Remember biting into that delicious exotic fruit on your summer holiday? The Food Computer will be able to grow it in your home without you making the slightest effort. Despite what you may think, the Food Computer is not a 3D food-shifting machine modelling food into your mostly desired cravings, even though that actually is a thing today: Nasa’s 3D-printed slice of pizza. The Food Computer has a much more exciting purpose : growing any kind of fruit or vegetable without having to import it.
So what is the Food Computer ?
Think of it as an agricultural hot-box. The Food Computer is a « specialized growing chamber » which controls all of its environmental climate variables. A given climate is programmed into the machine and grows the food. Let’s say you love the way Mexican tomatoes taste and you’d like to grow those same ones in your home. If the climate conditions have been recorded and programmed into the Food Computer, then you’ll only need to select that « recipe » and wait a couple of months for it to grow. The seed will be grown in the exact same climate conditions, with the same environmental chemicals, and for the same amount of time. Therefore, the food should look and taste exactly the same.
If you have a hard time trusting organic labels, simply organically home-grow the food in the most efficient way, leaving close to zero nutrients behind.
And how does it work ?
The technological platform uses robotic flow sensors, electrical meters, and chemical dosers to send in the perfect amount of energy, water and minerals the plant needs. Within the chamber, climate variables such as carbon dioxide, air temperature, humidity, dissolved oxygen, potential hydrogen, electrical conductivity, and root-zone temperature can all be monitored. At first, the aim seems to be maximizing the plants’ growth potential, but on a broader scale, the goal is to help reinvent agriculture and solve a range of food production problems.
Teaching the future generations
To get his project going, National Geographic Explorer Caleb Harper recruited the world’s most curious, innovative, and enthusiastic scientists out there – kids. Today’s young students have grown up in a world of rapidly evolving technology and are natural born experimenters, programmers, and tinkerers. Caleb Harper has shared his Food Computer with a number of schools to encourage out-of-the-box STEAM thinking. In the outskirts of Boston, MA, a local school teacher Tracy Polte has intergrated Food Computers into her classrooms. The Food Computer has helped the first-graders reflect on how we might feed more people in the future. When studying photosynthesis and carbon dioxide in class, one of the students went up to the machine and started breathing into to the vent. He knew he was breathing out carbon dioxide and he and his excited classmates could watch the numbers increase rapidly.
The Food Computer was not only used in Biology classes but also in Math and Cooking chemistry. When the seeds were planted in the computer, they had to be measured during every step of the growing process, and once the plant had grown, it had to be cut. The computer was also used by 8th graders, who would study different « climate recipes » and how the plants were affected.
The Food Computer is not only a variable-controlling machine but can be used in various different ways, all useful to the understanding and raising awareness of Climate Change. A growing concern, that must be tackled with care, as it shapes the minds of future generations.
Plants grown under different environmental conditions see their phenotypes change. They may vary in color, size, texture, growth rate, yield, flavor, and nutrient density. Food Computers can even program biotic and abiotic stresses, such as a drought or flood, to create desired plant-based expressions.
To satisfy different needs, Food Computers can be made in a variety of sizes for production and experimentation on a wide range of scales:
- The Personal Food Computer – The tabletop-sized unit is primarily used by makers, hobbyists, and schools that are interested in learning and teaching about food production, biology, botany, the environment, programming, engineering, and more.
- The Food Server – The size of a standard shipping container. These units will appeal to interdisciplinary researchers and little cafeterias, restaurants, and boutique operators. They will allow small-scale producers to grow on-site and offer the fresh food. Literally home-grown and freshly picked.
- The Food Datacenter – Still in the development phase. This technology could control the environments within warehouse-sized units capable of industrial production.
This last type of unit is where the Food Computer becomes interesting. The Food Datacenter could grow food using the minimum amount of resources necessary to the plant’s development. Likely subdivided by crop-type, the Food Datacenter will be able to grow many different types of crops, all under their ideal growing conditions.
What if ?
In his TED conference, introduces his innovation through the hypothesis : « What if you could take this apple, digitize it, send it through particules in the air and reconstitute it on the other side [of the world]? ». As close to teleportation as this americanized hypothesis sounds, Caleb Harper is talking about his Food Computer. Sustainably growing the same food on the other side of the world.
The use of the Food Computer points towards an endless amount of possibilities, going from producing exotic foods sustainably to advanced scientific research of endemic plants.