The average age of an apple in a grocery store from the day it was picked until the day it gets into your mouth is 11 months. And this is usually shocking to people. And it’s because we have designed the system. The last big push for agriculture was more cheap food. And we have optimized maybe not for the best goal: the goal of transport, the goal of cheapness, but not the goal of nutrition. The goal of environmental stewardship, which is now forefront in a consumer’s mind, who says, “Where did my food come from? How good is it for me? How a food computer to revolutionize agriculture?” And those questions require so much more information.
What is food computer?
Caleb Harper, a research scientist at MIT. As the son of farmers who advised him to get out of the family business and into tech instead, Caleb decided to merge the two worlds. He designed things that I call food computers. And the reason I call them that is because I want to engender that imagination, that curiosity. A food computer is essentially a box that controls and designs a climate.
It’s a tabletop machine and technology platform that lets you program a climate for the crop you want. The build components and instructions are accessible and that’s exactly what Caleb and his team have in mind. They are focused on open source technologies because they believe that the next revolution in agriculture has to be based on open science. They have an IP strategy, which is to put everything in the public domain.
How it works?
The Open Agriculture Initiative released its first prototype in 2015, giving curious potential farmers a chance to experiment. They have tweaked the design since and released their newest version, the PFC. The parts include circuit boards, sensors, lights, and cameras to monitor the plant. A seed has so much embedded technology inside of it already. So, when you take a certain set of genetics and you put it inside of a certain phoneme or climate, it will express something. That’s called a phenotype. They want to understand under what conditions do those genetics express flavor, nutrition, size, color. And it has a lot more to do with its environment than its genetic predisposition.
So, they design CO2, and temperature, and humidity, and light spectrum, and light intensity, and minerality of the water, and oxygen of the water, then trying to make sense out of what happened. The results get converted into a digital climate recipe, that can be uploaded for anyone to use.
The project is spread across 65 countries, 3,000 collaborators, and they are starting to build a base of knowledge that will actually be viable for machine learning. Machine learning and artificial intelligence can make sense out of all the data these food computers generate, tweaking the recipes and helping create a shared language for indoor farming. The power of that is that all of sudden, agricultural research is not docked geographically.
How it can help?
Inside Caleb’s lab are enormous food servers, where they are tackling even bigger questions. They are looking at the effects of predators, the effects of climate change. And all of this has a big effect on the ultimate result of what that plant has to offer us in terms of flavor and nutrition. And with climate change starting to impact the world’s food supply, companies are starting to pay close attention.
70% of the world’s hazelnut trees are grown in Turkey and lately, they’ve been hit hard by hail storms and freezing temperatures. Ferrero, the company behind your favorite hazelnut spread, is working with Caleb’s team to see if they can grow hazelnut trees in new locations. They ran a matrix of different genetic varieties of hazelnut trees and then subjected them to the South African climate, to Chilean climate, and to the Australian climate. Out of these 12 varieties, they found one that not only survived but thrived in these kinds of high heat intensity situations.
It’s a totally novel. But let’s get one thing straight, this box isn’t exactly going to be our own custom grocery store. I don’t believe that the future holds food computers in every house that feeds them everything they need. But what’s really cool is we are learning about the genetic difference between human to human. And that’s providing so much insight into what you should eat versus what I should eat, versus what someone else should eat. Then I see a food computer to revolutionize agriculture in every home because it’ll grow something very, very specific to you. And it will be used much more like a pharmacy rather than a constant food source.