In 2011, Caleb Harper found himself in Japan shortly after the nuclear disaster at Fukushima as part of a “motley crew” sent by MIT’s Media Lab who were tasked with finding creative solutions to problems created by the disaster. One of the things that became immediately clear to Harper was that the disaster had created a food crisis in the region.
Not only was Japan already importing about 70 percent of its foodstuffs, but the rest of the world had stopped buying rice and other Japanese agricultural products out of fear of radiation contamination. To make matters worse, it was unclear whether it would be physically possible to continue growing food in the area around Fukushima due to salt deposits from the tsunami and the possibility of radiation contamination.
“When I got to Fukushima, I realized that that part of the country is like the breadbasket of Japan, but it was a post-apocalyptic version,” Harper, the director of MIT’s Open Agriculture Initiative, told Motherboard. “So I thought if you don’t have a climate that you need, couldn’t you just build another climate? That led to the idea of a plant data center which would combine food and data.”
Harper’s idea for a plant data center eventually became the Open Agricultural Initiative, where the goal is to create more farmers and code the future of food production. To this end, Harper and his colleagues have developed the Food Computer, an open source hardware and software platform for controlled-environment agriculture.
In essence, the food computer is a high tech greenhouse. It has computerized climate control systems, such as grow lights and humidifiers, and sensors to monitor oxygen levels, temperature and other climate variables. The plants in the food computer aren’t grown in soil, but are instead placed in a hydroponic or aeroponic system. In the former case, the plants’ roots are directly placed in water and in the latter, the roots are exposed to the air and misted several times a day to encourage more rapid growth.
While the Fukushima disaster in Japan was an isolated incident that threatened local food supply, the current industrialized food system is facing its own problems on a global scale. At the moment, only about 2 percent of the US population produces its own food and each year about 30 percent of the food produced globally is wasted due to inefficiency in supply chains. The global population expected to grow to 9.1 billion by 2050 and food demand will grow 70 percent in the same—the question is how to improve food production to meet the needs of the future despite the problems posed to food security by climate change.
Enter the food computer, which is essentially a grow chamber that uses robotic systems to control for variables like climate, energy and nutrients inside the chamber, realizing Harper’s vision of creating a climate that suits local needs.
The food computers developed by Harper and his colleagues collect an enormous amount of data on the plants being grown—about 3.5 million data points per plant each grow cycle. The data from all the food computers on the network is then aggregated in an open database and a special machine learning algorithm filters through this data to create “climate recipes” for growing plants optimized for phenotypic traits—such as color and size—or input variables like energy or chemical use. These climate recipes can then be downloaded by other users and run as a program for a food computer, effectively “turning the everyday person into a master gardener.”
The food computers come in three different sizes (a personal model that fits on a table top, another that’s the size of a shipping container and one that’s the size of a warehouse) and because they are open source technologies they can be built by anyone with the requisite material resources. According to Harper, the first generation of personal food computers released 6 months ago cost about $1000 to assemble and the latest generation released just a few weeks ago costs about $2000.
One of the most promising aspects of the food computer is how it provides users with the ability to locally produce any type of crop, regardless of where they are in the world. This has a number of benefits, particularly when it comes to energy use and nutrition. With the food computer, users can see exactly how many kilowatts are used to produce a pound of plant material, a statistic that is less certain in traditional agriculture due to the complexity and opacity of supply chains.
“There’s quite a lot of energy used to get produce from the farm to the distributor to the cold storage to the packer to the distributor to the retailer to the house,” said Harper. “But it’s really hard to calculate because it changes for everyone’s environment. We can be very precise in accounting, which sounds boring, but many of these food problems are problems of accounting.”
For Harper, however, one of the biggest benefits of the food computer is that the nutritional value of the plants is retained.
A personal food computer. Image: MIT
Due to the length of the supply chains for agricultural products, the average age of an apple in the grocery store, for instance, is about a year old. Although there are some benefits to treating and storing produce for months on end, it also means that fruits and vegetables have lost a significant amount of their nutrients by the time they reach the consumer. For the last few decades, this was considered to be an unfortunate but necessary aspect of having a highly centralized industrial agricultural system—if you wanted to feed the world, you’d have to make some sacrifices.
“The biggest problem [in agriculture] is that we became way too centralized,” said Harper. “There's been no networked advantage to agriculture yet. It's very industrial and it's still in that industrial economy mindset where efficiency is valued above all else and bigger is better. But now there’s this shifting of priorities from pure yield to better, more sustainable food. The problem is if you want sustainable agriculture, you need a lot of information and that’s just not how the food system was necessarily built.”
In this sense, MIT’s Open Agriculture Initiative represents a paradigm shift in the way scientists and farmers are thinking about food security and the future of agriculture. This new localized and data-driven approach is predicated on transparency of the agricultural supply chain and proximity to our food source. By making a technological approach to farming accessible to an increasingly urban global populace, Harper hopes to spur creative solutions to our impending food crises.
“The reality is most of us don't have to come into contact with how food is being grown,” said Harper. “If people want food that is safe, good and sustainable, the future of agriculture is going to have to be built on trust and transparency. All this stuff that keeps us from knowing what's in our food is going to lose in the long run.”