Open Source Agriculture? Meet the OpenAg Initiative!

OpenAg_MIT_lab

It must have been more than ten years since I did my MSc and PhD in Agricultural Biotechnology; both of them focused on the study of effects of artificial and controlled sulfur, nitrogen and phosphorus deprivation on corn plants grown hydroponically. I was also using a controlled plant growth chamber that allowed me to control environmental aspects like temperature, light and humidity – big enough to fit hundreds of plants and 4-5 people. Since my work involved the use of antibodies and the analysis of proteins, RNA & DNA, I was constantly wearing my clean, white lab coat, like the one that the guys and girls in the following picture wear. When I saw this photo, I got this flashback of my university years (and found the reference for my PhD, as well as its full-text online).

OpenAg_MIT_lab

Part of the OpenAg team in their controlled growth chamber

Since then I have made a turn, leaving my academic path and following one which combined my agricultural studies with metadata, digital repositories, open access/open data, information & knowledge management and who knows what else…and this is what brought me here.

When I first heard about the OpenAg initiative (it was through an eye-catching post on Medium), I got excited; it looks like a promising effort with great potential, backed up by the MIT Media Lab which is working on making agriculture open source in order to “create healthier, more engaging, and more inventive food systems”in order to help meet the need of feeding the projected 9 billion of global population by 2050… but how would they do that?

To make a long story short, the team’s first step is to create the first open-source agricultural technology research lab; using this lab as their vehicle, and with the feedback and guidance from external research affiliates and advisors, the OpenAg team is working with Food Computers that help control and monitor the conditions inside the growing chamber, like climate, energy, and plant growth, creating climate recipes (referring to a set of specific environmental conditions) that allow the optimal growth of a specific plant.

A Food Computer

By carefully examining the conditions under which each individual plant is grown in a controlled growth chamber (where each plant is considered as an individual user of a network), each plant is profiled and data related to the nutrients available and acquired by the plant, quality and quantity of light absorbed, availability of carbon dioxide for photosynthesis, soil humidity and irrigation status etc. is collected and analyzed. Then, the optimal growth conditions for a specific crop type (mostly vegetables for the time being) are  determined and a recipe is created, to be shared with anyone interested in growing the same crop. Then, those adopting a recipe can further experiment and maybe even find slightly different optimal growing conditions for their cases.

What is really intriguing about the OpenAg initiative, is not only the fact that everything is planned to be available as open source and openly available to anyone; it is the combination of expertise of people with different background, the exploitation of state-of-the-art technologies related to data, hardware and software, as well as the plan for the adoption of the initiative’s tools and approaches which is based on engaging students from nearby schools (but not limited to them) which could be the next generation of well-informed and educated farmers. The target user groups is not limited to students; the OpenAg team aims to engage a wide variety of users, ranging from makers, hobbyists and schools, to interdisciplinary researchers and even small-scale cafeterias which could act as hubs for coordinating such efforts.

Can urban farming boost food production in cities – and how can the Open Ag Initiative contribute to that?

We have already seen and featured similar initiatives that are working towards opening up access to agri-food data (Open Ag Data Alliance), seeds (Open Source Seed Initiative) and even agricultural hardware (Open Source Ecology), so we are really anxious to learn even more about the Open Ag initiative – stay tuned for updates!

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