Building a real world Farmville

Image Credit: Caleb Harper and the Food Computer Huffington Post

It looks like mothers everywhere have the same memo. In many households around the world the words “don’t play with your food” quickly followed by “you know there are people out there who…” have been uttered in one form of another. But what if playing with your food could better feed the future? Research scientist Caleb Harper and a team of students at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are creating a real-life FarmVille - a food computer. FarmVille is a farming simulation social network game that allows players to plant and harvest crops. Based on these ideas, Caleb has found a way to import climates and make growing food both faster and more efficient.

Experimental Agriculture

Experimental agriculture focuses on how crops respond to their environment both in physical and biological terms. Caleb first thought to venture into this field after a visit to Japan following the Fukushima disaster in 2011. There he witnessed first hand a population that was afraid of the food grown in their homeland. He decided that there had to be a way to control the process of food production. When he returned to the U.S. he immediately began work on his new invention.

The Food Computer

Caleb’s food computer is essentially an intelligent greenhouse, which simulates the optimal climatic conditions for the growth of a desired food crop. It’s about two-feet long and resembles a waterless aquarium with LED lighting. It houses lettuce and other leafy greens grown aeroponically. It is, in short, a climate controlled agricultural system very much an offshoot of vertical farming.

The first food computer Caleb built was by no means a roaring success. In fact, by his own admission, he killed everything during his early experiments. Learning from these early mistakes, and with the help of a team of students at MIT, Caleb has created what he refers to as a shop full of elves - where these computers are built.

So far, there are in existence 9 computers. 3 food servers - one in Boston, one in Mexico and another in Michigan - and 6 personal food computers which reside in various high schools across Boston.

Complex Concept, Simple Components

Caleb’s intention is that these food computers will mark the dawn of the age of network agriculture, much like what Wikipedia is today.

He envisions these food computers being used by a diverse group of people to experiment, hack, innovate and ultimately share their ideas and findings with the larger group. In so doing, they would strengthen the body of knowledge accessible to other users. To bring this vision to fruition he has created an initiative called OpenAG which aims to make farmers out of as many of us as possible and leverage various technologies to ensure food security in the future.

While Caleb’s idea is revolutionary in every respect, the components with which he builds these computers are very simple. Many are ordered on Amazon or bought at Bed Bath and Beyond and put together essentially by farming enthusiasts. This way of doing things is a testament to Caleb’s commitment to lowering the bar of entry to farming tech.

Importing Climates Not Food

By now we all know that volatile climatic conditions are having a largely negative impact on the productivity of farms across the globe. The narrative we rarely hear though, is how conventional agriculture itself is a major contributor to the problem in terms of the way food is grown as well as how it is transported across the world.

The Locavore  movement has grown largely out of the average consumer becoming more and more aware of this fact. But by now we have all developed global tastes and can no longer be restricted to just the food the areas in which we reside are able to grow. So if we aim not to import these foods, how else would we enjoy them? According to Caleb the answer is simple - climate recipes.

The food computer makes it possible to grow whatever food you want from anywhere in the world by simply downloading a climate recipe which would then simulate the exact conditions needed to grow your desired food.

Food Computer interface

Better For You, Better For The Planet

The simple fact is that the longer the distance from farm to fork, the greater the negative impacts on the planet as well as the food we each have on our plates.

The packaging, preservation and transportation of food lead to huge losses in its nutritional value. Add to that the high cost of purchasing these foods into which transportation costs have been factored. This mass movement of food across long distances has a huge environmental cost which when added to the waste and pollution generated through conventional farming methods is a great cause for concern.

Caleb’s food computer seems to address all these issues. It’s designed for growing food in tiny urban quarters, and uses roughly 50 to 70% less water than conventional agriculture. Being a controlled environment, it does not employ the use of any pesticides and guarantees uncontaminated food that also grows at a much faster rate. He is already donating produce harvested from his computers to homeless shelters where people are eating food less than an hour after it has been harvested.

The next generation Farmer

Mankind today is at a precipice with bursting populations forecasted by the year 2050. As Dickson Despommier, dubbed the father of vertical farming puts it: “7.2 billion people need land the size of South America to produce their food. For an additional 2 billion we would need land the size of Brazil in addition to what we already have. If you look around the world, there isn’t [land] the size of Brazil left to farm.”

Kenya’s land is cracking under the pressure. Studies carried out in 2002 have shown that droughts, and accelerated soil degradation due to intensive farming practices has reduced the country’s per capita food production, pushing large scale farming to even marginal lands. Foreign entities have also played a part by leasing or purchasing huge tracts of land to grow food for export. More recent studies have shown that 30% of Kenya’s arable land is declining in productivity.

The outlook is largely gloomy, but with inventions like Caleb’s and others taking shape in the far corners of the world; there is light at the end of the tunnel. For now though, the food revolution will be Wikified - watch video.