FARMERS can now zap their crops with a handheld scanner to instantly determine nutritional content, which could prove crucial in mitigating the effects of climate change on food quality. It also brings similar consumer gadgets a step closer – so we can find out what is in our food for ourselves.
The device, called GrainSense, analyses wheat, oats, rye and barley by scanning a sample with various frequencies of near-infrared light. The amount of each type of light that is absorbed allows it to precisely determine the levels of protein, moisture, oil and carbohydrate in the grain.
This technique has been used for decades in the lab, but this is the first time it has been available instantly on a handheld device.
“Today you have to send at least half a kilo of grain to the lab,” says Edvard Krogius, the co-founder of GrainSense, the Finnish company developing the system. “It can take days or weeks to get results.”
By contrast, GrainSense requires a sample of just 50 to 100 kernels and can reveal their composition in about 5 seconds. This information, along with the GPS coordinates of where the measurements were taken, is linked to a mobile app.
“Real-time results mean farmers can add fertilisers or tweak moisture levels as crops grow”
Traditionally, farming has been guided by instinct and inherited best practice, but information is becoming increasingly important as the environment becomes more unpredictable. In August, for example, Harvard University researchers showed for the first time that rising carbon dioxide levels are significantly reducing the amount of protein in staple crops. That puts 150 million more people at risk of developing protein deficiency by 2050.
While tractor and soil sensors can reveal conditions in fields, and drones can show areas in need of irrigation or pest treatment, farmers only find out how their grain actually fared after harvest. “An accurate, real-time estimate of crop components is of significant importance,” says Salah Elsayed from the University of Sadat City in Egypt. It could allow farmers to mitigate the negative effects of climate change early by adding fertilisers or tweaking moisture levels as crops grow.
GrainSense will be launched at the Agritechnica fair in Hanover, Germany, in November. And Krogius and his team are already thinking about adding corn and rice to its repertoire. But the technology could be adapted to assess the protein content of any organic material, including meat.
Other companies are developing similar gadgets for consumers, and sensors that can be fitted onto a smartphone. Whether we all start making healthier food choices is another matter.