The future food system is open-source, high-tech and operates through networks

“While the third agricultural revolution boiled down to the effects of a small number of actors focusing on the singular goal of maximizing the yields, I believe the fourth revolution will be the opposite — a huge amount of actors across disciplines will crowdsource multivariable solutions, based on a greater understanding of the emergent phenomena in agricultural systems.”

The photo from Lufa Farms, an agricultural and technology company located in the Ahuntsic-Cartierville neighborhood of Montreal, Quebec. Lufa Farms specializes in new agricultural technologies in urban zones. It is reputed to have built the world's first commercial greenhouse on the roof of a building. Photo by Lufa Farms via Flickr. 

This quote is from the speech by Caleb Harper, the principal investigator and director of the Open Agriculture (OpenAG) initiative at the MIT Media Lab. He spoke at the EAT Forum 2017, an amazing and awe-inspiring event organised by the EAT Foundation that took place in Stockholm. Caleb Harper surely sets the rules of the game for the future development of our food system.

I work with an urban farming start-up project, called Urban Oasis. It is a food tech business on a mission to make fresh nutritious food affordable and accessible to all. Our vision is to disrupt the industrial food system by building a scalable urban farming franchise that combines high tech production, hyperlocal distribution and an effortless mobile customer experience. Our first location is an unused underground space in Stockholm. So, naturally, the talks about food tech and innovation at the EAT Forum attracted me the most.

The sessions presented various topics, ranging from futuristic talks by Memphis Meats about cultured meat, also known as cellular agriculture, that makes it possible to produce animal products without the animals, to current updates on big companies, such as IKEA, that now offers more sustainable food choices, like plant-based meatballs, thanks to their food division manager Michael Lacour. Furthermore, there was an inspiring talk by Danielle Gould, the founder of Food + Tech Connect, who said that the world’s largest food companies have already lost around $18 billion in market cap since 2011, to the benefit of start-ups. Great news for entrepreneurs like myself!

As I am a supporter and believer of indoor farming, the speech I found the most interesting during the sessions was one given by Caleb Harper. Having followed him for the last two years, I find his research not only intriguing but also fascinating and inspiring. I find it intriguing because up until very recently, I thought that the only way to produce food, was by using the same traditional methods that have been used for the last 10,000 years. Naturally, I was totally wrong. And why I find Caleb’s research fascinating, you will soon find out.

Caleb Harper leads a diverse team of engineers, architects, and scientists in the exploration and development of future food systems. They have developed what they call a “Food Computer”. It is a hacker kit that uses controlled-environment and soilless agriculture technologies to control and monitor climate, energy, and plant growth inside of a specialised growing chamber. Plants with the same genetics can be made to vary in colour, size and texture, depending on the environmental conditions in which they are grown. Each specific set of conditions that are maintained in a Food Computer can be thought of as a climate recipe that produces unique phenotypic results. When entered into an online platform, these climate recipes can be shared, borrowed, scaled up, and improved upon around the world, in real time.

Caleb and his team have deconstructed the OpenAg Initiative into three different organisations (the Research Initiative, the Foundation and the Commercial Ventures) to foster the growth of the OpenAg community and to achieve an open-source movement in indoor farming.

The OpenAG Initiative focuses on the following key research topics that will foster the progress of the movement:

  • Open Phenome —  Decode/Recode nature by creating open data sets that correlate plant response to environmental variables.
  • Machine Learning, Computer Vision and Robotics — Advancing the knowledge of controlled environment platforms through image and data gathering systems that use deep learning, AI and neural networks.
  • Open Production Platforms — Create new, and iterating existing, open source hardware and software tools to control and measure the complex environmental and biologic recipes used across their active projects.
  • User Interaction — Researching how to make OpenAg’s technology effective and desirable by exploring how to incorporate the principles of human-centered design, behaviour design and calm technology into a user experience/user interaction.

Caleb aims to accelerate, what he calls the fourth agricultural revolution. He wants to educate the public about open agriculture technologies and help deploy this technology to create a future network of 1 billion farmers worldwide.

Caleb emphasised that the reason for the many bankruptcy cases over the last years in indoor farming is due to lack of effective knowledge and information sharing in the sector.  To avoid further bankruptcy cases, the indoor farming sector will have to develop a decentralised network of farmers that work together and share findings with each other.

The MIT Media Lab is just one of many key institutions that are working with controlled environment agriculture and once you dig deep into other organisations worldwide, you realise that there is a revolutionary movement going on. This revolution may have the potential to radically change our current food system into one that is more sustainable, transparent and that builds on a hyper-local farming model. Such a system would be more suitable to feed our rapidly increasing urban population.

This blog post was written by Albert Payaro, CEO at Urban Oasis, a food tech start-up based in Stockholm. Find more information at www.urbanoasis.life.