With the global population projected to reach more than 9 billion by 2050, many are wondering how to feed an already hungry planet. Urban agriculturalist Caleb Harper may have produced the answer—food computers.
Harper is the son of a farmer who, like many farmers tell their children, advised him not to go into agriculture because the life is too hard. Heeding his father’s advice, Harper became an architect and engineer; however, while on site offering aid in the aftermath of the 2011 Japanese tsunami, Harper read a headline that changed the course of his career, “Japanese Farmlands Have No Water, No Youth, No Land and No Future.”
Combining all of his skills to change the bleak future of agriculture, Harper founded the CityFARM research group within the City Science Initiative at the MIT Media Lab. When designing the first “Grobot,” Harper looked to the most space-constrained environment with the least amount of resources—Mir Space Station. In order to grow food in space, NASA developed aeroponics, a process in which air-exposed roots get their nutrients through a mist containing crucial minerals—the same technology Harper uses to grow his crops. Using digital technologies and sensors, he has essentially created climate in a box for optimal food growth: food computers.
A 2015 National Geographic Emerging Explorer and a member of the World Economic Forum New Vision for Agriculture Transformation Leaders Network (2015-2016), Harper is bringing greenhouses into the digital age. His system cuts water consumption by 98 percent, quadruples the growth speed of vegetables, eliminates chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and doubles the nutrient density and flavor of crops all while being predictable 365 days a year. Time, Wired, The Economist, National Geographic, The Smithsonian, and Huffington Post have featured Harper’s work, which promises to change the economics of industrial agriculture and lessen its burden on the environment.
Harper envisions everything from skyscrapers of vertical farming data centers to personal food computing from home. Firm in the belief that open-source information is critical to our food future, Harper recently launched the OpenAG Initiative together with strategic partners from industry, government, and academia to develop the world’s first open source “AG Tech” research collective with the goal of creating a more agile, responsive and collaborative food system.
Harper holds a Masters from MIT, a Bachelor degree from Washington University in St. Louis and Baylor University, and is deeply committed to the future of urban food and housing research.