In a Cambridge, Mass. building, under the glow of LED lights, Caleb Harper is working to literally plant the seeds for a movement that could change the way we eat and live.
Harper, the founder of the CityFarm research group at the MIT Media Lab, wants to bring the open source spirit to the nascent field of vertical farming. With knowledge being shared freely, anyone could have access to the world’s best recipe for tomatoes, or whatever plant they want to grow.
“Everyone in the world wants to know more about where our food is coming from and how they’re going to keep getting it,” Harper said. “There is a groundswell of consumers and young innovators that would like to make a big difference. All we need is the tools. My focus is on getting the tools out there.”
This spring Harper made the first prototype for his “personal food computer,” which is essentially a climate-controlled box. It’s small enough to sit on a coffee table, and includes an array of sensors to monitor conditions, such as carbon dioxide levels, humidity, light intensity and pH. There’s no soil. The plants get their nutrients through a mist which has crucial minerals added in.
By using digital technologies to identify and recreate the optimal conditions for a plant, his platform for making climate recipes has the potential to one day provide optimized foods around the world, no matter the season.
Harper plans to donate the personal food computers to select schools this September, when he formally launches his open agriculture movement.
Harper isn’t the only one interested in aeroponics, in which a plant’s roots dangle in open air, receiving nutrients through a mist. AeroFarms is spending $39 million to convert an old Newark steel factory into an aeroponics complex for vertical farming. NASA has used aeroponics to grow plants on the International Space Station. You can find plenty of examples on Kickstarter and YouTube of devices made for aeroponic farming.
Vertical farming is appealing because you can grow in urban areas, which cuts the carbon footprint of transporting crops. Foods also arrive fresher given the shorter trips to consumers’ tables. Because vertical farming is done indoors, there’s safety from droughts and climate change. Vertical farmers can also deliver crops with less water. One major question mark is the amount of energy currently needed to grow foods with aeroponics, vs. traditional methods.
What’s special about Harper is his commitment to open source, in which ideas are shared openly among all members of a community. I caught up with Harper while he visited Washington, D.C. for National Geographic’s Explorers Symposium.
He imagines climate recipes that would be available free online. Whoever perfects thai basil will see the recipe move to the top of a ranking system. Suddenly everyone can benefit from the perfect air temperature, pH and blend of nutrients.
He shakes his head at companies in his space patenting things such as growing on cloth.
“Each one of these is locking down everything and they want to be a magical machine that poops out food,” Harper said. “And it’s just ridiculous.”
The open-source movement has had a dramatic impact on the tech world. Many large companies use open-source solutions and contribute to the open-source community because of the products are powerful and cheap. Harper expects it will ultimately triumph in agriculture too.
He’s sought advice from open-source leaders such as the Mozilla Corporation. He says he’s sending between 200 and 300 e-mails a day to lay groundwork for what he hopes will emerge as a thriving community.
“I’m finding the people in science and technology, that have had a lifelong commitment to open source and trying to figure out how to do it,” he said.
Harper is an architect by training. He’s designed data centers and surgery rooms in the United States and United Kingdom. His family’s roots are in agriculture and livestock. Now he’s mashing those skills together.
Harper is definitely thinking big. Just how bit an impact could this be?
He could foresee, 20 years from now, a physician prescribes a treatment for you. The doctor gives you a vial of bacteria that you put in your personal food computer. You add a seed and grow it using a climate recipe that’s tailored to your individual genome and lifestyle. It would be an extremely personalized version of health care.
“The new GMO is CMO — climate modified,” Harper said.
At the same time, Harper is honest about just how nascent his project is, and how much work lies ahead.
“We know the first ones are going to kind of suck, or the first ones aren’t going to be great,” he said of his personal food computer. “It’s going to take some courageous teachers and it’s going to take some people to help me get it done.”
Your typical entrepreneur will paint a picture of his or her start-up that is heavily airbrushed. We don’t have any competitors! We’re going to disrupt this industry! Our growth is exponential! (But sorry, we’re not talking about specific numbers)
Harper’s open, honest stance and gregarious personality seem likely to help him earn the trust as he works to build a community.
His first personal food computers will ship with only a handful of sensors, including air temperature, water temperature, electrical conductivity and maybe pH. Harpers would love to price them around $300-$500, but says the costs might rise to $1,000.
He hopes to spark something like the HomeBrew Computer Club, a group of Silicon Valley hobbyists who shared information with each other and helped launch the personal computer revolution more than 30 years ago. Harper is motivated by the success of Linux, Arduino, RedHat and Mozilla, all examples of open source’s potential.
Now he just needs to build that metaphorical backbone or chassis for entrepreneurs to build on top off and improve. If it all goes well, one day someone in a studio apartment in New York City could do something like grow amazing chile peppers in conditions matching the Andes Mountains.