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How to feed the cities of the future

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One MIT scientist hopes to farm without soil for city life

Come along with The Verge for the second season of Detours. We’ve traveled across the country to find the people, groups, and companies that are solving America’s problems in new and unconventional ways.

At MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Caleb Harper’s CityFARM demonstrates the future of food production. He grows plants through aeroponics, a system that produces plants without soil. Plants are hooked up to servers and misting mechanisms. LEDs fill in for the sun and ladybugs (purchased on Amazon) occasionally make an appearance. Plants are periodically sprayed with a nutrient-rich mist that provides optimal pH balance. Light and temperatures are closely monitored. The environment nurtures plants that have twice the nutrient density of their conventional counterparts. Lettuce, bok choy, and tomatoes have already fed the scientists in the lab.

Farming consumes about 80 percent of the available freshwater in the US. Produce largely relies on natural conditions that are increasingly unpredictable. Transportation between the points of production and consumption, in particular, impacts cost and quality of food. Aeroponics reduces agricultural water consumption by 98 percent and eliminates the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. But, it is not a replacement for agriculture. "There’s a lot of us versus them in this field right now, which is highly unproductive," he says. "It’s all one system. Some things make more sense in a bigger environment — commodities like wheat, soy, rice, corn." Those volumes are not on Harper’s agenda. "But, what about the things that don’t work well in traditional systems?" The system can aid existing farmers and make yields higher. But, it also wants to cater to a new farmer, the kind that lives in the city.

"How do we take a horizontal greenhouse and make it vertical?"

Using less square footage for the most amount of production will be the requisite for feeding cramped cities of the future. "What I’m thinking is how do we take a horizontal greenhouse and make it vertical?" said Harper. Research and technology that has the potential to affect global change is often closely guarded until a venture capitalist comes along. But, Harper’s work is open source. "I’m building the operating system that these environments will function on," he said. "So like a plant OS — but more towards a platform for developers to be able to add on to over time."

Despite the scale of potential benefits, detractors believe the energy equation is going to prevent this New Age farm from becoming a reality. "It’s true right now," said Harper. "But, I liken that kind of criticism to the disbelief that a personal computer will ever be in anyone’s home." The first CityFARM is scheduled to make its debut in the real world in the next six months.