What do we know about the food we eat? What if there was climate democracy? These and other questions inform the work of Caleb Harper and his colleagues as they explore the future of food systems. He is the principal investigator and director of the Open Agriculture Initiative (OpenAG) at the MIT Media Lab. Under his guidance, a diverse group of engineers, architects, urbanists, economists and plant scientists (what he calls an “anti-disciplinary group”) is developing an open-source agricultural hardware, software and data common aiming to create a more agile, transparent and collaborative food system.
Food crisis. It’s in the news every day. But what is it? Some places in the world it’s too little food, maybe too much. Other places, GMO is saving the world.Maybe GMO is the problem? Too much agricultural runoff creating bad oceans, toxic oceans, attenuation of nutrition. They go on and on. And I find the current climate of this discussion incredibly disempowering. So how do we bring that to something that we understand?
0:44How is this apple food crisis? You’ve all eaten an apple in the last week, I’m sure. How old do you think it was from when it was picked? Two weeks? Two months? Eleven months — the average age of an apple in a grocery store in the United States. And I don’t expect it to be much different in Europe or anywhere else in the world. We pick them, we put them in cold storage, we gas the cold storage — there’s actually documented proof of workers trying to go into these environments to retrieve an apple, and dying,because the atmosphere that they slow down the process of the apple with is also toxic to humans.
1:24How is it that none of you knew this? Why didn’t I know this? Ninety percent of the quality of that apple —all of the antioxidants — are gone by the time we get it. It’s basically a little ball of sugar. How did we get so information poor and how can we do better?
1:42I think what’s missing is a platform. I know platforms — I know computers, they put me on the Internet when I was young. I did very weird things —
1:51on this platform. But I met people, and I could express myself.
1:55How do you express yourself in food? If we had a platform, we might feel empowered to question: What if? For me, I questioned: What if climate was democratic? So, this is a map of climate in the world. The most productive areas in green, the least productive in red. They shift and they change, and Californian farmers now become Mexican farmers. China picks up land in Brazil to grow better food, and we’re a slave to climate. What if each country had its own productive climate? What would that change about how we live? What would that change about quality of life and nutrition?
2:35The last generation’s problem was, we need more food and we need it cheap. Welcome to your global farm. We built a huge analog farm. All these traces — these are cars, planes, trains and automobiles. It’s a miracle that we feed seven billion people with just a few of us involved in the production of food.
2:56What if … we built a digital farm? A digital world farm. What if you could take this apple, digitize it somehow, send it through particles in the air and reconstitute it on the other side? What if?
3:14Going through some of these quotes, you know, they inspire me to do what I do.
3:19[“Japanese farming has no youth, no water, no land and no future.”]
3:23That’s what I landed to the day that I went to Minamisanriku, one stop south of Fukushima, after the disaster. The kids have headed to Sendai and Tokyo, the land is contaminated, they already import 70 percent of their own food. But it’s not unique to Japan. Two percent of the American population is involved in farming. What good answer comes from two percent of any population? As we go around the world, 50 percent of the African population is under 18. Eighty percent don’t want to be farmers. Farming is hard. The life of a small-shareholder farmer is miserable. They go into the city. In India: farmers’ families not being able to have basic access to utilities, more farmer suicides this year and the previous 10 before that. It’s uncomfortable to talk about. Where are they going? Into the city. No young people, and everyone’s headed in. So how do we build this platform that inspires the youth?
4:26Welcome to the new tractor. This is my combine. A number of years ago now, I went to Bed Bath and Beyond and Home Depot and I started hacking. And I built silly things and I made plants dance and I attached them to my computer and I killed them all — a lot.
4:44I eventually got them to survive. And I created one of the most intimate relationships I’ve ever had in my life, because I was learning the language of plants. I wanted to make it bigger. They said, “Knock yourself out, kid! Here’s an old electronics room that nobody wants. What can you do?”
5:02With my team, we built a farm inside of the media lab, a place historically known not for anything about biology but everything about digital life. Inside of these 60 square feet, we produced enough food to feed about 300 people once a month — not a lot of food. And there’s a lot of interesting technology in there.But the most interesting thing? Beautiful, white roots, deep, green colors and a monthly harvest. Is this a new cafeteria? Is this a new retail experience? Is this a new grocery store? I can tell you one thing for sure: this is the first time anybody in the media lab ripped the roots off of anything.
5:47We get our salad in bags; there’s nothing wrong with that. But what happens when you have an image-based processing expert, a data scientist, a roboticist, ripping roots off and thinking, “Huh. I know something about — I could make this happen, I want to try.”
6:06In that process we would bring the plants out and we would take some back to the lab, because if you grew it, you don’t throw it away; it’s kind of precious to you. I have this weird tongue now, because I’m afraid to let anybody eat anything until I’ve eaten it first, because I want it to be good. So I eat lettuce every day and I can tell the pH of a lettuce within .1.
6:25I’m like, “No, that’s 6.1 — no, no, you can’t eat it today.”
6:33This lettuce that day was hyper sweet. It was hyper sweet because the plant had been stressed and it created a chemical reaction in the plant to protect itself: “I’m not going to die!” And the plants not-going-to-die, taste sweet to me. Technologists falling backwards into plant physiology.
6:50So we thought other people needed to be able to try this. We want to see what people can create, so we conceived of a lab that could be shipped anywhere. And then we built it.
7:01So on the facade of the media lab is my lab, that has about 30 points of sensing per plant. If you know about the genome or genetics, this is the phenome, right? The phenomena. When you say, “I like the strawberries from Mexico,” you really like the strawberries from the climate that produced the expression that you like. So if you’re coding climate — this much CO2, this much O2 creates a recipe — you’re coding the expression of that plant, the nutrition of that plant, the size of that plant, the shape, the color, the texture. We need data, so we put a bunch of sensors in there to tell us what’s going on.
7:39If you think of your houseplants, and you look at your houseplant and you’re super sad, because you’re like, “Why are you dying? Won’t you talk to me?”
7:47Farmers develop the most beautiful fortune-telling eyes by the time they’re in their late 60s and 70s. They can tell you when you see that plant dying that it’s a nitrogen deficiency, a calcium deficiency or it needs more humidity. Those beautiful eyes are not being passed down.
8:02These are eyes in the cloud of a farmer. We trend those data points over time. We correlate those data points to individual plants. These are all the broccoli in my lab that day, by IP address.
8:15We have IP-addressable broccoli.
8:23So if that’s not weird enough, you can click one and you get a plant profile. And what this tells you is downloadable progress on that plant, but not like you’d think, it’s not just when it’s ready. When does it achieve the nutrition that I need? When does it achieve the taste that I desire? Is it getting too much water? Is it getting too much sun? Alerts. It can talk to me, it’s conversant, we have a language.
8:55I think of that as the first user on the plant Facebook, right? That’s a plant profile and that plant will start making friends.
9:04And I mean it — it will make friends with other plants that use less nitrogen, more phosphorus, less potassium. We’re going to learn about a complexity that we can only guess at now. And they may not friend us back — I don’t know, they might friend us back, it depends on how we act.
9:19So this is my lab now. It’s a little bit more systematized, my background is designing data centers in hospitals of all things, so I know a little bit about creating a controlled environment.
9:30And so — inside of this environment, we’re experimenting with all kinds of things. This process, aeroponics, was developed by NASA for Mir Space Station for reducing the amount of water they send into space. What it really does is give the plant exactly what it wants: water, minerals and oxygen. Roots are not that complicated, so when you give them that, you get this amazing expression. It’s like the plant has two hearts. And because it has two hearts, it grows four or five times faster. It’s a perfect world.We’ve gone a long way into technology and seed for an adverse world and we’re going to continue to do that, but we’re going to have a new tool, too, which is perfect world.
10:11So we’ve grown all kinds of things. These tomatoes hadn’t been in commercial production for 150 years.Do you know that we have rare and ancient seed banks? Banks of seed. It’s amazing. They have germplasm alive and things that you’ve never eaten. I am the only person in this room that’s eaten that kind of tomato. Problem is it was a sauce tomato and we don’t know how to cook, so we ate a sauce tomato, which is not that great. But we’ve done things with protein — we’ve grown all kinds of things.We’ve grown humans —
10:43Well maybe you could, but we didn’t.
10:44But what we realized is, the tool was too big, it was too expensive. I was starting to put them around the world and they were about 100,000 dollars. Finding somebody with 100 grand in their back pocket isn’t easy, so we wanted to make a small one.
10:57This project was actually one of my student’s — mechanical engineering undergraduate, Camille. So Camille and I and my team, we iterated all summer, how to make it cheaper, how to make it work better,how to make it so other people can make it. Then we dropped them off in schools, seventh through eleventh grade. And if you want to be humbled, try to teach a kid something.
11:17So I went into this school and I said, “Set it to 65 percent humidity.”
11:20The seventh grader said, “What’s humidity?”
11:23And I said, “Oh, it’s water in air.”
11:25He said, “There’s no water in air, you’re an idiot.”
11:28And I was like, “Alright, don’t trust me. Actually — don’t trust me, right? Set it to 100. He sets it to 100 and what happens? It starts to condense, make a fog and eventually drip.
11:38And he says, “Oh. Humidity is rain. Why didn’t you just tell me that?”
11:46We’ve created an interface for this that’s much like a game. They have a 3D environment, they can log into it anywhere in the world on their smartphone, on their tablet. They have different parts of the bots — the physical, the sensors. They select recipes that have been created by other kids anywhere in the world. They select and activate that recipe, they plant a seedling. While it’s growing, they make changes.They’re like, “Why does a plant need CO2 anyway? Isn’t CO2 bad? It kills people.” Crank up CO2, plant dies. Or crank down CO2, plant does very well. Harvest plant, and you’ve created a new digital recipe.
12:20It’s an iterative design and development and exploration process. They can download, then, all of the data about that new plant that they developed or the new digital recipe and what did it do — was it better or was it worse? Imagine these as little cores of processing. We’re going to learn so much.
12:38Here’s one of the food computers, as we call them, in a school in three weeks’ time. This is three weeks of growth. But more importantly, it was the first time that this kid ever thought he could be a farmer — or that he would want to be a farmer.
12:55So, we’ve open-sourced all of this. It’s all online; go home, try to build your first food computer. It’s going to be difficult — I’m just telling you. We’re in the beginning, but it’s all there. It’s very important to me that this is easily accessible. We’re going to keep making it more so.
These are farmers, electrical engineer, mechanical engineer, environmental engineer, computer scientist,plant scientist, economist, urban planners. On one platform, doing what they’re good at. But we got a little too big.
This is my new facility that I’m just starting. This warehouse could be anywhere. That’s why I chose it.And inside of this warehouse we’re going to build something kind of like this. These exist right now. Take a look at it. These exist, too. One grows greens, one grows Ebola vaccine. Pretty amazing that plants and this DARPA Grand Challenge winner is one of the reasons we’re getting ahead of Ebola. The plants are producing the protein that’s Ebola resistant. So pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals, all they way down to lettuce.
But these two things look nothing alike, and that’s where I am with my field. Everything is different. We’re in that weird “We’re alright” stage and it’s like, “Here’s my black box –“ “No, buy mine.” “No, no, no — I’ve got intellectual property that’s totally valuable. Don’t buy his, buy mine.”
And the reality is, we’re just at the beginning, in a time when society is shifting, too. When we ask for more, cheaper food, we’re now asking for better, environmentally friendly food. And when you have McDonald’s advertising what’s in the Chicken McNugget, the most mysterious food item of all time —they are now basing their marketing plan on that — everything is changing.
So into the world now. Personal food computers, food servers and food data centers run on the open phenome. Think open genome, but we’re going to put little climate recipes, like Wikipedia, that you can pull down, actuate and grow.
What does this look like in a world? You remember the world connected by strings? We start having beacons. We start sending information about food, rather than sending food. This is not just my fantasy,this is where we’re already deploying. Food computers, food servers, soon-to-be food data centers,connecting people together to share information.
The future of food is not about fighting over what’s wrong with this. We know what’s wrong with this. The future of food is about networking the next one billion farmers and empowering them with a platform to ask and answer the question, “What if?”