Bio & Life Sciences Energy & Green Tech Internet of Things

Food Production in a Technology-driven Economy

The Open Agriculture initiative at MIT Media Lab recently put food computers like this one in several Boston-area classrooms so students can experiment with “climate recipes” for growing plants.

Today’s world has been revolutionized by technologies that are increasingly connected, networked, and accessible to the masses. In stark contrast, agricultural production is still constrained by industrial-era economics. Information remains opaque, practices and metrics of production are largely unobtainable, and the ownership of physical and intellectual property is typically restricted to a tiny percentage of the population.

I created the Open Agriculture Initiative at the MIT Media Lab in an effort to drive a paradigm shift from the industrial to the networked age of agricultural production—giving rise to a computationally-based food systems revolution that will account for the ecological, environmental, economic, and societal implications of producing food.

To create the data, hardware, and software—and most importantly, to feed and nourish the 9 billion people of 2050—will hinge on fostering a creative forum of thinkers and doers on collaborative technology platforms. I believe that controlled environment agriculture (indoor facilities sometimes called vertical farms, plant factories, or city farms) will be the key to democratizing food production and empowering people to take back control over what they are eating and where it’s coming from.

OpenAG is developing Food Computers that will set a new standard for controlled-environment agriculture. The technology will serve as a shared, hackable platform that uses robotic systems to control and monitor climate, energy, and plant growth inside of a specialized growing chamber. Climate variables such as carbon dioxide, air temperature, humidity, dissolved oxygen, potential hydrogen, electrical conductivity, and root-zone temperature are among the many conditions that can be controlled and monitored within the growing chamber.

Of the many sensors within the Food Computer, plants act as the most important sensors of all. Plants respond to every input with unique phenotypic expressions of their hard-wired genomes, and each change to the input may affect the plant’s final output on a physical and chemical level. Plants are factories for the chemicals and nutrients we need in our own bodies, so by controlling what we put in, we can better control what they give out.

Each specific set of conditions in a Food Computer can be thought of as a climate recipe, and plants grown under different conditions may vary in color, size, texture growth rate, yield, flavor, and nutrient density. By creating an open source database of climate recipes and corresponding phenotypes, users will be able to track and share their results and compare them to existing recipes.

Food Computers will vary in size for experimentation and production on a wide range of scales. The initial Food Computer is a tabletop-sized unit that will draw makers, hobbyists, and schools that are interested in learning and teaching about food production. The larger, shipping container-sized Food Servers will appeal to interdisciplinary researchers and small-scale cafeterias, restaurants, and boutique operators.

We are also currently developing warehouse-sized Food Data Centers that will be capable of industrial-scale production. While the technology for advanced environmental control varies at each scale, the climates themselves will be able to be shared across them in order to feed the most people using the best recipes.

In order to find these climate recipes, we will need massive numbers of users to grow, experiment, and contribute data to the network. Diverse users will find unique ways to experiment, hack, modify, and grow, using Food Computers of all shapes and sizes. All platforms will be connected via an online forum, through which data, digital plant recipes, and improvements to hardware and software will be shared openly. One day, climates, phenomes, recipes, and most importantly, fresh, nutritious food will all be freely available online as a sort of “internet of plants” that will continue to grow and develop over time.

Currently, our most important mission is to create more farmers. Because education will be a key factor in inspiring a technology-driven generation, OpenAG is targeting schools as pioneers in the world of Food Computing. I want kids to see agriculture as an exciting field where they can innovate, explore, and make a real impact on their communities and on the world. Creating an exciting technology platform that inspires students to innovate and explore is our best bet towards a better future of food.

Making agricultural practices radically transparent will improve access to fresh, nutritious foods, reduce food spoilage and food waste, and create local and global communities that are built on a shared platform and shared data.

I want people to know exactly what goes into their food, where it comes from, and why it matters. I want them be able to grow locally from anywhere and develop an honest relationship with the food they consume. I want them to harness the power of distributed food-computing across a global network of innovators and producers to achieve an agile, open, and responsive agricultural system.

Caleb Harper is the Principal Investigator and Director of the Open Agriculture (OpenAG) Initiative at MIT Media Lab. He joins a panel on “Hunger, Health, and the Future of Food” at Techonomy 2015 3:15 Eastern, Monday Nov. 9.

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