Caleb Harper
May 10, 2016 · 4 min read
The Food Server at the MIT Media Lab. Photo: Caleb Harper.

Two months ago, at the Near Future Summit led by revolutionary thinker and ecoFabulous founder Zem Joaquin, I asked an audience of intellectual luminaries to guess the age of an average supermarket apple. Not a single estimate remotely approached the correct answer:

Fourteen months.

And of course it didn’t. That number is mind-boggling — nearly impossible to accept. It sounds like the punchline to a bad joke, or a botched magic trick.

Yet, this is our reality. And it’s less funny by the moment. That an apple can travel over 11,500 miles from where it was grown (spending over a year in shipment and in toxic, low-oxygen storage to suspend its maturation) is the perfect object lesson of our global agricultural system’s failures. This huge, analog “farm” built by our predecessors is a snarled cats-cradle of crisscrossed strings between origin and destination, shipment and storage. And with the advent of natural-resource scarcity, flattening yields, loss of biodiversity, changing climates, environmental degradation, and booming urban populations, we’re hurtling toward its natural limit.

In the U.S., we’re insulated by the fact that the ramifications of our failing food system remain largely invisible, if still insidious. While we contend with a national obesity epidemic on the one hand and “food deserts” on the other, the rest of the world teeters on the brink of a more aggressive crisis, an increasingly violent reckoning. Just a few weeks ago, police and army forces opened fire on Filipino farmers who had taken to the streets to protest for drought relief. Ten were killed.

We need change badly, and we need it in the form of a dramatic paradigm shift. For starters, we can no longer afford to be slaves to climate.

So what if climate could be democratic? The relentless question of “what if” has long since been my life philosophy. Roaming my family’s ranch in Texas back in middle school, I remember wondering, what if I could simply ask a tree to curve in a desired direction to support a fort? (The weird start young.) And when I visited Minamisanriku, Japan in 2011 after the tsunami and the Fukashima nuclear disaster, amidst barren farmlands and farmers facing a hopeless future, I wondered:

What if we could build a different world? One in which anyone could farm anywhere, not just on land devastated by disaster, but in basements, skyscrapers, and abandoned subway tunnels? Or in classrooms, rooftops, and old factories?

The OpenAG Food Computer. Photo: Caleb Harper.

And that’s exactly what we’re doing with the digital farming OpenAG Initiative at the MIT Media Lab. As I explained at the summit, my “Food Computer” is a controlled environment agriculture platform, in which robotic control systems and actuated climate, energy, and plant-sensing mechanisms create a precisely calibrated environment for growth. We use aeroponic technology, and with thirty sensing points per plant, we can trend data points over time and discover exactly what each plant wants. Unlike conventional agriculture, bent on dominating nature with a heavy hand, we’ve started a conversation with nature, a two-way street. It allows us to calibrate a plant’s phenome — the set of its observable traits — by listening carefully and then coding for optimal expression, for the juiciest strawberries and the sweetest basil.

And with our Open Phenome database of “climate recipe” files, we’ve begun building something like a Wikipedia full of these recipes, created by digital farmers worldwide and accessible to everyone. Our entire endeavor is open source, from Personal Food Computers for in-home use (farmers can even build their own PFCs, using instructional videos and schematics available online), to larger Food Servers for boutique use, and finally to massive Food Data Centers servicing a narrowly regional supply chain.

Because everything is open-sourced and firmly planted in transparency, every new digital farmer constitutes a core of processing — more data for everyone to use. Ultimately, we’re looking at a scatterplot world of informational beacons, with digital farmers uploading the recipes that yielded their best produce and “liking” this yield, much like Instagram users. We’re going to learn so much — not only how best to grow food, but what people truly like as palates vary regionally and culturally, how flavor preference correlates with health and longevity, and even how the human phenotype itself might change when fed 150% nutritionally optimized food.

We’re on the brink of an agricultural revolution, powered by a new, networked generation of the next billion farmers — all galvanized by the pursuit of “what if.” And this future is not merely near; based on the activity I’ve seen on our freshly launched OpenAg forum, the world is joyfully on board with making the future happen now.

To read more work from the Near Future Summit, check out the publication on Medium.

Near Future

Near Future brings together inventors, entrepreneurs, media and investors with a passion for being a metamorphic force, and the tools and insights to tackle crucial challenges.

Caleb Harper

Written by

Caleb Harper is the Principal Investigator and Director of the Open Agriculture (OpenAG) Initiative at the MIT Media Lab.

Near Future

Near Future brings together inventors, entrepreneurs, media and investors with a passion for being a metamorphic force, and the tools and insights to tackle crucial challenges.

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