We’re increasingly interested in local food, not least because, in theory, it’s better for the environment. And increasingly, farming is less about turning dirt and more about advanced agricultural science, but how does, say, your average joe with a drill and an interest in growing some non-local food in a greenhouse go about it? MIT’s answer to that question is the Food Computer.
Essentially, the Food Computer is a sort of farming robot, with the plans and the software freely available online from the school. Inside a greenhouse you can knock together with parts from Home Depot (never let anyone tell you a greenhouse is impossible to make), the computer watches conditions for plants being grown either with hydroponics (i.e. in water) or aeroponics (that is, in air, but with roots sprayed with water on a regular schedule. For every plant, it tracks millions of data points, collecting the precise conditions that allow each plant to thrive in a particular way. Over time, this becomes a “climate recipe” for each plant, so if you wanted to quickly turn out a lot of fresh spinach, just plant the seeds, punch in the recipe, and let the robot do the rest.
Especially interesting is that this would, at least in theory, make it possible to grow anything, anywhere, and make industrialized food production a matter of having enough space and the electricity to make it happen. MIT has, so far, a personal model you can build yourself for between $1000 and $2000, and a shipping-container sized “restaurant” version that would allow cafeterias and others to grow small-scale agriculture. Long-term, the plan is to create subdivided “data centers” that would allow different crops to be grown in different conditions in the same warehouse.
There are still some roadblocks. For example, you still need the basics: Water, sunlight, nutrients and seeds. Not every part of Earth, unfortunately, has the stuff necessary. But long-term, this would shift food production away from preserving and shipping produce over long distances and would make more parts of the world fertile enough to feed every human. And considering we’ll have nine billion of us on Earth in 2050, that’s good news.