Photography by Lynn Johnson, Nat Geo Image Collection
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Caleb Harper inspects plants in his MIT lab where he is the leader of Open Ag, a program that brings together technology, agriculture and free access to data.
Photography by Lynn Johnson, Nat Geo Image Collection
The Plate

Farming’s Next Wave: The Rise of Programmable Produce

What if you could grow the perfect apple; full of nutrients, vitamins, antioxidants, and free of pesticides, anywhere in the world? National Geographic Emerging Explorer Caleb Harper says you can.

Harper has been preaching the gospel of open-source, programmable produce from his perch as principal investigator and director of the Open Ag Initiative at MIT’s Media Lab for over a year now. He draws crowds to his greenhouse to pick lettuce and herbs, which glow purple under special growing lights in a perfectly-calibrated environment. He even once staged a Top-Chef-type event at the lab, where guests picked greens and a chef whipped them into a veggie stew before their eyes—a kind of Lab to Table concept.

Now he’s expanding the concept of creating ideal growing conditions into mini “food computers,” distributing them to Boston’s junior high school classrooms as a way to engage kids in science and farming. He’s acquired heirloom and rare seeds to experiment with. He’s opened an off-campus warehouse to expand his work. He’s partnering with Target to revive their grocery offerings.

In a recently-posted TED talk, he discusses how sending “information about food, rather than food” to places in the world where drought, disaster, and instability rule, we may be able to change the nature of farming and get more nutrition to everyone.

“The future of food is about networking the next one billion farmers and empowering them to ask and answer the question ‘what if?'” he says.