The Farming of the Future Looks Nothing like It Does Today

  • June 29th 2016

CALEB HARPER is the principal investigator and director of the OPEN AGRICULTURE (OPENAG) INITIATIVE at MIT Media Lab.

Below, Harper explains how new technology and data is being used to created controlled climates and “digital recipes” to grow healthy food anywhere in the world.

Tell us about what inspired you to try and come up with innovative, small-scale solutions to provide access to food.

Usually, these moments of inspiration are the result of an aggregate of experiences, skillsets, and interests, honed over years of study in a particular field — a funneling toward a deep and narrow domain knowledge. However, maybe because I’m a product of the MIT MEDIA LAB — the proud home of intellectual misfits, occupying the “anti-disciplinary” white space between the verticals of many different disciplines — that was not my path.

I began my journey as an architect, designing data centers in the United States and surgical theaters in the United Kingdom. Data centers are control environments for optimizing the heating and cooling needs of servers, and surgical theaters are control environments for optimizing biologic and atmospheric conditions for surgery.

What I might call my “eureka” moment regarding small-scale solutions to solving the global food crisis struck on my visit to Minamisanriku, Japan in 2011, in the wake of the Japanese tsunami and the Fukashima nuclear disaster. The devastation of the farmlands particularly resonated with me. I come from a rural background, and the salt-glazed, contaminated soil of the Japanese farmlands conjured up a desolate, post-apocalyptic version of my own childhood. Not only that, much of the youth had left the Japanese “breadbasket” to pursue tech jobs in Tokyo and Sendai long ago, so it wasn’t surprising that the headlines on the day I landed read, “Japanese farming has no water, no youth, no land, and no future.”

The complex nature of that problem made me realize that what was truly necessary was to architect an equally multifaceted solution, by building a different world from the bottom up — one in which farming could be divorced from natural disasters and climate change, and be appealing enough to engage the interest of the bright, STEM-oriented future generations.

What are a couple of the most promising innovations in food systems today?

The food system at large is experiencing a global resurgence of interest, a renaissance of sorts. We have seen this in currency, hotels, cars, energy, retail, and food is next. One of the areas I am most interested in is called the cellular agriculture movement. Cellular agriculture touches everything from the work of MODERN MEADOW in the production of new bio materials (leathers) without an animal, MEMPHIS MEAT producing chicken and pork from cell cultivation, MUUFRI in the production of milk from yeast and many others.

Data is also starting to play a much bigger role in the food supply chain. I am excited by the work of the Farmers Business Network helping farmers optimize in field production and advancement and integration of spectrometers in supply chains and in consumers hands like Illuminate and Scio. Undoubtedly new tools being developed in accessing DNA, like CRSPR and GeneDrive, will also have a profound impact in food. Overall the trend in food that is most promising is the consumer switch that is demanding radical transparency, accountability, and traceability in the future of food.

Part of the Open Agricultural Initiative’s mission is to create more farmers. Can you explain the vision for the modern-day farmer and how it’s different from a farmer in the traditional sense?

Our modern agricultural system consists primarily of massive, chemically intensive, highly automated and globally distributed monoculture farms; the “American Gothic” image of farming has long since gone away. Only 2 percent of the population is actively engaged with farming in the United States, and the average age of our farmers is 58.

Agricultural research and development often occurs in isolation of technological advancements in adjacent fields. Our mission is to network the next billion “digital” farmers, by providing a platform that spans across a multitude of disciplines. We need plant physiologists, chemists, data scientists, mechanical engineers, algorithm designers, electrical engineers, front- and back-end software developers, roboticists… all working together. The farmer of the future will be a lot more like “The Martian,” except right here on earth.

The “Food Computer” solution that Open Ag advocates for does not rely on a natural environment to grow food. Can you explain how the Food Computer works, and its potential impact?

At a very basic level you can think of a food computer as a highly controlled “thinking” greenhouse. The PERSONAL FOOD COMPUTER (PFC) is a small-scale controlled growing chamber meant for networked experimentation and knowledge sharing, in which robotic control systems and actuated climate, energy, and plant-sensing mechanisms create a controlled environment for plants to grow, using aeroponic, hydroponic, or even geoponic (soil) methods. We control and gather data on variables like temperature, humidity, CO2, light wavelength and intensity, dissolved oxygen, macronutrients (potassium, phosphorous, and nitrogen), and a number of others.

With such control of the specific conditions, we can create replicable “digital plant recipes” within the PFC to either imitate natural environments or produce synthetic ones to produce higher quality nutritional expressions with minimal use of natural resources. Basically, we could mimic the Amazon in order to grow plants we previously had to traipse into the rainforests to find — or we could explore all the variables to create an entirely new, artificial climate. We are also developing larger-scale food computers: shipping-container-sized Food Servers, and warehouse-sized Food Data Centers, that are able to scale the “digital plant recipes” gathered in the larger PFC network.

Our initiative is entirely open source, with everything from software to hardware to the recipes themselves being readily available to the community. The goal is to create transparency and deep, personal engagement with food, along with a platform that allows for experts in many different fields—like plant science, data science, botany, coding, computer engineering, flavor science, and a number of others—to share ideas and knowledge in easily repeatable experiments using this platform.

Ultimately, with our OPEN PHENOME PROJECT, we plan to map and correlate the climate conditions that give rise to beneficial phenotypic traits — the expression of the plant’s genotype, such as shape, texture, color, flavor, and nutrition, as incited by environmental factors acting on the plants genetics — to create a comprehensive database of the expressions of life, a “climate commons.”

We want this to be the ultimate platform for personal expression, networking the next billion “digital farmers” to download recipes, grow them, modify them, and share their results and experiences with the community. Using the food computer, we can deploy a diversity of heritage, ancient, and hybrid plant cultivars that haven’t been used for 100 years because they weren’t viable for commercial production, and incorporate them back into our diets. We can optimize nutrition and resource use by a factor of five- to 10 times and decentralize production of healthy food anywhere in the world. Like the early PCs, the possibilities are endless, and will be driven by the needs of users actualizing their own skillsets and desires using an open and flexible production platform.

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