How personal food computers could revolutionize farming

Caleb Harper, founder of an agricultural innovation group at MIT, has built a prototype of the personal food computer, which has the potential to give everyone the ability to plant perfect crops all year round.

A Cambridge, Mass. researcher wants to take farming to a whole new level.

Caleb Harper, founder of the CityFarm research group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has built the first prototype of the “personal food computer” — a small, climate-controlled box that can not only grow food, but also collect, store, and visualize data about the crop being grown, the Washington Post’s Matt McFarland first reported.  

The project could mark the beginning of a marriage between two movements in agriculture today: vertical farming, or the sustainable cultivation of crops in tiered rows for indoor growing; and open sourcing, which allows the free sharing of agricultural innovation and data.

The idea is to generate information about the best conditions for growing a variety of food indoors, and to make the information publicly accessible, Mr. Harper said.

“We want to create an open source, digital recipe for climate,” he told National Geographic.

Open sourcing in agriculture took root, so to speak, when industry giants such as Monsanto began improving crop yields through genetically modified seeds and other innovations, according to TechRepublic. Because the seeds and services were proprietary, corporations could — and did — sue farmers for planting seeds or using data that had the company’s patented characteristics.

“It's a new spin on an old problem: corporate control and proprietization of otherwise open data,” TechRepublic columnist Matt Asay wrote.

In response, the Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI) was formed with the goal of ensuring that the “code,” or genes, of at least some seeds would always be available to farmers and free from patents or licensing by gathering and sharing data about plant genetic resources.

Harper wants to do the same for data around cultivating food crops. In Harper’s vision, climate recipes would be available online for free, giving everyone access to knowledge about the perfect conditions for growing any crop.  

“Think of it as Wikiplants — a program that brings innovation to the intersection of technology, agriculture and free access to data,” according to National Geographic.

Harper’s personal food computer, small enough to sit on a coffee table, would be the tool to make it all possible. The machine uses an array of sensors to monitor environmental conditions such as carbon dioxide levels, light intensity, humidity, and acidity, McFarland reported.

Instead of using soil, the device employs aeroponics, in which roots hang suspended in the air, receiving nutrients in mist form. The technique reduces water, fertilizer, and pesticide use while maximizing crop yields indoors, according to NASA, which has used aeroponic systems to grow plants in the International Space Station.

The food computer would then gather this data, recreate it, and share it with the public, giving everyone the ability to produce optimized food any time of the year, McFarland wrote.

Harper acknowledged that the challenges to getting his project off the ground are considerable: “[T]he first [food computers] aren’t going to be great,” he told the Post. “It’s going to take some courageous teachers and it’s going to take some people to help me get it done.”

But he’s also optimistic, seeking advice from open-source leaders such as the Mozilla Corporation, and planning to launch his open agriculture movement in September.

“Everyone in the world wants to know more about where our food is coming from and how they’re going to keep getting it,” Harper told the Post. “There is a groundswell of consumers and young innovators that would like to make a big difference. All we need is the tools. My focus is on getting the tools out there.”

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