In his book Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit, Barry Estabrook details how grocery store tomatoes are both less nutritious and delicious than those grown decades ago. Industrial farming now grows crops for yield, sacrificing taste and vitamins for an easy-to-harvest, shippable product. It’s why apples at your local supermarket are probably about a year old. Caleb Harper, a principal research scientist at MIT and director of the OpenAg Initiative, wants to use technology to grow food that’s healthier, tastier, and more sustainable.
“Growing for nutrition and growing for flavor, it’s not really something anyone does,” he told Digital Trends at the recent ReThink Food conference in Napa, California.
With his background in architecture, Harper may not seem like the most obvious choice for the role of food system shaker-upper. Starting in 2014 with a couple of Dixie cups for his plants, he tried to learn the basic mechanics of what makes them grow better. Four years later, Harper has created the Personal Food Computer to help control all aspects of climate in a cubic foot of space. The boxes are outfitted with sensors, cameras, and circuit boards. Harper and his fellow nerd farmers, as he calls them, experiment with different ways to grow basil or a head of lettuce and then share the results. Everything is open source.