It’s a safe bet that I wasn’t the only one watching the original Star Trek series who imagined how cool it would be to have a food replicator like the one on board the USS Enterprise. The Personal Food Computer (PFC) is the wave of the future, and it is now just reaching the nascent shores of personal agriculture.
While that technology may exist somewhere in a galaxy far beyond our own, there are some Milky Way inhabitants who are busy developing ways to produce food that seemed just as futuristic a mere generation ago.
Meet Caleb Harper
Caleb Harper is an engineer, architect, innovator and research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Harper is also the creator of the burgeoning PFC industry. Working out of MIT’s iconic Media Lab and heading up the City Farm Research Group in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harper and friends have developed the Open Agriculture Initiative, or OpenAg.
The Open Agriculture Initiative
The OpenAg website describes the project in this way: “OpenAg brings together partners from industry, government, and academia in a research collective that’s creating collaborative tools and open technology platforms for the exploration of future food systems.”
One of those food systems in the works is the PFC. At its heart, the PFC is a personal garden in a box. Tabletop-sized, it is an amalgamation of vertical farming, hydro, and aeroponics all integrated into an agricultural Internet of Things platform replete with banks of environmental sensors.
This innovative indoor gardening method allows for a vast variety of plants and vegetables, along with other foods like herbs, to be grown within a controlled environment requiring only the basics of light, food and water in a soilless medium. The roots are fed via a nutritional mist and the light is provided by LEDs.
Inside this high-tech do-it-yourself growbox lives an intimate garden with an active array of electronic sensors monitoring nearly every aspect of the environment in relation to the plants being grown inside. These watchdog sensors vigilantly check and control the climate, humidity, pH levels, nutrient dispensing and oxygen levels. It also monitors root zone temperatures and electrical conductivity in real time.
What separates this system from others is that the entire growing process is monitored and recorded, while a digital footprint is created containing all of the information gathered during each step of the growth cycle. As improvements are made, plants can be grown with a precision that wasn’t possible before.
In an interview with Smithsonian magazine, Harper states, “What’s cool is that at the end of your grow cycle, you get a digital recipe. If you were to grow basil again, you would get the same thing every time. You can email the basil recipe to your friends, and they can run the program again and get the same thing or they can start messing with it.”
As it is open-source, the program’s source code is made universally accessible to like-minded growers and others around the world. By freely sharing this knowledge, anyone can access the digital recipe and learn to grow the best version of their favorite plant and even make contributions and improvements to the recipe.
Construct Your Own Personal Food Replicator
This box garden is intended for personal, educational, and experimental purposes. Harper’s dream and goal is to share and inspire the open-source community to engage in the PFC’s continued development by having it duplicated, modified and improved upon by people with courage and insight. He imagines it as an assembly line of ideas in which each step is an advancement over the last.
“There is a groundswell of consumers and young innovators that would like to make a big difference. All we need [are] the tools. My focus is getting those tools out there,” says Harper.
The building instructions and schematics of the OpenAg PFC are available online for people to use and modify. Growers are encouraged to experiment and improve upon the original design. All parts needed to construct a unit are easily found, and you don’t have to be Bob Vila to build it. You also don’t have to be Nostradamus to see where this is going as its potential is realized through an ever-evolving network of like-minded pioneers worldwide.
Unquestionably, the PFC is in its embryonic stage and growing food reveals only one potential use for the powerful technology. As to the future, Harper stated in a recent interview that 20 years from now he could envision a patient being given a vial of bacteria into which a single seed is deposited and placed into a PFC. Using a climate recipe specifically tailored to their genome and lifestyle, they could literally grow their own prescription.
That day will certainly bring new meaning to the term “homegrown,” which may include everything from food to medicine and beyond.
The Cost of a PFC
The first PFCs for retail will ship out with limited sensor banks and a price tag approaching US$1,000. Getting the price down to a more reasonable price for consumers is the next phase. Harper hopes that the costs per unit will drop significantly as the technology progresses. He said he foresees a day where the price would range from $300-500, making it more readily available to the home grower, though he also concedes it will take some time.
While not yet in full production, Harper began donating PFCs in September to select schools in an effort to raise educational awareness and encourage students and teachers to get involved in helping to solve the world’s food shortages.
The Dirt on Gardening
A garden is still a garden and must be tended to, high-tech or not. However, with the PFC, that task gets easier as your garden gets smarter. A garden that can tend itself has some obvious advantages. Plants grown within a controlled environment aren’t affected by adverse weather conditions and neither are those grown using a PFC which monitors and regulates those conditions.
In addition, more common gardening foibles like over- or under watering and feeding will no longer be an issue in that the precise amount of nutrients and water is preprogrammed and administered accordingly. Insect infestation is unlikely as insects are generally known to feast on unhealthy plants. Cross-contamination from sickly plants is practically non-existent, and, most importantly, with a PFC, a consistent yield is guaranteed virtually every time.
Thanks to innovators like Harper, a future with personal food computers is coming and I, for one, can’t wait to see where it grows.