“Food Computers” Can Grow Crops Almost Anywhere

cupped hands holding strawberriesCaleb Harper, an engineer with a background in architecture and design who grew up in a family of farmers, pulled from all those fields of knowledge to create the world’s first “food computer.” The personal food computers created by Harper are approximately the same size and shape as a fish tank. After setting one up in your living room (no matter where in the world you are), you can grow strawberries that taste like they ripened under the Mexican sun…mangoes as juicy as any you’d find in Thailand…and lettuce as fresh and delicate as if you picked it yourself from a plot of land in Salinas, California.

Creating the Perfect Climate to Grow Crops

In a TED talk about the invention of the food computer, Harper explained how when we talk about liking fruit from a certain region, for instance, apples from Vermont, what we’re really commenting on are the particulars of the climate where those apples grow. Not just the temperature and humidity, but less obvious factors like the pH of the soil. Harper’s food computers are essentially climate-controlled boxes equipped with sensors that monitor all the key factors, including…

  • Carbon dioxide levelsfood-computer
  • Humidity
  • Light intensity
  • pH

The boxes contain no soil, instead, the plants derive all their nutrients from a mist made up of water and essential minerals.

At the end of each growing cycle, the food computer generates a “digital recipe” that can be used to recreate the exact same conditions. “If you were to grow basil again,” for instance, Harper explains, “You would get the same thing every time. You can email the basil recipe to your friends, and they can run the program and get the same thing, or they can start messing with it.”

The food computers make it possible not only to identify ideal growing conditions, but to replicate them exactly. This means that, in the future, they could be used to provide perfectly ripe, nutrient-dense food around the world, no matter the season.

The Plan to Make Food Computers Available to All

After developing this remarkable technology, Harper’s next task was to find the best way to share it with the world. He launched the Open Agriculture Initiative (or OpenAg) at MIT to make food computers available to anyone who wants one. The initiative is made up of MIT students, researchers, and faculty, as well as individuals from the tech and agriculture industries. They all work together to refine and progress the design of the food computer.

Anyone can download specs for the first publically-available prototype can be downloaded from the OpenAG site, but building a food computer still requires specialized knowledge. The OpenAg team is currently working on Version 2, which will be manufactured and sold in easy-to-build kits.