City Farming: Food for the Future

2014-12-23 12:45

We are used to fresh, tasty and nutritious salads, tomatoes, raspberries and herbs to be grown in a remote organic farm. However, such a farm can be located just a few blocks away from your home in the city. Sounds like science fiction? Not necessarily. MIT CityFARM Lab founder Caleb Harper, who visited Kaunas University of Technology (KTU) in December is convinced that in the next decade urban farming will become an everyday practice.

MIT CityFarm Lab

Harper, a scholar and a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), resident of Boston (USA) flew to KTU to read a lecture at Zooetics seminar series straight from Mumbai (India) where he has one of many food laboratories.

The ideal environment for the plants – no soil, just mineralised water and LED lights – makes sure they grow faster all year round. Harper is creating and testing the city farming system at his MIT CityFARM. In the future the laboratory will function as an open access system. One of the main challenges for Harper is to lower the costs of the growing platform so it becomes more accessible to the general user.

What exactly are you doing at MIT CityFARM?

In an urbanised world people ignore the origin of the food, they don’t know where from and how it reaches them. The goal of my research is to equip the city's population with knowledge about plants and to give them tools to create food themselves and to share this knowledge.

The food travels a long distance to the table of an average consumer living in the city, so the quality is compromised. My goal is to produce quality city food.

I live in a place that has a lot of farmland. Why would I start city farming? Because now it is cold, like in Lithuania, and nothing grows. And I would like a plant to grow 365 days a year.

Today it is very difficult to become a farmer if you're not born and raised in the family farmers (my parents are farmers in Texas, so I am well aware of the work): you have to have knowledge, be aware of the techniques and the quality of the soil. In the future most of us will live in cities. The question is: how to turn a city dweller into a farmer? I think that the system I am developing will be able to do that.

Why do we need to grow food in the city? Will there be no place for conventional farming in the future?

Let's look, for example, at the Middle East. There is very little water and land suitable for agriculture, and the population is growing rapidly. What are they doing? They are growing food in other places, and sending it back to their country. With the increasing population these countries will have to resource food in their own country. In many places in the world food is being imported, so the problem I am talking about is not about the future – it is already present.

Over the next thirty years, about 70–80 % of people will live in cities. Having this in mind we are creating smart food production system in cities. In the future, about 30–40 % of food will be produced in the same place that you are living at. And it will be healthier, better quality food.

The current food supply system is dependant on transportation via trains and planes, via boats and cars. Of course, using transportation to feed so many people is a kind of a miracle, but it also means environmental pollution and the usage of oil.

My project is not threatening traditional farming. Corn, wheat, rice, soybeans, potatoes, etc. will always be grown in farms. However, there are many other plants that suffer while being grown very far away from cities, such as lettuce, broccoli, tomatoes and herbs.

What are the main principles of the city farming system?

Everything starts with the seed. I cannot create a perfect world for everyone, but I can create a perfect world for a seed, to provide it with perfect living conditions: the desired carbon dioxide, oxygen content, temperature, humidity, etc. With all this, the plants grow naturally without any pesticides, chemicals, genetic changes, and they grow much faster and healthier than under normal conditions.

It is also very important to create light. LED light provides exactly the right spectrum necessary for the plant. Growing up in normal conditions, the plant uses only about 10 percent of sunlight. The vital light spectrum is between red and blue.

At MIT CityFARM we don’t use soil. Everyone knows hydroponics, which is plant growing in water enriched with minerals. As the basis for plant roots we use gravel, fired clay pellets and similar materials. So we put plants, into, as we call it, shallow water, enriched with minerals necessary for plant growth.

How do you know what a plant needs?

A plant tells us what it needs itself. It sends clear visible signs if something goes wrong.

Traditional agricultural science is more than 10 thousand years old. There is a great deal of accumulatied information and knowledge on what a plant needs, on how to create a favourable environment for it. We apply traditional knowledge and observe how the plant responds. If traditional knowledge is not working, we are looking for other farming recipes.

Every plant is being monitored by about 20 sensors for temperature, humidity, CO2, etc. I can see their condition anytime I connect to the information system via Internet. It’s like computer biology really. And, as it is an open system, a plant growing recipes’ Wikipedia is already being developed.

Do you eat the plants that you grow?

Yes, we eat some of them, the others we grow for research, trying to establish any negative aspects that may occur when a plant is being grown in such a way. At the moment we grow a lot of broccoli which we analyse in the lab in order to research their DNA. We are comparing the properties of our plants and of those grown in the usual way.

We are also growing strawberries, as my students wanted to have them in winter.

It all sounds very nice, but sceptics would say that such food is false and unnatural. What would be your answer?

I would say that all of our food is unnatural and produced by the machines one way or another. Almost all plants are being grown using chemicals, because of the need to produce very large quantities of food. Is this the natural way to grow food? How natural is our natural world anyway? Most of my food comes from Mexico, California, Florida, and it does not seem natural to me.

I'm used to think about the Earth as about a green box, consisting of atmosphere, minerals, water and other things necessary for plants to grow. I am creating the same green box, only much smaller. I do not need pesticides and other chemicals in it. Therefore, I think that the technology I am developing is very natural, even though it looks completely unnatural. I consider it a new environment creation.

It is very romantic idea to grow food for oneself in a small farm. But very few people want that. I'm growing some food in Boston, but if I had to live on it, I would die of starvation. Cities need hundreds of thousands of tons of food every week.

How much does the city farming platform cost?

At the moment it is expensive – it costs about 70 thousand US dollars (about 200 thousand LTL). However, the same was true for car industry until the mass production platform was developed. The most expensive part of the system is the LED lighting, therefore I am looking for ways to reduce the cost.

What was your main message at Zooetics lecture series at KTU?

I would like to encourage people to create their own food, to participate in its growing. I wanted to say: look, here are the tools and they are open to everyone. A new generation of ‘growers’ is coming. We are creating tools which will enable people to look for new solutions. Breakthrough should take place within the next 5–10 years.

  • Caleb Harper
  • MIT CityFARM lab
  • MIT CityFARM lab
  • MIT CityFARM lab
  • MIT CityFARM lab
  • MIT Media Lab
  • Caleb Harper
  • MIT CityFARM lab
  • MIT CityFARM lab
  • MIT CityFARM lab
  • MIT CityFARM lab
  • MIT Media Lab

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