Photograph by National Geographic
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Caleb Harper, 2015 National Geographic Explorer, in his MIT lab, tasting the veggies of his labors.
Photograph by National Geographic
The Plate

This Ag Innovator Wants to Find Your Broccoli by IP Address

For all of you who think urban agriculture and vertical farming are hobbies for wealthy people with time on their hands, meet Caleb Harper. A 2015 National Geographic Emerging Explorer and a research scientist at MIT’s Media Lab, Harper is helping turn urban agriculture into a reality by reinventing how we grow food indoors to feed our growing population.

Harper, who comes from a farming family, wants to grow food closer to where people live—increasingly, in cities—and avoid environmental risks like drought, storms, and insects, which threaten the quality and quantity of what we eat. “The food will not need pesticides or chemicals, and it’ll be predictable 365 days a year,” he says.

He was inspired to look more deeply into urban agriculture when he visited Japan after the 2011 nuclear disaster at Fukushima and saw headlines that read, “Japanese Farmlands Have No Water, No Youth, No Land and No Future,” he says.

“It got me thinking: How can I put my different skill sets together to make a difference? I realized that what is really needed is a data center for food, one that is not exposed to the natural environment,” he recently told our colleagues.

Growing food in controlled, urban environments makes sense, he says. Unlike traditional farming, it allows farmers to grow crops year round. By creating an optimal growing environment, plants can grow faster and be more nutritious all while using resources more efficiently, since you can be more precise with water and nutrients.

While researching the issue, he found that there isn’t a lot of public information about growing food in controlled environments. Much of the existing knowledge is owned by big agriculture companies that don’t openly share their findings.

“Think about how much knowledge traditional farmers pass down from generation to generation,” says Harper. “There’s no blueprint for vertical farming.”

If there was a Creative Commons for agriculture, Harper believes urban farming would be cost-effective and widespread. You could find your broccoli by IP address, he says.

Cue his idea for a plant data center. To fill the knowledge gap, Harper’s assembled a team of engineers, architects, urban planners, economists and plant scientists to work on the OpenAg Initiative at the MIT Media Lab. The goal? To develop high-performance, indoor urban agricultural systems. Think of it as Wikiplants—a program that brings innovation to the intersection of technology, agriculture and free access to online database that contains all the climate data you need to know about growing a plant in the perfect conditions.

Lots of researchers and companies are investing in vertical farming technology, but Harper says most of the developments are protected by intellectual property rights. “Some people think there is this food innovation gold rush, but what we really need to do is feed the world forever, ” says Harper. His mission is to get more people with diverse specialties to work on these technologies. He feels that type of collaboration has the potential to change the world.

“We want to create an open source, digital recipe for climate,” explains Harper. You can control the light, water, gases, and nutrients. That’s key in harsh environments and places where climate can abruptly change, since plants grow best in consistent conditions. Harper is working with scientists in the hot and arid United Arab Emirates (UAE) to develop underground growing systems, since it’ll be easier to control the temperature in a buried structure there.

Rustbelt cities like Detroit and Cleveland stand to benefit, too. With available space, high unemployment rates, and a lack of fresh produce, these places are ripe for vertical farming. All that’s needed now is investment and labor skills training, which is why Harper is working on developing a school curriculum. “It’s really multidisciplinary material­—you can teach kids about chemistry, engineering, food systems, coding, and more,” says Harper.

If you’re skeptical about the cost of that investment, it’s important to remember that vertical farming is in its early days, he says. Building the growing chambers, which can span in size from small boxes to large warehouses, will likely get cheaper as the technology develops.

Many countries are already investing in renewable energies, which can power the systems. Forty years ago, no one could have predicted that personal computers would be so widely used, but they evolved over time. Harper expects vertical farming to do the same, with the help of OpenAg.

Simulating flavor is another area where high-tech farming has tremendous potential. Never before have scientists been able to collect data on the exact environmental conditions that produce a particular flavor profile. Farmers could use growing formulas to make something spicy, bitter, tart, or sweet. Producing a tangy strawberry would be as easy as pressing a button.

From there, you can share findings with other farmers around the world. What conditions grow the best tomato? Perhaps a farmer in Tokyo has already figured it out. In that way, the OpenAg Initiative will be a platform for people to share their findings about food phenomes­—all the physical and biochemical traits of an organism. Or, you might find out that a plant can grow in a new environment. Harper sees his work as “prospecting for plants.”

While in Washington D.C. this week for the Explorer’s Symposium, Harper will meet with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Agriculture Organization to talk about future collaboration. His closing remarks during his presentation at National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C., are a call to action for all those interested in the OpenAg movement: “The Internet of food is being planted right now, so start hacking it.”