FoodTech: encounter with the ‘Plant Whisperer’

By November 15, 2016
Caleb Harper MIT

Ever come across a ‘nerd’ farmer? Well, Caleb Harper is one. An architect by profession, he is on the way to revolutionising the contents of our plates, and our nutrition, using his ‘food computer’. L’Atelier met up with him at the recent Hello Tomorrow Summit in Paris.

According to the proverb, ‘blood will out’. For many years, Caleb Harper, who comes from a family of farmers and grocers, ignored his heritage in order to become an architect designing data centres. But now he has returned to the fold better-armed. As Principal Investigator/Director of the Open Agriculture (OpenAg) Initiative at the MIT Media Lab, Harper is currently building a computer designed to help feed us all in the near future.

Caleb grew up on a ranch in Texas surrounded by animals and plants. His family prospered in the agrifood business but he had other ideas, going off to study architecture in Saint Louis and then at MIT. In the years that followed, he worked on designing what he calls ‘environments’, including data centres – “huge buildings where we created an environment, a climate which was computer-friendly, meeting their need for cooling, i.e. ensuring they didn’t overheat.” He used to devote the same care to creating a controlled environment for operating theatres in new hospitals. Then in 2011, MIT sent him with a group of researchers to the Fukushima prefecture in Japan, which had been devastated by an earthquake and tsunami earlier that year, in turn triggering a nuclear power plant disaster. This area used to be the jewel of Japanese agriculture, but the MIT team found that it was now impossible to grow anything at all there. “It was at Fukushima that the idea of the OpenAG Initiative was born,” reveals Caleb Harper. His thinking was: “Maybe I could design a new environment? After all I’ve built data centres. Why not build data centres for plants? If we haven’t got enough water, if the soil is contaminated, instead of importing food, shouldn’t we be creating an environment, an ideal climate to produce our food?”

It's all about data

This idea has now been launched in the form of a new kind of aeroponic agriculture. In the past, the farmer with his exposed fields was subject to a changing climate – Mr Sun playing hide-and-seek, Lady Rain watering the crops a bit when she felt like it. Today, Caleb Harper is working with an approach known as aeroponics. Here a swarm of sensors manages the growth of a plant according to its measured needs for water, nutritional elements and carbon dioxide, while light is provided by LEDs. All this comes in a box – a personal food computer. The basic idea is not to have to depend on climate, but to create one and control it by understanding, and then reproducing, the lives of plants!

By ABC News

Just imagine that plants have 15 millennia of technology in them. Texture, taste, colour and even the nutritional quality of a plant – all that doesn’t come from genetics but from the phenome,” Harper points out. The same tomato seed, if planted in Mexico as opposed to Tuscany, will not produce a tomato with the same texture, the same flesh characteristics, the same amount of water, the same flavour. “We’re trying to hack the phenome by making climate digital!” he explains. 

The OpenAG Initiative team collects all kinds of data – temperature, humidity, light, etc – on a plant and the environment in which it grows, and draws up ‘climate recipes’. These recipes can then be loaded into the food computer. The data may be collected in the present day, or be drawn from past records. Caleb Harper has obtained a large archive of farming almanachs and has recently grown tomato varieties that had not been cultivated for over 150 years.

The system has another significant virtue: Harper has kept it open-source. “This is the magic of networks!  Every food computer user grows what s/he wants to grow, using the ‘recipe’ s/he chooses. Users can even invent their own,” he underlines, adding: “And the fantastic thing about all this is that users themselves produce data and so add further to our knowledge. I can retrieve their data and grow the same thing.

From personalised medicine to personalised nutrition 

And quite apart from the pure productivity gains – the data-boosted technology enables four to five times faster growth while reducing water requirements by 70% – the OpenAG Initiative could well revolutionise our nutrition!

Caleb Harper believes that in fifteen years’ time we will all have this type of food computer in our homes. It will however not be called upon to produce everything, just specialised foods. “Today, for a thousand dollars, anyone can have his or her DNA sequenced, and so find out what s/he needs on an individual level, in terms of nutrition. In the near future, you’ll be able to grow vegetables that are good for you.” So, we’ll be able to eat personalised food, just as we take medicine that has been personally prescribed for us. 

OpenAG is currently run in ‘Maker Movement’ mode, by a dedicated team plus a community consisting of designers, scientists, engineers, architects, economists and aromatics chemists. A number of different programmes are running in twenty countries on six continents. Meanwhile, Caleb Harper hopes to rally more new recruits to his cause. “In the United States only 2% of the population are farmers and their average age is 58. We really need to get new people interested.” In order to spread the gospel, he has sent personal food computers to schools and colleges in the neighbourhood of MIT.

Asked how he sees the future of the agrifood business, Harper underlines that it will without doubt be decentralised, local… even urban. “We’re getting plants to grow four to five times faster, using 70 to 90% less water. So perhaps we won’t need to import food from so far away any more,” he argues. So, if you want Tuscan wine in Paris, you will need to develop green fingers…but keep them on your keyboard!

Credits: Open Agriculture Initiative

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