September 18, 2019
MIT Food Computer

OpenAg – Open Source Food Computer

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MIT Open Agriculture (OpenAg) is a wonderful execution of an open source initiative for controlled-environment agriculture platform referred to as “Food Computer”. All hardware, software and even data is open sourced so that it becomes an open standard for agriculture research.

OpenAg is the brainchild of Caleb Harper as a joint initiative of the MIT Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Food Computer

The founder of the project, Caleb Harper, has called his open source initiative, Food Computer. It utilizes soilless agriculture technologies like hydroponic and aeroponic systems to grow crops in a climate controlled-environment. These devices come in various sizes. From the smallest, the size of a Microwave oven, to the largest, housed inside an immense warehouse.

These platforms help collect data on Phenomes of the plants by measuring various aspects of the plant growth. In current configuration it tracks over 21 variables in a plant’s life making the basis of the phenome. The measurements include, temperature, relative humidity, carbon dioxide and oxygen levels. There are other sensors for tracking electrical conductivity and pH value of water. Then there are additional sensors which are deployed to directly monitor the plant’s exposure to various nutrients, fertilizers and chemicals to determine its growth.

These measurements are part of the growing phenome library which will also be available freely for other scientists, engineers and agriculturist to download and use it to program their own Food Computer. And hence, reproduce the recipe, aka, clone the plant phenome.

These food computers have another critical use which we believe will be its real and tangible future. They can be built in remote locations where it is not possible to do traditional agriculture. Places like the Arctics, the immense deserts of Sahara and Arabian Peninsula. And even the snowy and chilly Himalayan mountain range. In short, the climate and location will not be a hindrance to building a food computer. Instead, the type of phenome will decide the quality of food.

As Caleb Harper in his Ted Talk, explains that if we want to have Strawberries from Mexico, we can grow them in our food computer by replicating the phenome of a Mexican Strawberry. This transformation and easy availability of food recipe will revolutionize how we grow, harvest and consume our food. We can grow mangoes, the king of fruits, from exotic places like Pakistan, or Thailand, right in our backyard food computer. Imagine, harvesting apples and strawberries without needing to make a trip to the nearby grocery shop which might have imported the fruit many weeks (or months) ago.

This is a revolutionary idea. And it is now time to put this in practice at a grand level. As the recipes improve and phenome database grows, we can turn every home into a farm.

The cost of building and managing such Food computers will be the key. If it costs more to produce plants in Food Computer than one sold in our nearby grocery store, then it will never go beyond a research project. Over time, as more of such devices are built and used, the costs will come down to a manageable level.

The project is still in its infancy. And there are only a handful of installations in Boston area conducting the initial agriculture experiments. Over time, we are likely to see similar devices being deployed across the globe. And it may just be the first step in helping take Agritech technology revolutionize food technologies.

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Atif Mumtaz

Techie by day, blogger by night. Love the outdoors, enjoy traveling and building new and interesting things. Follow me if you want to know something.

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