The rise of food computers

 By RP Siegel

By the year 2050, there be an additional 3 billion people on this planet, nearly 80% of which will reside in urban centers. Simply put, there won’t be enough land area to provide food for all of them using conventional methods. So why not build vertically, like we already do in cities? CityFARM is a project of MIT’s Media Lab, that has been researching this for several years…

(Cover photo by www.

By the year 2050, there be an additional 3 billion people on this planet, nearly 80 percent of whom will reside in cities. Growing enough food for all those people will be a challenge, as will be getting it into the hands of the hungry. One way to address this challenge is to grow more food in the cities, whether it’s on rooftop gardens, vacant lots, or on purpose-built indoor vertical farms.

Caleb Harper is the founder of the CityFARM research group within the MIT Media Lab. The Media Lab is world-renowned for its advances in the use of digital technology across a broad range of subjects. Never before had the subject been growing food. Now Harper talks about his work in creating a “digital world farm.” Acknowledging the fact that when it comes to growing food, we are all slaves to climate. In his Ted talk, he holds up an apple and asks, “What if you could take this apple, digitize it somehow, send it through particles in the air, and reconstitute it somehow on the other side?”

We immediately dismiss this as futuristic hogwash. Then he explains what he means. Harper and his team have built a lab in which they can do two things very well. First, they can precisely control the “climate” to which each plant is exposed. Second, they can measure all conditions around each plant: soil moisture, pH, CO2 concentration in the air, the nutrition the plant is receiving, as well as the plant’s responses. Then they go about “coding the climate” that each plant will receive on the supposition that the final product, the fruit, or the leafy green—it’s taste, texture, size, etc., will all be an expression as the conditions it experienced as it grew.

From there, it was not a big leap to create a “food computer,” equipped with a variety of seeds and nutrients, that could then be programmed to grow various plants from climate recipes that can be downloaded from the internet. They have now made this open-source, calling it “Open Agriculture.” This is how food travels through the ether from one part of the world to another.

The origin of this idea has its roots, literally, in the space program, back in the nineties. In support of astronauts on extended missions, NASA originated the field of aeroponics in which plants are grown in a controlled environment, without soil and with minimal water, as a way of producing food in space.

Harper’s team has given a number of these systems to schools so that kids can experiment and learn about growing food. Future opportunities include further simplifying the process, scaling this up to massive “food data centers,” as well as personal food computers that you could have in your home to grow foods based on downloaded recipes, much like people are using 3D printers to make household objects today. A Dutch company called Agrilution is doing the latter already. Their plantCube™ is a “Mini-Vertical-Farm” that lets you to grow fresh greens, year-round, in a box the size of an under-counter refrigerator.

The “food data center” idea is also being done right now in Newark, NJ, by a company called Aero Farms. They are growing baby greens and herbs in the city, without sunlight, soil or pesticides. The plants receive nutrients and hydration by a carefully controlled fine mist. They are held in a cloth medium made from recycled water bottles, and receive their “sunlight” from a bank of LEDs. When a new, 69,000-square-foot facility, Aero’s fifth location in Newark, opens, it will grow roughly 2 million pounds of food in a food desert, while creating 78 new jobs in an area with an unemployment rate that is twice the national average. Meanwhile, given the way that the food is grown in stacked towers, the amount of food grown per square foot is 75 times that of traditional farming methods while using 95 percent less water.

Aero Farms system

The company started in 2004, in Ithaca, NY, founded by Ed Harwood, a former director of the Cornell Cooperative Extension. Since its inception, the company has won numerous awards from prestigious organizations including Time Magazine and the World Economic Forum.

According to Chief Marketing Officer, Marc Oshima, greens produced in this manner can be ready for harvest to 12 to 16 days, which is less than half the time it takes to grow them conventionally.

While it’s not certain how much of our food can ultimately be grown in farms like this, the potential is clear. To whatever degree the planet can move from conventional farming with all of its environmental impacts such as erosion, pollution from pesticides and herbicides, and water consumption, to this type of production, there will be benefit. There is also the fact that such initiatives can be located just about anywhere, saving on transportation costs and providing the experience of locally grown food to many more people around the world.

It’s been assessed that the total land being used to grow crops today is equivalent to the size of South America. Just as a thought experiment, if all crops were grown this way instead, it would only need an area the size of the United Kingdom. That would leave an amount of land area roughly the size of Russia, available for development, or return to wilderness, or to grow plants that most effectively sequester carbon.

While it’s true that humans have been growing food as nature does—in the ground, for thousands of years—there are different, and perhaps better ways of doing things if we are willing to think out of the box.

about the author
RP Siegel
Skilled writer. Technology, sustainability, engineering, energy, renewables, solar, wind, poverty, water, food. Studied both English Lit.and Engineering at university level. Inventor.