Building a food computer

A controlled environment agriculture device serving as a tool for users to experiment, innovate, hack, and grow; devised by MIT Media Labs Open agriculture initiative.

Urban farming has been always around, but recently it has been able to gain more public attention and following thanks to social media. With a little search you can find an infinite number of sources and dive into the topic by yourself, whether you want to grow food for your family or start a business. On the other side we have people who are writing these articles, building smart systems or collecting data. One of them is Caleb Harper, director of the Open Agriculture Initiative at the MIT Media Lab. He and his team are developing a base for modern custom food production and connecting people with similar passion and dreams. They call themselves “food-nerds” and their goal is global food accessibility through shared innovation. For more information about this movement you can visit their OpenAG website.

One of these public projects is a tabletop-sized agriculture technology platform called Personal Food Computer (PFC). By using controlled environment and soilless methods to control and monitor climate, energy, and plant growth inside of a specialized growing chamber, you can simultaneously receive and share all essential data for a specific fruit or green. This is possible thanks to a database of so-called “climate recipes”. Plants with the same genetics then may vary in color, size, texture, growth rate, yield, flavor, and nutrient density depending on the environmental conditions in which they are grown. With minimum of effort, you can grow literally the same food as people on the other side of world, in a comfort of your home.

The unit is designed so it can be made by anyone from easily accessible components with instructions and schematics provided for free, and is intended for experimental, educational or personal use. It is important to keep in mind a crucial fact that currently PFC is not designed to bring any financial profit. The building cost at the moment is between $2000 and $3000 and on average you are able to harvest only once a month, so you would be very lucky if you even managed to get these costs back. The main point is to connect with other farmers, collect valuable data, and maybe even spark the idea in other people who might have never thought about such things. The return of investment is methodological – in using this machine as a starter for discussions about the future of food, as a platform for innovation through upgrades and hacks.

Funding a project of this magnitude as a hobby is not an easy task, especially for a student, therefore the build will be divided into many smaller articles, taking only small steps over a long period of time. We will be taking a look at all phases, including searching for items and buying them, constructing every part and putting them together, and of course experimenting with the finished machine. In the meanwhile, you can watch Caleb Harper’s TED talk, which basically directed me to the urban farming as a whole. Since then, building the PFC of my own is a dream and therefore I decided to make it into one of my featured projects on this website.

Caleb Harper at TEDGlobal>Geneva, December 2015