Can open-source farming spark a sustainable and climate-smart agricultural revolution?

Caleb Harper from MIT Media Lab (OpenAG) argues that in the future we won’t ship food to the world, we’ll send data. Feeding future generations depends on advances in technology like sensors, big data and networks, and in recognizing that agriculture is a science like any other

The UN estimates that the population of the world is expected to grow to over 9 billion people by 2050.  Feeding them demands new models for sustainability and nutrition, not the industrial farming of now which is often dominated by who produces the most saleable food at the lowest cost.  

So says Caleb Harper of MIT Media Lab in an interview with Wired UK. He argues that new tech approaches to farming like the “disruptive agriculture systems” his OpenAG team at MIT Lab are developing challenge traditional industrial-farming techniques that “rely on large, mono-crop farms to grow massive amounts of a single product and ship it around the globe”. 

Harper points to overpricing and inadequacies in the food chain that contribute to the food system’s one-third share of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. Costs of food are inflated because by the time they land on our supermarket shelves they have often travelled half way round the world to get there, losing much nutritional value in the process.

Sensor data shows huge promise. This can give farmers highly specific information about what a crop needs in any given moment, telling anything from how effective certain seeds and fertilizers are in different areas of the same farm to exactly when a plot needs to be watered.

On an individual scale, sensor data can make a huge difference to yields and farmer earnings. Collectively, when that data is pulled together from hundreds and thousands of farms it’s possible to spot macro-patterns and trends and come up with specific growth strategies. What if sensors can interpret a crop’s symptoms before they spread to an epidemic?

In the realm of “indoor agriculture” - where plants are grown using hydroponic and aeroponic systems under LEDS, new tech has moved it to a point where it is more more energy efficient and sustainable than ever. Yet while companies like PlantLab “have undoubtedly made improvements” in the sector, Harper points to a lack of data sharing.  

“It’s holding as proprietary secrets methods claimed to be 40 times more productive, using 90 per cent less water, for growing food that is ten times more nutritious. What we need is an open, joined-up approach to solving a significant global problem”.

The Open Agriculture Initiative (OpenAG)

That’s where the OpenAG project comes in. Created by MIT Lab as a way of “blasting open the doors on agricultural research and data” OpenAG is on a mission to equip people with the technological tools to grow their own produce, helping increase access to local, fresh and nutritious food. At the heart of the idea is enabling farmers to cut out the distance and import climates rather than food.


OpenAG builds “food computers” (see picture) that use robotic systems to control and monitor climate, energy, and plant growth inside a specialized growing chamber. They generate open data in the form of “climate recipes”, or in other words, a complete set of conditions throughout a growth cycle.  “Specific conditions inside the Food Computers can be set or adjusted manually”, Harper explains, “and can mimic natural environments, or generate ideal synthetic ones.”

The Food Computers were inspired by Harper’s trip to Japan in 2011 following the nuclear disaster at Fukushima. The land was damaged and poisoned by radiation, and it was unclear at the time whether traditional outdoor agriculture would be sustainable under such harsh environmental conditions.

Each “recipe” produces unique phenotypic expressions or physical qualities in different plants and these recipes can be customized and optimized for different tastes or yield productions.

The food computers – find out what it takes to build a personal one, range in scale from the personal to the industrial and are “intentionally hackable” to allow a broad base of users to tweak them to suit their specific needs.  

Growers can maximize nutrition and flavor, experimenting with climates to find the perfect growing recipes for their favourite foods. And users of a food computer can import tried and tested climate recipes and share their own success and failures.

In terms of what the future may hold for large-scale agriculture this means that when a farmer hits on a “controlled climate” that works it can instantly be translated to make the biggest impact.

Equally, because different growing conditions affect a plant’s gene, the resulting set of phenomes or ‘traits’ (unique to each plant) can be collated. OpenAG will gather these strands of information from its “Food Computers” to contribute to a Wiki-style phenome library where climates can be downloaded, shared, rated and improved by users around the world. All platforms will be connected via an online forum, through which data, digital plant recipes, and improvements to hardware and software are shared openly.

Round the corner?

Growing food “by computer” may sound like the stuff of the future but with the UN estimating that 6.5 billion people could live in cities by 2050 Harper reckons that the ag-tech revolution isn’t too far on the horizon.

 “With the right tech, urban agriculture could turn basements, warehouses, walls and skyscrapers into farms”, Harper explains. “Food grown hyperlocally can go from farm to table, cutting transport and storage, reducing waste and spoilage, and feeding more people with fresh, affordable, nutritious food.”

Watch Harper’s TED talk on “how this computer will grow your food in the future”.

Are you involved in open-source farming? Do you agree with OpenAG’s vision of a paradigm shift from the industrial to a networked age of agricultural production?  We’d love to know what you think.


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