Open Agriculture Initiative
The MIT Open Agriculture Initiative (OpenAg) was founded in 2015 by Caleb Harper as an initiative of the MIT Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The project aims to develop controlled-environment agriculture platforms called "Food Computers" that operate on a variety of scales, and which can be used for experimental, educational, or personal use. All of the hardware, software, and data will be open source, with the intention of creating a standardized open platform for agricultural research and experimentation.
OpenAg advocates pursue transparency in the agricultural industry, and promote sustainable, local growing practices. Much of their focus is on enhancing urban agriculture and improving access to fresh, healthy foods.
The Open Agriculture Initiative coined the term "Food Computer" to describe their main product. Originally developed under the MIT CityFARM project, the Food Computer is controlled-environment agriculture platform that utilizes soilless agriculture technologies including hydroponic and aeroponic systems to grow crops indoors. The Food Computer also utilizes an array of sensors that monitor the internal climate within a specialized growing chamber and adjust it accordingly so that the environmental conditions remain consistent and optimum.
The climate inside of a growing chamber can be tightly controlled and used as a tool to enhance food production or quality. The data on the climate conditions during a given harvest cycle can be logged online as a "climate recipe", and the phenotypic expressions (observable characteristics) of the plant can also be monitored and recorded. These recipes are recorded in an online database that will be openly accessible so that climate conditions can be downloaded by other users around the globe.
The term Food Computer can apply generally to any of the Open Agriculture Initiative's controlled-environment systems, or specifically to the smallest model, which is also called a Personal Food Computer. The tabletop-sized unit is intended for use in homes, classrooms, and small-scale experimental facilities. The mid-sized model, or Food Server, is the size of an internationally standardized shipping container, and utilizes vertical farming structures. It is intended for use in cafeterias, restaurants, local grocers, and large-scale experimental facilities. The largest version of the Food Computer will be warehouse-sized Food Data Centers that will function on the level of industrial crop production.
Food Computers are not yet commercially available. As of 2016[update], there are six prototype Personal Food Computers operating in schools around the Boston area, and three Food Servers operating at MIT, Michigan State University, and Unidad Guadalajara (Cinvestav) in Mexico. Build directions and schematics are available for makers and hobbyists, while more-widespread availability is expected once manufacturing begins in coming years.
Open Phenome Library
Various climate conditions including temperature, relative humidity, carbon dioxide and oxygen levels, pH of water, electrical conductivity of water, and exposure to various nutrients, fertilizers and chemicals determine whether a plant grows and also how it grows. Different climate conditions can lead to different phenotypic expressions in plants that are genotypically very similar or identical. The various traits that a plant expresses, including color, size, texture, yield, growth rate, flavor, and nutrient density, make up its phenome. OpenAg aims to crowd source this research and create an open library of phenome data that relates external climate conditions to specific phenotypic expressions in various plants.
Affiliations and funding
The Open Agriculture Initiative is primarily funded through the MIT Media Lab, which is almost 100% industrially funded through corporate memberships. The Open Agriculture Initiative has also received specific endorsements from members such as IDEO, Lee Kum Kee, Target, Unilever, and Welspun. OpenAg has also received additional investments and philanthropic contributions from companies and institutions unaffiliated with the Media Lab.
Allegations of scientific misconduct
In September 2019, former employees at Fenome, the startup spun off from OpenAg, opened up about the infeasibility of their food computers to maintain the controlled environment required for growing food. They alleged that photographic results and growth data had been falsified to present them to investors and the general public. A series of internal emails sent by Babak Babakinejad, the former lead scientist of the project, backed up these allegations. Further investigations in November showed that the food computers which Harper claimed had been sent to a refugee camp for Syrian refugees in Azraq had instead been sent to a World Food Programme office in Amman, where they also failed to grow food.
WBUR published a report detailing claims that the OpenAg initiative lab at MIT's Bates Research and Engineering Center in Middleton had been dumping nitrogen-laden hydroponics solution into the wastewater system at levels above the state's mandated limits of 100 ppm, leading to an investigation by the Department of Environmental Protection.
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