Open Agriculture Initiative Shuttered Amid Scandal

The MIT Media Lab’s Open Agriculture Initiative (OpenAg) promised to revolutionize urban farming with their Food Computers: essentially miniature automated gardens that could be installed in racks to maximize growing space. Each unit would be provided with a “Recipe” that allowed it to maintain the ideal environmental conditions for the species it contained, which meant that even the novice gardener to produce a bumper crop no whether they lived in the Arctic Circle or the Sahara.

With such lofty goals, success certainly wasn’t assured. But we still didn’t expect to hear that the program had to be permanently closed after a string of startling accusations came to light. From engaging in scientific dishonesty to setting off a minor ecological disaster, the story just gets worse and worse. Who could have imagined that one day we’d have to report on an open source project having direct ties to Jeffrey Epstein?

Food Computer v3.0

According to reports, MIT Media Lab Director Joichi Ito and OpenAg principal researcher Caleb Harper attempted to secure $1.5 million in funding for the program during a 2017 meeting with the disgraced financier. Epstein apparently wasn’t impressed by what he saw, and no money ever changed hands. Given the information we now have about the project, this might actually be the least surprising part of the story.

It has since come to light that the Food Computers never worked consistently, and indeed never made it past the prototype stage. This despite the fact that Harper claimed that functional units had already been deployed to refugee camps during presentation to potential investors. A scientist working with the project has even come forward with claims that staff were instructed to place plants brought from local garden centers into the prototype Food Computers prior to tours of the lab so visitors would think they had been grown in the devices.

A former researcher working on the OpenAg program, Babak Babakinejad, also went public with his concerns over the environmental impact of dumping waste water from the Food Computers. The lab had a permit to pump nitrogen-infused water into an underground disposal well, but according to Babakinejad, internal testing showed the nitrogen levels in the water would occasionally top 20 times the stated limit. After his concerns were ignored by Harper and other MIT staff, he eventually took his concerns directly to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection which led to an investigation and ultimately a fine of $25K.

We first covered the Open Agriculture Initiative back in 2016, and readers expressed doubts about the concept even then. While we certainly don’t relish making an update like this about a project we’ve featured, it’s an important reminder that honesty and integrity can’t take a backseat to technical achievement.

43 thoughts on “Open Agriculture Initiative Shuttered Amid Scandal

  1. The good thing about open-source is that now anyone can take over and continue where they left off. If it was really open…

    I see it as a nice evolutionary mechanism – if an open-source project is good enough for somebody else to take over, then it will survive. Makes the whole ecosystem better. Bad ones will die in oblivion. In a closed source system the fall of the owner equals the fall of the project – even good projects die no matter how much someone would want to take over. Look at all the things killed by Google.

  2. ” place plants brought from local garden centers into the prototype Food Computers prior to tours of the lab so visitors would think they had been grown in the devices.”

    If you’ve ever seen the plants at Home Depot, the plants grown in the Food Computers must have looked really, really bad.

  3. Hard to imagine how such a thing could feed anybody. The ratio edible biomass / quantity of technology around is an absolute disaster. It’s repeating the same mistake as extensive agriculture like negating the importance of the ecosystem and environmental waste, but it´s also not scalable, and has awful maintenance costs.

    The idea of growing plants with a “recipe” sounds as atrocious and unrealistic as raising a child in a bubble with a touch screen, a feeding tube, and no social contact.

    Just consider how much clean water and raw material and processing were needed to just build one.

    It´s a stupidly expensive grow box that will work few months at best before needing repair. But it somehow reached a goal: attracting investors who have no idea what they are investing in.

    1. I tried making bean spouts during the lock down. It is just the type of food in an emergency. The seeds I have was about 10 years old. They grow fast and in 4-5 days, you get enough for a few meals. It doesn’t require soil, light or fertilizer. All you need is a large enough bottle and to rinse/drain it a couple of times day.

          1. Generally the nutrition isn’t as available in the seed as the sprout. Doesn’t even have to grow anything outside of the seed, see malted grains.

          2. From an energy point of view, the original seed would have the highest. I got frozen meat, carbohydrates for that. I just needed some extra fibers as I was a bit late to the grocery store before the lock down. The seeds I have are close to 10 years old and most of them were still good. Fresh vegetables are harder to store (and planned ahead) other than canned or frozen form.

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sprouting
            >Increases in protein quality
            >Increases in crude fibre content

            Crude Protein (% of DM) Crude Fibre (% of DM)
            Original seed 12.7% 5.4%
            Day 7 15.5% 14.1%

            >Increases in essential fatty acids
            >Increases in vitamin content
            >Increase in gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA)

            For seeds like kidney beans, you definitely want them to soak them overnight. They have high amounts of the toxin phytohemagglutinin to prevent them from eaten before germination.

            As for sprouting, you can eat it in a week without technology or much work. At the end of 4-5 days, my pasta bottle was so jam packed that I had to stop growing them. I had a bit too much seeds.

            For the growing seeds, you have to watering, fertilizers and pollinating etc for an entire growing season. That’s what the OP’s fancy light box is supposed to be, but failed.

            I have my own project with a timer and ambient light sensor to control LED strip + watering.

    2. That’s the part I can’t get past, the whole thing is just utterly impractical on even basic inspection. It’s like some city boys saw a photo of a plant on the Internet and said “Oi! So that’s where food comes from. We could create a magnificent algorithm to grow one of those things and have food forever!” and then went fishing for a big pile of someone else’s money.

    1. It’s a terrible idea, horribly implemented. The fact that there is any wastewater is one clue among many. I’ve grown apple trees indoors from seed to 6 feet tall in undrained pots. No wastewater in over a year, not a drop.

  4. ” it’s an important reminder that honesty and integrity can’t take a backseat to technical achievement.”
    Good for you.
    Reminds me of a voice from the past and a pretty good way to live life:

    An Aggie does not lie, cheat or steal or tolerate those who do.

  5. I grew hydroponic cherry tomatoes in a 7 inch kitchen funnel in perlite and the plant was eventually 3 feet deep, 3 feet wide and about 8 feet tall with a pump on a 15 minute timer and fancy fertilizer that the pot growers use. The root structure was a solid root ball within the funnel that fully interleaved the perlite. Produced enough tomatoes that I never wanted to do it again or get on the freaking ladder and pick them. Hundreds per day to the point where my neighbors dreaded seeing me bringing more free tomatoes. Don’t understand the issues. This isn’t rocket science.

      1. it was a long time ago, maybe 1988. I had 2 kitchen funnels one for each plant. I had a patio which was cut back into the side of the house where the back wall of the patio extended higher than the edge of the perimeter roofline to a height of approximately 15 feet. the initial idea was to mount the tomato plant at approx waist height so I could walk up to it and pick tomatoes. I took a hole punch and punched 3 holes in the funnels and put the wires from a standard tomato cage through the holes. I bent the front one over and cut it off. the 2 in the back, I bent back to make a standoff back for a wall mount. so.. a screw at the top ring and screws on the standoffs at the bottom mounted the tomato cage on the back wall of the patio. I don’t remember the name of the fertilizer company and they’re probably out of business now but it was from a headshop in Colorado and delivered interstate via mail. Attitudes were different then and I probably showed up on some government list. The key is the mix (which you can get through tomato sites) and really critical is that there are no non nutrient fillers. Water tank was about 10 gallon plastic storage container and nutrient mix tapwater and fertilizer. Had $20 submersible pump like you would use for a waterfall and electromechanical switch which was set to 15 minute intervals ( you can turn it off at night). water pump fed 1/8 inch tubing feeding into the top of the funnels. the bottom of the funnels connected to a 1/4 inch tube into the water tank. Once weekly titrated the fertilizer mix in the water tank with focus on salt buildup. added fertilization as needed and dumped the tank when there was a salt buildup. spent the rest of season adding support cages to the top and sides and fighting the tendency of the tomato roots clogging the return lines (you cut them off). Darned thing turned into a Frankenstein and grew above the patio roofline. Total root structure remained totally within the funnel. If for some reason the pump quit the whole thing would collapse like overcooked spinach but once the pump was back on would pop back up like nothing happened.
        Required daily tending, picking, ladder, etc. was horrible PITA.
        the plants were expected to be 2 feet high and stay within tomato cages where I could walk up to them but once it started growing, I couldn’t help myself. had to know.

        1. when the nutrients are absorbed because nitrogen potassium and phosphorus are delivered as nitrates and other salts, only the salts remain which can kill the plant. General sense is that the pot growers are using better fertilizer today. absolutely can’t use fertilizer from Walmart because most fertilizers are full of “inert” fillers that will accumulate, clog the pump and coat the roots in junk.

  6. Caleb Harper was a great salesman, with a good vision; unfortunately he over-sold the vision and underplayed the technical difficulties. Hydroponics is not that hard, but consistent, predictable results become difficult; and exponentially more difficult the more control you try to impose. The PFC (Personal Food Computer) was over-engineered, expensive and never worked decently. A community project spun off from OpenAg (the “$300 Food Computer”: https://github.com/futureag/blog/wiki) was simpler, has been built around the world and works reliably. It is a great Rasbperry Pi hack, and mine has been running for several years.
    The vision of more controlled agriculture, in light of climate uncertainty, still stands; though there are a lot of difficult problems that still need a lot of work – more than a quick PR stunt.

    1. A great salesman with a good vision… what can go wrong ?
      “And a vision of a more controlled agriculture, in light on climate uncertainty” ??? Sooo… instead of trying to understand your place as a human in the ecosystem and shrinking your footprint to a sustainable level, you propose to control the ecosystem even more and replace the natural ecosystem by a deficient gimmick of it ?

      You sir deserve to learn to live in a post-pandemic wrecked economy with only waste remains of the all-technological past.

  7. I was caught up in this. I ran a website selling Food Computer kits (www.openagriculturesupply.com) and had many interactions with Caleb and the team. There is lots to tell, including Caleb’s quite frankly ego driven scharade of lies. I’d be happy to discuss the whole story in detail, contact me at the email link at the link above.

    1. Ultimately there was just no new value in what they were doing. Plant incubators had existed already for years (https://www.fishersci.com/us/en/browse/90088104/plant-growth-incubators) and were already heavily utilized in plant and agriculture. These were simply an open source copy of an existing product with less reliable hobbiest electronics and a rough cloud interface hacked together. A raspberry pi is a great teaching tool and basis for a weekend robot project, but when it comes to mission critical applications where health, property or livelihood is at stake we need more reliable solutions (why the whole previously existing plant incubator and agtech companies exist). Many of us built kits and never got them working because the software was not supported, documented clearly, or really workable at all. What is most disappointing is how much talent and effort were wasted. It could have really aligned a lot of things in the industry if Caleb had listened to what was needed, he was getting the feedback to steer it in the right direction, i know, I was giving it to him. Speaking with him directly he was dismissive and not open to suggestion.

  8. Ultimately there was just no new value in what they were doing. Plant incubators had existed already for years (https://www.fishersci.com/us/en/browse/90088104/plant-growth-incubators) and were already heavily utilized in plant and agriculture. These were simply an open source copy of an existing product with less reliable hobbiest electronics and a rough cloud interface hacked together. A raspberry pi is a great teaching tool and basis for a weekend robot project, but when it comes to mission critical applications where health, property or livelihood is at stake we need more reliable solutions (why the whole previously existing plant incubator and agtech companies exist). Many of us built kits and never got them working because the software was not supported, documented clearly, or really workable at all. What is most disappointing is how much talent and effort were wasted. It could have really aligned a lot of things in the industry if Caleb had listened to what was needed, he was getting the feedback to steer it in the right direction, i know, I was giving it to him. Speaking with him directly he was dismissive and not open to suggestion.

  9. Kind of figured this out myself about a year ago. I thought it was a cool project so I looked into it a bit deeper. There was no actual useful stuff posted asides from some very very barebones hardware, the kind of thing you could do in a few days + an over-engineered case to hold it together. The “RECIPES” were nowhere to be found, nothing more than some json files with some general information about the plant, no actual ‘recipe’ in them. The forums had a few people trying to build the thing, testing if the sensors worked, but no one seemed to have actually done anything amazing. Even back then there were articles about how it’s a scam.
    Sucks, cause I think something could actually work (not in this retarded form-factor though, you don’t need half a meter cubed to grow ONE plant). If you can put together a reproduceable watering+lighting setup and some way to fertilize the plants, you could really grow stuff according to a recipe (even though it would probably be a stupidly simple recipe).

    1. yes it doenst take much more than water, nutrients, Sunlight ( or suitable substitute) and of course CO2 ;-)

      The Hydroponics and Aquaponics People have been doing it for years and you can grow a hell of a lot in a bathtub.

  10. A while back we were given an contract to get a food computer working for a west coast company that had failed at making it. They wanted to ultimately make this into a product. I just didn’t see this viable financially as a product unless it was for the marijuana industry. After we had successfully delivered the food computer to them they announced that was their plans for producing this food computer for the marijuana industry. Eventually the project was killed. Only time I made money off of marijuana.

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