PHOTOGRAPH BY GEORGE STEINMETZ
Quests begin with a simple question: What can we do better? By 2050 we’ll need to feed 10 billion, that is 2.5 billion more people. How can we do that without overwhelming the planet? Caleb Harper is an innovator and hacker operating out of MIT Media Lab OpenAg who has a crazy impossible solution which just might work.
Why Food computers will be more powerful than 3D-printers
Imagine this. You have a box that looks a lot like a 3d-printer. But this box does not print things it grows things. Nothing too remarkable there, but wait there is genius at play here. Inside this box you can magically create climate, any climate. If say, for example, you know that the perfect sweetest juiciest strawberries come from Mexico and then you know the exact climate components that created the perfect strawberry then with some modern-day robotics, algorithms and computer sensors you can recreate that same climate in a box, anywhere in the world. That’s the food computer, an invention by Caleb Harper at MIT OpenAg Labs. Caleb explains:
‘Inside this box we are creating climate. Then we are monitoring that climate with sensors. Those sensors are creating data, lots of data – CO2 data, humidity data, temperature data; about 30 data-points are monitored. We encapsulate that and we make a plant recipe, and we put that plant recipe on Wikipedia. Someone else can then pull that file down load it into their computer and within a tolerance grow a very similar strawberry. Essentially you could be growing the same strawberry in Mexico, Boston, Antarctica and the Sahara desert.’
Essentially what Caleb and his team have done is democratise farming. If each of us know the perfect plant climate recipe and we have food computers, servers or food datacenters the we can grow any plant anywhere. What Caleb and his team at MIT have invented could make farmers out of everyone and bring farming truly into the digital world. This is that huge.
From the domestication of plants leading to the first human settlements in 8,000 BC, to the invention of the plow in 600 AD, and the spectacular Green Revolution, between the 1930s to late 1960s, where the integration of mechanisation, chemical fertilisation, and biotechnology saved over a billion people from starvation; agriculture has always been a driving force behind the 10,000 years of humankind’s societal progress. The future will be no different.
The food production chain is a remarkably fragile eosystem. The supply side, farming is being increasingly stressed by volatile environmental conditions. On the consumer end, demand is skyrocketing with an ever growing and increasingly wealthier population. According to the World Bank, 50% extra food will be required to feed the nearly 10 billion people inhabiting our beautiful blue planet by 2050.
The current industrialised food system feeds 7.2 billion people, of which more than 50% live in cities and only 3% of the global population are involved in the production of food. With natural resource scarcity, flattening yields, loss of biodiversity, changing climate, and booming urban populations, our current food system is rapidly approaching its natural limit. The big question therefore is what will define the next agricultural revolution and how will it impact global societies?
Caleb Harper grew up close to food. His parents were farmers and he lived on a farm. But as any rebellious youth will testify, he did not want to become his father. Caleb decided to become a systems architect, but his link to farming proved too strong. During a trip to Japan, Fukushima following the devastating tsunami, he witnessed first hand the impact that extreme environmental events can have on agriculture and the food supply chain. Returning to the States he decided to embark on a quest ‘to make a billion farmers.’
“In the future,” Caleb says “we won’t have to ship food, we will simply shift data.” The following is an extract from MIT Media Lab Open Ag:
The Food Computer is a controlled-environment agriculture technology 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. Operational energy, water, and mineral consumption are monitored (and adjusted) through electrical meters, flow sensors, and controllable chemical dosers throughout the growth period.
Each specific set of conditions can be thought of as a climate recipe, and each recipe produces unique results in the phenotypes of the plants. Plants grown under different conditions may vary in color, size, texture growth rate, yield, flavor, and nutrient density. Food Computers can even program biotic and abiotic stresses, such as an induced drought, to create desired plant-based expressions.
Food Computers can be made in a variety of sizes, for production and experimentation on a wide range of scales.
Personal Food Computer ““ this tabletop-sized unit will draw makers, hobbyists, and schools that are interested in learning and teaching about food production. These small-scale environments are great for experimentation and for learning about biology, botany, environment, programming, engineering, and more.
Food Server ““ the size of a standard shipping container, these mid-sized units will appeal to interdisciplinary researchers and small-scale cafeterias, restaurants, and boutique operators. They will allow small scale producers to grown on-site and offer some of the freshest food options possible.
Food Datacenter ““ while still in the development phase, we hope to expand our technology to control the environments within warehouse sized units capable of industrial production. These units will likely be subdivided in order to grow many different types of crops, all under their ideal growing conditions.
The technology for controlling the environments inside of different sized units may vary, but once the hardware is established, the internal environments, or climate recipes, can be scaled up instantly.
An open source ecosystem of food technologies to create healthier, more engaging and more inventive food systems. Grow local, from anywhere
You can watch Caleb’s Ted Talk here.
Caleb is a quester who is Achieving remarkable Things: A person with a crazy idea, who is challenging the impossible and which if he gets right will have a massive meaningful benefit to the world around us.