What You Should Know About Open Agriculture Initiative

The Lempert Report
January 31, 2017

It’s part of the MIT Media Lab and has a goal to create more farmers and code the future of food production.

Caleb Harper and his colleagues have developed the Food Computer, an open source hardware and software platform for controlled-environment agriculture 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, according to Motherboard

This food computer is basically a high tech greenhouse with computerized climate control systems, such as grow lights and humidifiers, and sensors to monitor oxygen levels, temperature and other climate variables. They don’t grow plants in soil, but in a hydroponic or aeroponic system.   

Today 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 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.” 

Want one? The food computers come in three models (a personal model that fits on a table top for $2,000, 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.   

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. Harper hopes to spur creative solutions to our impending food crises across the globe.