittredge said. Instead, he wanted to create something noninvasive so it would be more practical. What he settled on was the spectrometer, which measures airwave vibrations. The same technology has been used to beam back information from distant planets, but Kittredge has been working to miniaturize and mass-produce it for the consumer market.
He is making 300 of his first-generation readers available to anyone willing to pay $377 and become a $50-per-year member of his organization.
His group also built a lab to analyze the results and is encouraging other public institutions to replicate it for an estimated cost of around $5,000 a piece.
One thing he's fiercely committed to is keeping the technology in the public domain, where it can be freely shared.
His group has already started collecting preliminary data on carrots and has reached a few conclusions.
"We saw a broad variation, which establishes proof of concept," he said. "Also, there's no correlation between organic and conventionally grown, which is what we predicted."
The standards of the national organic label have generated controversy ever since they were formalized nearly 20 years ago. Part of Kittredge's vision is to provide actual proof of nutrient density rather than forcing consumers to rely on a label to make food choices.
"Organic was a stepping-stone, but we've got to keep moving forward," he explained, noting that he and his family are lifelong organic farmers themselves. "The industry is controlling the organic label now, and I think labeling is part of the problem. The idea of the label is something we are trying to get beyond."
Kittredge's plan seems hugely ambitious and raises many questions, not the least of which is how exactly to define "high quality" and "nutrient dense," a challenge he freely acknowledges.
In fact, the question of what constitutes quality started him down his current path a decade ago.
"Labels are binary: it's either this or it's not. But our hypothesis is that quality is on more of a continuum," he said.
His campaign is generating excitement, and also some skepticism, among soil health advocates.
Gabe Brown, a farmer from Bismarck, North Dakota, who is considered one of the pioneers of the regenerative agriculture movement, believes it will help put more concrete figures behind the benefits of regenerative practices.
"I think what Dan is doing has great potential to change production agriculture," Brown said. "Say you have two people producing carrots and the consumer has this nutrient meter. They walk in and test two carrots in a supermarket, and then they buy this one because it is more nutrient dense. Now, there will be a process of at what price point are they willing to buy it? But if all of a sudden that grocery store is sold out of those carrots, the store is going to buy more from that producer. And that's going to drive real change on the landscape. I see that as a good thing."
Hearing about the hand-held spectrometer, Yosef Camire, owner of Ahavah Farm, a small regenerative growing operation near Peyton, Colo., was enthusiastic.
"I want one," he said, adding, "Our focus needs to shift from what's not in the food to what's actually in it."
That initial reaction aside, Camire also noted his experience with brix metering shows how variable numbers can be.
"It literally changes by the hour, and there are so many factors that go into it," he said.
Brendon Rockey, who uses extensive soil regeneration practices on his potato farm in the San Luis Valley near Center, expressed uncertainty about whether putting such a tool in the hands of consumers was the best way to drive changes in food production.
He, too, has played around with a refractometer to collect brix readings.
"You end up with a sheet full of numbers but at the end of the day what does it really mean?" he said.
He worries that consumers could get so obsessed with measuring each individual food item that they drive themselves insane while losing sight of the bigger picture.
"I think it's going to be hard to do this on a large scale," he reflected. "I see this as a very niche deal and maybe not relevant to the majority of shoppers. What I'd rather see is for people to focus on improving farming practices as a whole and look at all of the food in general, rather than micromanaging purchasing decisions down to that level."
Steve Tucker, a no-till farmer from northeast of Holyoke, Colo., raised a concern that many farmers would likely share.
"Maybe I'll look at the test results and find out that what I'm producing looks even worse than I thought it would," he joked.
Even so, as an early adopter of soil health practices, he said he would welcome a shift toward more emphasis on quality.
"I do think the next big wave will be human health and how it is linked to plant health," he said.
John Kempf, a crop consultant from Ohio who spoke at the Soil Health Revolution Conference in Boulder in mid-December, said he believes farmers are already being paid, directly and indirectly, for quality factors influenced by regenerative practices, such as high test-weight grain or larger sized fruit.
"The big question this technology raises for me is, even if we can demonstrate that these differences actually exist, will it actually translate to incentives that will change large scale food production? I think growers already have a substantial incentive to adopt regenerative practices," he said.