Open Agriculture Initiative


LOCATION: Boston, Massachusetts, USA

SUMMARY: The MIT Open Agrictulture Initiative develops open-source “controlled environment agriculture” (CEA) technologies to experiment and innovate in seeking alternatives to the unsustainable and destructive practices of industrial agriculture, and to make highly localized food production more viable. The project has designed transparent, open-source, “hackable” hardware and software platforms to allow indoor farmers conduct networked experiments in “food computers”, built on three scales: a personal tabletop-sized unit best suited for homes, schools, maker spaces, and experimental facilities; a shipping container-sized module suited to supply restaurants, cafeterias, hospitals; and a warehouse/industrial-scale “food data center”. All of these will be equipped with environmental sensors, actuators, and network connectivity so that data can be openly shared. Users can modify hardware and software and in turn share their improvements as part of a learning network to create a community-curated knowledge base, facilitating the rise of “smarter,” local, independent, decentralized food production. The system allows for precise manipulation of climate and environmental variables in controlled settings in order to generate data on plant yields and responses in a wide range of conditions—information that is potentially of great use to farmers and researchers everywhere. The project has distributed six prototypes of their smaller “food computers” in Boston-area schools in 2015, and ultimately hopes to distribute 150,000 models to schools around the U.S., aiming to inspire a new generation of technologically savvy farmers.

PROBLEM SPACE: “Current industrialized agricultural production methods are antiquated and unsustainable. Transporting food from high-yield climate zones to far-away markets is the most energy-intensive part of our food system, compounded by water-intensive irrigation methods, fertilizer runoff and attenuation of nutrition. Opaque growing practices and limited scientific data on farming mean less people have access to the tools and knowledge it takes to locally produce fresh, sustainable, nutritious food.

We need a new kind of farmer to feed the 9 billion people of 2050. Where do these farmers start? They will deal with drastically different regional microclimates and weather patterns than their fore-farmers experienced. They will farm closer to cities and will have to farm space-effectively. This requires a dramatic shift in the practice of farming.

OpenAG makes this shift possible by addressing three critical needs for future farmers: an empowered, open-source community, democratized climate and transparent food production data, and access to the hardware and software that can grow a new system.”

SOLUTION: “OpenAG is equipping users with open source hardware and software platforms to conduct networked experiments in controlled-environment agriculture (CEA) systems, which serve as tools for future farmers to experiment, innovate, hack, and improve transparency in local food production.

The “”Food Computer”” is being built on three scales. The Personal Food Computer (PFC) is a tabletop-sized unit best suited for homes, schools, maker spaces, and experimental facilities. The larger Food Server (the size of a shipping container) is suited to supply restaurants, cafeterias, hospitals; the largest scale Food Data Center (warehouse) supplies food at the industrial scale. Each system is equipped with the environmental sensors, actuators, processing power, and network connectivity required to download, run, tweak, and reshare data with the community. Users are encouraged to modify hardware and software and share their improvements as part of a learning network.

By distributing and open sourcing CEA systems, OpenAG is building a repository of food production data based on climate manipulation. Users create “climate recipes” as they experiment with phenotypic crop responses (yield, texture, color, flavor, nutrition) to specific environmental settings (temperature, humidity, light, carbon dioxide, pH). The “Open Phenome Library” is a user-generated library that collects climate recipes and contributes to fundamental scientific advancement, optimized resources, and nutrition for future generations.

In 2015, we distributed six prototype PFC’s to Boston-area schools. Our team collaborated with teachers and students to create a unique, hands-on learning opportunity that brings together concepts from botany, to engineering, to programming, to nutrition. We are currently using the feedback from version one to design the second prototype, which will be distributed to 50 schools for the 2016-2017 academic year. Ultimately, we hope to see the PFC in 150,000 schools in the US to make farming an appealing career path and inspire a new generation of farmers.”