Interview With Caleb Harper, Director of the MIT Media Lab Open Agriculture Initiative On Reducing Food Miles

Friday, November 30th, 2018

According to research findings, it takes 11 months for an apple to reach the supermarket from the day that it is picked in an orchard. That’s an astounding amount of time between farm and fork, which is also known as the food miles for a product. The APFI team speaks to Caleb Harper, the Director of OpenAg Initiative to glean tips that manufacturers could use to shorten their food miles.

1. Could you provide an overview of the current technologies aimed at food miles reduction?

An area of innovation in reducing food miles is the production of food closer to where people live. People call it vertical farm, or in Japan they call it plant factories, but this is the idea that some percentage of what people consume would benefit greatly from being grown where they live, so as we face an increasingly urbanizing future, the landscape of innovation in a control environment, would dramatically reduce food miles.

Other innovations include using data much more effectively. Start-ups like Farmers Business Network are producing a lot more data about our field and what each individual field would be good for, meaning the ability in the future to pick our crop types to potentially modify those crop types to different climate conditions that exist all over the world, making it more possible to produce better nutrition closer to where people live.

Of course, there are also a lot of innovations are strictly in the supply chain, such as better refrigeration techniques, better shipping methods, reducing food waste at every point in the supply chain is something we are seeing rapidly evolve right now.

2. In your opinion, what are the current challenges when it comes to implementing the technologies stated above?

Actually the biggest problem in food is trust and transparency. You do have a lot of companies active now in optimising their supply chains. For example, Walmart has mandated that all vendors be on blockchain within the next two years. But as companies become more interested at implementing technology into their operations, questions such as “how will we trust those innovations?”, “how would the science of these innovations be more democratically understood?” and “how would access to that science be more open?” have arose.

3. Do you think food computers will be available for commercial use in the next 5 years?

Every version of the food computer that we’ve made is already available online. It’s available at Wikipedia, in GitHub, and some other community forms that people can participate today. They make the machines themselves, and there are about 15 companies inside our ecosystem that are trying to sell the machine to others. Of course, here at the MIT Media Lab, we aren’t commercialising it, but we are making that opportunity for it to be commercialised.

The other machine that we build is food server, which is the size of a shipping container. That does start to produce enough food or agriculture product, but it’s hard to get it to a production scale. It’s still very much an open question as to what’s the best purpose for it. We have built them in commercial environments already and they are being tested to grow cotton with our other sponsor company Welspun.

The first commercial use of these technologies would be in the pharmaceutical space. But as it gets more established, and the tool becomes less expensive, and then we can go after things that people eat on the daily basis. And this is the beginning of a whole new method of production and you already seen it in Japan and it’s already being built around the United States and the EU in the form of vertical farming.

4. How important is it for there to be an open source and community participation in the success of food computers?

It’s imperative.

One of the biggest challenges in the food system is the lack of sharing information. This creates consumer distrust and the problem of knowledge being in the hands of a few. To change that paradigm is why it’s fundamental that everything that we do is open to gather trust about new technologies.

To build the network of collaboration, an open platform for people to share their experiences and their ideas has to be established. And for OpenAg, this means adopting an open source in everything that we do, which has to our amazing adoption because if you give people power to express themselves, on a network platform, you’ll be surprised at how quickly innovation can happen. That’s why we are open source and that’s why I believe the future of Ag is about more the sharing of information.

5. In your opinion, how long will it take for there to be a more engaged, integrated and conscious agriculture and food system?

My tendency would be to say that it’ll be 10 years’ time, but if you look at it, we are already performing experiments in Climate Prospecting with Ferrero today, and their desire to take on our technology and field test it is incredibly strong, so I would say it’s happening faster and it’ll happen faster than I understand.

It’s really driven by one simple thing – that is people all over the world are starting to question the health benefits, source and environmental impact of food products. And that pressure is being faced by retailers and package good producers across the globe. The agriculture and the food industry is one of the biggest globally, so you are talking about a change inside a multi trillion dollar industry and it’s happening faster than I ever would have thought. The pressure from the consumer to know more is leading this disruption and I would say our food system even five years from now will be very different from our food system today.