Will open-source farming topple agribusiness giants?

This article was taken from the March 2016 issue of Wired magazine.

It's arrived late, but agriculture is finally joining the networked economy. All we need now is to open-source sensor data and crop-growth strategies if we're going to feed tomorrow's urban populations, argues Caleb Harper of the MIT Media Lab

Agriculture is the backbone of human civilization, but it's about to snap under our weight. The world is on the brink of a food crisis in which our current industrial models of agriculture will not support the projected population of nine billion by the year 2050. Our best hope for farming in the future lies with advances in technology: sensors, big data and networks. These advances will move us into an agricultural revolution that will feed more people, feed them more effectively and feed them sustainably.

In our current system of food production, an apple that you pick up at your local supermarket could be six months old and have travelled more than 18,500km to get from a New Zealand farm to your fruit bowl. Although preservation methods keep the apple from spoiling, it is likely to lose many of its vitamins and nutrients and close to all of its antioxidants. The cost of the apple is inflated in order to pay the many links in the supply chain, and the compounded energy needed to grow, store and package it contribute to the food system's one-third share of human-caused greenhouse-gas emissions, according to reports published by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research.

Even worse than the standards for fresh produce are those for processed foods that are high in caloric content but so low in nutritional value that, according to the US National Center for Biotechnology Information, they contribute to malnourishment and obesity. These foods are served up in schools and only compound the problem. The UK Health and Social Care Information Centre reports that 20 per cent of children in year six are obese.

So how can we feed the growing world population but make better, fresher, more nutritious food widely available? The answer lies in recognizing agriculture for the science that it actually is.

For millennia, farmers have been manipulating land and plants under natural climate conditions in order to produce high volumes of desirable crops. The world relies on large, single-crop farms that are wherever the climate is best for a specific product. Often, best practices are defined by farms that produce the most saleable food at the lowest cost, with minimal concern for the environment, sustainability or nutrition.

Recently, this long-standing, industrial-era system has been questioned and challenged by technology. Many outdoor farmers have already begun to rely on drones, apps, GPS-guided equipment, big-data analyses and networks in order to improve their practices. These new technologies have allowed some smaller, local farms to re-emerge and compete with larger industrial facilities.

Sensor data is proving especially useful in modern agriculture, as it can provide highly specific information that tells a farmer exactly what an individual crop needs at any given moment. For example, planting a ground moisture sensor for a particular plot of land can tell the farmer exactly when that plot needs to be watered. With this system, the farmer neither wastes water nor loses crops to unnoticed drought.

Going further, those sensors can be hooked up to an app that alerts the farmer to what the plants need, or it may even connect directly to an irrigation system so that the process can be fully automated with the farmer needing to take no action.

This kind of technology offers farmers a degree of control, but being able to farm indoors allows us to level up our ability to manage conditions entirely. Indoor agriculture using hydroponic and aeroponic systems to grow plants under LEDs and without the use of soil isn't new, but tech is reaching a point at which it's energy efficient, cheap and sustainable. Vertical farms are popping up in cities around the world as "locally grown" appropriately gains popularity as a buzzword in the food world.

Sensors and software are enabling progress in the science of agriculture. Yet the data is usually proprietary and seldom shared. Individual farms conduct research, whereas large corporations conduct big-data analyses that, although insightful, are shared only for profit and rarely reach scientists. Farmers are often dependent on a single source of unverified data that has been provided by corporations, and local producers who cannot afford the data may be unable to compete with large networked farms.

In the realm of indoor agriculture, companies such as PlantLab have undoubtedly made improvements. Yet 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) at the MIT Media Lab, where I work, was created to blast open the doors on agricultural research and data so that more people can learn to be farmers and help increase access to local, fresh, nutritious food. The OpenAG team builds "Food Computers" -- sensor-actuated, controlled-environment systems -- that generate open data in the form of "climate recipes". It's open source -- from hardware to software to data. Specific conditions inside the Food Computers can be set or adjusted manually, and can mimic natural environments, or generate ideal synthetic ones. The systems, which range in scale from personal to industrial, are intentionally hackable so that a wide variety of users can make changes and improvements that suit their specific needs. 

The conditions under which plants are grown will affect the genes they express, resulting in unique phenomes -- the traits that result from those expressions. By choosing specific conditions for climate recipes, growers can select for the qualities they value -- flavour, colour, yield, speed of growth, etc. The data generated by Food Computers will contribute to a Wikipedia-like open phenome library, which will create a climate democracy in which climates can be uploaded, downloaded, shared, rated and improved by users around the globe. 

The UN estimates that, by 2050, the number of people in cities could be 6.5 billion. With the right tech, urban agriculture could turn basements, warehouses, walls and skyscrapers into farms. 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.

Agriculture is one of the last industries to move into the networked economy. It's time to spread the data, the production and the food over a much broader field. If more people share the weight that agriculture has been carrying, we can reduce the strain on our environment, our wallets and our bodies -- all at once. The agtech revolution is on its way, and, if only for the LED lighting, the way we farm will be brighter.

Caleb Harper is director of the Open Agriculture Initiative at MIT Media Lab 


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