This Open-Source "Food Computer" Grows Crops in Dire Conditions

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By Gillie Houston Posted July 11, 2016

"I would call this the beginning of the internet of food."

Architect and engineer Caleb Harper's farm doesn't look like your average field, lined with seeds and greens. Rather, his is contained within a box of metal and glass, glowing pink from within.

Harper, though raised in Texas by a family involved in agriculture, didn't consider food projects until visiting Fukushima, Japan following the 2011 tsunami. He then dedicated himself to inventing a way to grow plants in the most dire of conditions. "I was inspired to say, 'Okay, well, if you can't use the world you have, then you could just create a new world,'" Harper tells ABC News.

Thus, he built the "food computer" in a shipping container-sized box at the MIT Media Lab. There, Harper, who is now a resident research scientist, grows a wide variety of crops—from basil to broccoli—beneath the glow of rose-colored LED lights. The box contains irrigation pumps and grow lights, and the user can manipulate the environment within (temperature, humidity, and carbon dioxide) to adapt to different crops.

Harper can create these farms in boxes small and large—from the size of a desktop computer to M.I.T.'s own shipping container—and the project is "open source" so the data and instructions are shared freely between aspiring computer farmers.

"I would call this the beginning of the internet of food," Harper says. The engineer-turned-farmer hopes that his easy-to-use invention will encourage young people and those living in less habitable locations to create their own growing ecosystems: "I'm just a tool maker for the next generation of farmers."

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