These inventors want to give away their recipes for climate-resistant food

 
Researchers at MIT’s OpenAg project grow basil inside “food computers,” which allow them to control climate variables so they develop better plants. Photo from Tony Luong for the  Wall Street Journal .

Researchers at MIT’s OpenAg project grow basil inside “food computers,” which allow them to control climate variables so they develop better plants. Photo from Tony Luong for the Wall Street Journal.

The basil plants sit inside clear boxes the size of shipping containers. Cast in soft neon purple-pink lights, with wires running alongside the walls, they look like part of a sci-fi movie set. But this is an agriculture lab. The shiny-leafed plants look exactly like the ones you’d find in any backyard garden, only these are up to 895% more flavorful. Researchers say the technology used to produce them could help us develop more climate-resistant crops.

Better plants are made by optimizing growing conditions, no genetic modifications required.

The basil was grown in food computers, climate-controlled boxes with sensors and cameras that allow researchers to adjust for factors like humidity, root-zone temperature, and carbon dioxide, all while monitoring the effects on plants. They’re the invention of the MIT Media Lab’s Open Agriculture Initiative (OpenAg), which supports sharing agri-technology in the spirit of developing a more sustainable food system. Here, better plants are made by optimizing growing conditions, no genetic modifications required. The more data the machine learning algorithm receives, the smarter it gets. Researchers call the combination of environmental factors for the plant the “climate recipe.” 

In the end, researchers found that the basil plants exposed to light all day long were the best-tasting ones. “You couldn’t have discovered this any other way,” says OpenAg research lead John de la Parra. “Unless you’re in Antarctica, there isn’t a 24-hour photoperiod to test in the real world. You had to have artificial circumstances in order to discover that.”

arming farmers with better climate info

For indoor farming companies that can control the growing environment, the open-source climate recipes have a direct application in helping grow better tasting, more productive, more efficient crops. But the MIT researchers believe the same technology can be used to help growers adapt to the changing climate all around us. Namely, studying how crops grow under different conditions can be more efficiently done in a lab than outdoors, where it can take years to study how different conditions will affect crops.

“When you grow things in a field, you have to rely on the weather and other factors to cooperate, and you have to wait for the next growing season,” de la Parra says. “With systems like ours, we can vastly increase the amount of knowledge that can be gained much more quickly.”

We’re trying to democratize climate.
— Hildreth England, OpenAg

The technology is already being used by some farmers. When a spring freeze and hailstorms destroyed almost 70 percent of hazelnut crops on the Turkish coast, Nutella manufacturer Ferrero looked for a new place to grow them. It consulted with OpenAg and the team built food computers for hazelnut trees, optimizing environmental factors to find the best climate recipe. 

Satellite imaging quickly points out which crop areas need more attention. Photo from the Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station.

Satellite imaging quickly points out which crop areas need more attention. Photo from the Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station.

Digital agriculture didn’t begin with OpenAg. It is already routinely used to minimize chemical use, conserve water, and maximize yield. Farmers are relying on sensors that monitor soil-moisture conditions and plant health, with software analyzing data and recommending precise solutions. Drones and satellites provide high-quality images of fields, pointing out sections with weeds, pests, or irrigation issues. Robots with computer vision distinguish weeds from crops, offering a precision that can mean spraying up to 99.99 percent less herbicide. A study by researchers at King Abdulaziz University in Saudi Arabia found that precision irrigation on farms—where controllers on sprinklers adjust movement based on factors like crop type and topography—can increase productivity by 45 percent while decreasing water usage by 35 percent.

OpenAg is different. It is developing information, which can be widely shared. The food computers are intentionally made simple so almost anyone can make them. “The idea is that we’re trying to democratize climate,” says Hildreth England, assistant director at OpenAg. “So if someone wants to be able to grow something in an area where they otherwise would not be able to, they can. And they can do it at a different scale.”

As our weather continues to become more extreme and our resources more strained, OpenAg is staking its existence on the importance of sharing vital information so that we may be able to continue to feed ourselves.

 

 

Emily Zhang is a Stone Pier Press News Fellow based in Palo Alto, CA.

 


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