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They say you can't fool nature, but hundreds of "nerd farmers" around the globe are tapping technology to control climate and create the perfect conditions for growing food.
They are doing it with a personal food computer created by Caleb Harper and his team in the Open Agriculture Initiative at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Harper, the principal investigator and director of the lab, leads a diverse group of engineers, architects and scientists in the development of future food systems.
Their climate-controlled box, which can sit on a tabletop, has a computer brain and sensors that allow users to manipulate temperature, carbon-dioxide levels, humidity, light and pH. The plants are grown in minimal amount of water no soil using hydroponics.
Anyone, in any part of the world, can grow food, no matter the season, said Harper. Imagine growing water-loving tropical fruits in the middle of the Utah desert or sun-loving summer berries in the midst of a harsh winter.
Harper will talk about this blending of agriculture and technology Tuesday, when he kicks off the Natural History Museum of Utah's annual lecture series. Food is the theme of the five presentations, which include a keynote address by TV personality, chef and author Andrew Zimmern. Tickets for his talk go on sale Wednesday. (See box for details.)
Harper's lecture is free but requires a reservation.
There are nearly 400 "nerd farmers" around the globe who have built personal food computers using Open Ag's open-source technology collecting and sharing data with other users, Harper said.
"Every food computer that comes online, whatever they grow is recorded and in the future can be replayed as many times as we want," he said.
Farmers create their own growing "recipe" such as programming in more light or less humidity to see what happens. "As people explore, we are decoding that plant and getting a clearer map of a plant's ability to express itself," he said. "It's pretty phenomenal."
Eventually, Harper hopes the data can be used to create economically viable farms possibly in shipping containers that can be placed anywhere to create "hyperlocal food production."
"We need better food-supply chains, which are notoriously complex," he said. "This technology could be a new tool in the chain."
Interest in the personal food computers has grown beyond just the research stage, so Harper recently formed the nonprofit Open Agriculture Foundation, which will protect the open-source data and intellectual property and foster the growing community of farmers.
Harper and Utah entrepreneur Daniel Blake also have started Fenome, a small business that has begun assembling kits the community can buy that have everything needed to build a personal food computer.
The Fenome lab in West Valley City also houses large indoor growing tents, where Blake and the staff experiment with varieties of plants, learning which ones grow best in the personal food computer environments.
The personal food computers have other applications, as well. Many schools are using them to teach about biology, botany and climate change as well as coding, computer programming and engineering.
And Blake recently returned from Jordan, where he visited Azraq, a camp for refugees of the Syrian civil war. He said the United Nations World Food Organization is interested in food computer systems that could help supply at least a portion of the food to those living in the camps. Currently, all food and water are shipped.
"We are in the beginning stages of the process," Blake said, "but food computers could be deployed anywhere, especially harsh environments where food security is a problem."
Future of Food
The Utah Museum of Natural History's 2017 lecture series focuses on food and agriculture. All lectures begin at 7 p.m.
Tuesday • Caleb Harper, principal investigator and director of the Open Agriculture Initiative at MIT Media Lab, will discuss "Reinventing Our Food Future with Urban Farms." Natural History Museum of Utah, 301 Wakara Way, Salt Lake City.
March 7 and 8 • Naomi Starkman, founder and editor-in-chief of Civil Eats, the James Beard Award-winning news source about the American food system, will speak about "The Rise of the Good Food Movement." March 7 at Natural History Museum of Utah; repeated March 8 at Viridian Event Center, 8030 S. 1825 West, West Jordan.
March 23 • Diana Cox-Foster, an entomologist at Utah State University, will talk about "Bees, Essential Keystones Supporting Our Food: Are They in Danger?" Main Library, 210 E. 400 South, Salt Lake City.
April 11 • TV personality, chef and author Andrew Zimmern will speak about "Food: A Global Perspective on the State of Our Food Life" at Kingsbury Hall on the University of Utah campus.
Cost • Lectures in February and March are free, but require guests to make an online reservation at nhmu.utah.edu/lectureseries. Zimmern tickets go on sale Wednesday, Feb. 22, at Kingtix. Adults are $12, or $6 for those with a University of Utah ID.