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How to feed the cities of the future

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Posted: Thursday, August 28, 2014 9:33 am

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.

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