Photograph by LYNN JOHNSON, Nat Geo Image Collection
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National Geographic Emerging Explorer Caleb Harper holds lettuce grown at the MIT Media Lab, where he operates a climate-controlled “digital farm” using aeroponics, a network of sensors, and LED lighting.

Photograph by LYNN JOHNSON, Nat Geo Image Collection

Opinion: Why Cities Are the Future for Farming

Self-described nerd farmer Caleb Harper wants you to join his league of high-tech growers.

The landscape of our food future appears bleak, if not apocalyptic.

Humanity’s impact on the environment has become undeniable and will continue to manifest itself in ways already familiar to us, except on a grander scale. In a warmer world, heavier floods, more intense droughts, and unpredictable, violent, and increasingly frequent storms could become a new normal.

Little wonder that the theme for this year's World Food Day, which happens on Sunday, is “Climate is changing. Food and agriculture must too.” The need for an agricultural sea change was also tackled at the recent South by South Lawn, President Obama’s festival of art, ideas, and action (inspired by the innovative drive of Austin’s SXSW), where I was honored to present.

As our global agricultural system buckles under its own weight, we’re losing our farmers and we’re not creating more. In the U.S. alone, only 2 percent of the population is involved in farming, with 60 percent of our farmers above the age of 58. We’re also experiencing a dramatic move away from rural areas, our traditional growing centers. The UN estimates that by 2050, 6.5 billion people will be living in cities, nearly double what it is today.

Those of us at the helm of agricultural innovation simply must tack into these winds of change—and I see the tremendous potential of the city as a sustainable solution. After all, the domestication of plants gave rise to the first human settlements—our original cities were literally rooted in agriculture. Since then, city life has parted ways with it entirely, as urbanites have become almost completely disconnected from their food sources. But the reintegration of farming into the city is beginning to close the circle. Urban farming could not only feed future generations, but also create appealing clean-tech jobs for the waves of new “immigrants” that cities across the world will see in coming years.

Food Computers: Are These Devices the Future of Agriculture?

Harper takes us on a tour of his lab, which he envisions could be adapted for individual home use, shipping container-size for cafeterias and restaurants, and warehouses of “food data centers” capable of industrial-scale production.

Detractors of urban farming often scramble to point out that the production potential of urban farms is so minimal as to be insignificant. From where I’m standing, this is a dangerously shortsighted perspective. There are two major roles for urban agriculture: yes, the actual production of food intended to feed large numbers, but also the cumulative social benefit of cultivating what we eat. While I anticipate that eventually high-tech urban farming will account for at least 30 to 40 percent of an individual’s diet, the invaluable “product” of human-centered endeavors like farm stands and school and urban gardens lies in weaving communities together and building a foundation for food education.

Of course, we can’t expect a community garden to have the same production capacity as a conventional, massive monoculture farm or—wait for it—a multitiered, digitally integrated vertical farm. That doesn’t mean the community garden has no true value; the amount of calories it yields shouldn’t be the sole metric of its worth.

Instead, we need a renewed appreciation of the myriad benefits of growing food in the city. They range from the healing effect on veterans tending to patches in community gardens, witnessing the transformation of their plants, to the physical benefits of getting a student outside in a school garden while seeing the lessons of the classroom come to life in a burgeoning vegetable.

During World War II, victory gardens were planted both in private residences and public parks to boost morale as much as food supply. That tradition continues in the work of modern pioneers like Ron Finley, the “gangsta gardener” of Los Angeles, who similarly empowers communities by planting beautiful, defiant gardens in abandoned lots, traffic medians, and along curbs, and Will Allen, the founder of a Milwaukee non-profit center for urban agriculture training—teaching people to grow food in neighborhoods that are essentially food deserts dominated by drive-thrus.

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Harper inspects a developing chocolate bell pepper. His team creates specific conditions—he calls them climate recipes—to produce plants with unique qualities of color, size, texture, taste, and nutrient density. A pepper grown in his Massachusetts lab could have the features of one grown in, say, Central America.

At the same time, technological leaps in urban agriculture are attracting bright, science-minded youth in droves and paving the path for high-volume production in cities. We’re seeing vertical farms—controlled environment agriculture—get smarter and larger. These aren’t necessarily new methods, but we are reaching a point at which they are becoming more energy efficient and cost effective. At the most cutting edge are “agri-culturing” companies like Modern Meadow and Perfect Day, culturing meat from mammalian cells and fermenting milk from yeast, moving meat and dairy production into cities.

At the MIT Media Lab, where I run the Open Agriculture Initiative, we’re developing digital farming through what we call “the food computer.” Along with aeroponic technology, we use a network of sensors to monitor a plant’s water, nutrient, and carbon needs and deliver optimal light wavelengths—not just for photosynthesis but to change flavor. This allows us to recreate climates that yield, for example, the sweetest strawberries.

Our entire endeavor is open source. We’re now piloting it outside the lab in Boston schools, and we see a near future where farmers can build their own food computers, using instructional videos and schematics already available online, and larger-scale units for restaurants, cafeterias, and industrial production—all in the city. By bringing agriculture home, we’ll have access to fresher, more nutritious food and potentially reduce spoilage and waste.

Our ultimate #nerdfarmer goal is to develop a database of climate “recipes”— for example, the ingredients for mimicking the Mexican climate that produces those sweet strawberries. We hope to pair that database with assembly kits for “personal” food computers that will be increasingly accessible, with the goal of creating and networking a billion farmers by providing access to the tools and the data required to both grow their own food and generate even more data to share—a sort of global “climate democracy” to see us through a world in flux.

Yet even at our post at the high-tech end of the spectrum, we share a common goal with even the smallest, most traditional city garden—to serve our community by creating a new lexicon of food values for the future.

Caleb Harper is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer and grew up in a ranching family in Texas. Follow him on Twitter.

This article is part of our Urban Expeditions series, an initiative made possible by a grant from United Technologies to the National Geographic Society.