On a freezing December morning, I visited the Open Agriculture Initiative at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, and talked with Director Caleb Harper. Harper and his team aim to reinvent the future of farming, both locally and globally. Their work features open-source Food Computers, which are enclosed containers for growing plants in controlled environments. Food Computers use robotic systems to control the conditions inside them, known as the “climate,” from temperature and humidity to dissolved nutrients and carbon dioxide. Here’s what we discussed:
Cook’s Science: Tell us about your work. What is the Open Agriculture Initiative?
Caleb Harper: [Open Agriculture is] a big initiative, and there are a lot of problems in food. I think our work will address many of them, but the biggest problem I see us solving is creating a next generation of farmers. A lot of our focus is on developing tools…which we call Food Computers as a general category. We have the Personal Food Computer, which we open-sourced six months ago and now has been built in 20 countries on 6 continents. These Personal Food Computers don’t grow a whole lot of food. [They’re] not about that. They’re about growing intelligence, growing skills, growing knowledge, especially [when they are used in schools]. They help teach about chemistry and biology, but also about data science and sensor science and electronics and coding. It’s been really successful in a lot of schools.
The next size up from the Personal Food Computer is what we call a Food Server, which is the size of a shipping container. Our last tool is the Food Data Center, which is the scale of a warehouse. This gets into real [food] production. But the cool thing is what links all three of these tools —the data we collect. We collect climate data [Editor's Note: "Climate data" refers to the ambient conditions during a plant's growth cycle, whether on a farm, in nature, or inside a Food Computer] that will tell us how that climate [within the Food Computer] will cause that plant to express [its genome]. So, the natural climate in Mexico, or the climate in Napa, or Bordeaux, or any other Food Computer climates we want to experiment with, they are the generators of flavor, color, texture, and size. And so, as kids, adults, scientists are doing experiments with Food Computers, they’re generating climate data. The technology between the three types of Food Computers is a bit different, but the data they produce, which we call ‘Open Phenome [Library],’ is really a sort of crowd-sourced science project. [Editor's Note: Phenotypes are the observable characteristics of an organism that are the result of both its genetics and its environment. The “Open Phenome Library,” as part of the Open Agriculture Initiative, will be a database that relates climate variables (inputs) to plant outputs (size, flavor, texture, etc.).]
CS: What problems are you and your team working to solve?
CH: I think probably one of the biggest problems is that people don’t really know a lot about food. General, normal people haven’t had to be involved in food in a long time. My ancestors came over during the land rush and were farmers but they left at some point because farms started to aggregate, and you started to have very big farms in the United States. That’s resulted in 2% of our population being farmers and their average age being 58. Think about that. A whole, important group of people, and this is pretty consistent around the world, is almost in their 60s. So, who’s the next generation of farmers? I think it’s going to be kids who are interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics). They’re going to be scientists who apply out-of-field knowledge [to agriculture]. Agricultural research has gone very deep but very narrow for a long time. And now I think we’re going to expand it across a bunch of different fields.