Will science save us - the rise of the citizen scientist | Sumfood

Posted in Consumer, Food Safety, Food Systems, Food Technology on Mar 07, 2019

What is the role of the consumer?

In previous writings, we have looked at science and how science is being used to support stronger food systems. To be fair, our findings are somewhat inconclusive, largely due to the lack of consistency across geographical regions and this is predominantly driven by political and trade agendas. While everyone wants safe food (including governments), the amount of emphasis and investment into safer systems varies considerably – along with variation on what the role of government agencies versus the role of the producer versus the role of the consumer is. We think that it is timely to talk about the new player on the block – the citizen scientist. What role will consumers/citizens play in driving a new transparency objective? Specifically, are the rise of tools to assist consumers window dressing, an efficient way to crowd-source data, or, are they actually something that will benefit consumers?

Pocket power

The computing power that we now carry on our person is millions of times more powerful than all of NASA’s combined computing in 1969, and other than using it to post photos of our café meals, there are some incredibly useful things that we can do with it (don’t get us wrong, we rate Instagram as a platform for sharing food information – have a look here). Our mobile devices have replaced record and movie collections, telephones, telegrams and faxes (yes, we remember them), heart rate monitors, maps and books, cameras and the list goes on. In short, they have become a repository for many of the things we ‘need’ to conduct our daily life. They have also become a mobile tool for good.

One such application is the conversion of a smart-phone camera into an optical sensor that can monitor food quality. The transformation results in a hyperspectral camera and its application for consumers includes the potential to analyze food to determine if it is safe to eat. Of course, nothing is that simple for this to work there are some significant questions around validation of results, calibration of readings, and the size and accuracy of the required reference dataset.

Another device (currently featuring on crowdfunding site, Indiegogo) enables investors to scan all of their food in a day and determine the nutritional content, measuring intake against daily recommended amounts. The instructional video advises that you hold the scanner on the food to eliminate any air gaps between the scanner and the food. Now, I am not a tech wizard, but I do imagine that applying this process to something like soup could get a little messy. Cynicism aside, the device does appear in its early development phase and clearly the investors and inventors are responding to a perceived gap in the market. There are questions that remain though about the utility of such a device – will it be captured by those who already have a high level of food literacy (and who can, therefore, understand daily nutritional requirements) or will it help power the food transparency agenda? As they wait for funding, I guess we will have to wait to see what the impact of that particular technology is. A slightly less weighty option is the weight watchers app that allows you to monitor intake, keep track of eating patterns and scan food barcodes to get information about a product – this is included here as an example of an app that is making use of available data and generating revenue for its parent company. Is the weight watcher (and other similar applications) likely to improve food integrity? The answer is a no – it is an app for those already converted to the notion of calorie counting (and, lets face it, counting calories does not improve the quality or safety of food products).

The risk of a false sense of security

There are numerous devices available to scan barcodes or QR codes and tell us whether a product is authentic and where it has come from… supposedly. However, these devices are reliant upon the quality of the barcode, the security of the product (purchasing authentic and empty containers remains a big business in some parts of the world), the ability for a code to be reused or a production refilled, and the ability of the product to have unique identifiers, to name a few variables. Ultimately, however, these systems tend to fail when they require consumers to have multiple apps to scan products – if you have ever shopped with a hungry 2 year old you know that time in the supermarket has to be strategically spent – dilly dallying over the correct app to scan a product is unlikely to happen.

The role of the consumer is linked to the knowledge of the consumer Back to the potential influence of the citizen scientist. When Frederick Accum wrote A Treatise on Adulterations of Food, and Culinary Poisons in 1815, the food world changed – Accum opened consumers eyes to the fact that “…almost everything sold as food and drink in modern industrial cities was not what it seemed; and by being not what it seemed, could kill them” (from B Wilson, 2008, Swindled: from poison sweets to counterfeit coffee – the dark history of the food cheats). While consumers were aware they were being cheated, there was little that they could do about it; no laws were available to demand that food was pure and there were no available scientific methods to rapidly detect the presence of adulterants. The only consumer ‘applications’ that were available were sight, taste and smell.

It seems a somewhat obvious thing to state but the ability of the consumer to usefully contribute to the drive for greater transparency of food supply chains is directly linked to the knowledge the consumer has; and, increasingly our knowledge seems a little on the low side. How, then, can a consumer usefully engage with technology such as a hyperspectral scanner, if they do not understand what they are looking for? The answer to this riddle is simple, the developers ‘dumb down’ the application to the point that a consumer only needs to determine the difference between traffic light type indicators. Easy to understand, likely to sell more devices, but will it improve the food systems - arguably, no. For food systems to be challenged, we need to have critical consumers who have access to cutting edge science, apply the science rigorously and report the results in a way that action can be taken. In terms of food transparency, we are still back at the power of the NASA computer of 1969 – while it did enable man to walk on the moon, it was not accessible to everyday folk.

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