Food for thought: Digital farming, Food Computers and OpenAg

Image source: NASA

There’s a lot of buzz right now about indoor farming. I’m sure you’ve seen photos of fuchsia-illuminated lettuces hydroponically growing in abandoned warehouses, airplane hangars, and disused subway terminals (see for examples here and here and here.)  One of the goals of these programs is to cut the energy costs of food shipping, and another is to address food deserts by growing vegetables locally in deprived urban areas where access to fresh produce is difficult.

One group promoting indoor ag is MIT’s OpenAg group, who provide instructions for you to build your own Food Computer, a “controlled-environment agriculture technology platform that uses robotic systems to control and monitor climate, energy, and plant growth inside of a specialized growing chamber”. More information about their project can be found in this highly-viewed TED talk by Caleb Harper. Through monitoring and regulating all aspects of the plant’s growth conditions and growth progress,  they hope to fine-tune the flavors of the food being grown, for example to produce sweeter or more pungent leaves.

There is no doubt that these high-profile projects could spur interest in plant science, especially with their emphasis on the DYI and “maker” aspects of the growth facilities and programs (think Robot Wars for growth chambers). These projects also tap into the citizen science and crowdsourcing movements, for example by setting up databases through which growers can share their results with other growers, e.g., through Climate Recipe exchanges (see more in this TEDx talk “How to Download Your Food” by Food Engineer Camille Richman). Projects that involve programming, building, robots, and high-throughput platforms can extend the visibility and appeal of plant sciences to students well beyond its traditional boundaries. And children in particular can benefit from any exposure to growing plants, whether outdoors or in (see for example the good work of Stephen Ritz and his Green Bronx Machine project).

However, these much-hyped indoor ag projects have been criticized for overselling their role in global food security. In his essay “Local Food is Great, But Can It Go Too Far?”, Jonathan Foley, Director of the California Academy of Sciences, writes,

The local food movement has done a lot of wonderful things, especially reconnecting people with the food system. But some new efforts — which move crops indoors, inside artificially-lit, energy-intensive, high-tech containers — go too far, negating the benefits of local agriculture.

In his essay, he argues that the energy demands of food shipping are almost always less than the energy demands of replicating sunlight indoors. He also observes that most of our calories come from foods that are simply not suited to growing indoors, and concludes,

Indoor farms might be able to provide some garnish and salads to the world, but forget about them as a means of growing much other food.

A similar critique was published previously by Michael W. Hamm: C.S. Mott Professor of Sustainable Agriculture – Michigan State University and Director of the MSU Center for Regional Food Systems. His article, “Feeding Cities – with Indoor Vertical Farms?” was published at the Food Climate Research Network and in shorter form on the Guardian, with the title “The buzz around indoor farms and artificial lighting makes no sense”. In his excellent essay (and I recommend reading the long version which has some really interesting calculations about the costs of food production), he argues that there are other more sustainable approaches to achieve the same goals, including,

Moving beyond 100% artificial lighting to consider other possibilities is illustrative.  Technologically, these range from field level tunnels that keep crops from frost kill in the early spring and late fall; unheated high tunnels that use only solar capture to produce crops year round in colder climates; and greenhouses with heat and supplemental light for full twelve month production of a wider range of crop possibilities.

Furthermore, he observes that the indoor gardening models are too expensive to address the objective of providing healthy food to impoverished areas, and that money can be used more wisely to achieve that goal.

I’d love to see geeksites and greensites cover the innovative approaches being used in plant research. Just as one example, there are hundreds of interesting technologies employed at the Danforth Center, from innovative growth environments, imaging and phenotyping facilities to bioinformatics and proteomics pipelines. The hard-working scientists who are tinkering, building and programming machines to support the breeding of crop plants that are more nutrient efficient or drought tolerant deserve some recognition too. Ultimately, their efforts will make a difference in the world, at least for those whose main concern is hunger rather than designer basil.

Please enjoy this Lego Animation of the Hounsfield Phenotyping Facility at the Sutton Bonnington campus of the University of Nottingham (

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