Researcher hopes to revolutionise agriculture through ‘food computers’

Caleb Harper, director of the MIT Media Lab's Open Agricultural Initiative, wants to connect growers with technology to revolutionise farming.

ABU DHABI // A scientist hopes to transform farming by using technology that would enable indoor cultivation of nutritious food anywhere in the world.

Giving people the blueprints for a “food computer” and ­allowing them to share data for ideal farming conditions could slash the time from farm to ­table, said Caleb Harper, the director of the open agriculture initiative at the media lab of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

MIT’s personal food computer is a tabletop-sized farming platform that uses robotic systems to control and monitor climate, energy and plant growth in a special growing chamber.

“The average age of an apple in a US grocery store is 14 months. By the time we eat it, 90 per cent of its antioxidants are gone, it’s basically a ball of sugar,” Dr Harper said on Monday. “So what if we shipped data instead of food?”

He was speaking at the twice-weekly Ramadan majlis of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces.

To tackle the problem, Dr Harper designed and built farming systems – ranging in size from a desktop to a shipping container – that could create specific environments by controlling the levels of carbon dioxide, temperature, humidity and minerals.

After successfully growing vegetables that grew five times faster than those in the field and using 90 per cent less water, Dr Harper and his team decided to take his food computers to schools in Boston to encourage young people to farm.

“Only 2 per cent of the US population are farmers and their average age is 60. Farming is hard and the information is not being passed down,” he said.

Because students could experiment with the computers’ climate controls, they learnt more about farming and could share their data with others.

Rather than focus on the mass production of a pest-resistant crop with a long shelf life, the system allows farmers to focus on developing the crop’s taste and nutrients.

After discovering that only four types of tomato seeds were widely grown in the United States, Dr Harper went to a seed vault in Norway that has seeds for every crop that mankind would need in the event of a global disaster.

He found a seed to grow tomatos with more nutrients than those in the market. The seed had not been used in commercially in about 150 years because of its short shelf life.

Dr Harper said produce had not been selected for its flavour or nutrition. Genetic modification had been used only once to improve nutrition – two years ago for golden rice – and once for the flavour of a certain type of tomato, he said.

Because all the information for the food computer is open-source, the technology is appearing across the world, said Dr Harper. “They even built one in a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, not because they needed it for food but because they wanted to grow a crop they missed from home,” he said.

The lecture was attended by Sheikh Mohammed, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, and Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, Minister of Culture and Knowledge Development.

Published: June 5, 2017 04:00 AM


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