How do we feed our growing cities, and feed them well? It’s a question Caleb Harper and his team of researchers at MIT’s Media Lab are seeking to answer via their CITYFarm initiative.
From a 60 square foot indoor facility grows a variety of fruits and vegetables, harvested without soil, using artificial light and very little water. While the lab may look like something out of a science fiction film about a futuristic Mars colony, the plants that are grown there germinate four times faster than those in nature.
Harper employs both hydroponic and aeroponic cultivation techniques. For gardeners without a green thumb, aeroponics involves suspending a plant’s roots in air and treating it with a fine, nutrient-rich mist. The roots of hydroponically grown plants sit directly in shallow water.
No chemical fertilizers or pesticides are used in the process, and the plants actually contain twice the nutrition as their traditionally grown counterparts. Red and blue LED lights supplement the growing process, as it’s the spectrum of light preferred by photosynthetic plants.
Harper and his team control and monitor the environment using advanced software to ensure optimal (i.e. delicious) results. CITYFarm works together with the Open Agriculture project in which researchers share data and discuss their findings to advance the common cause.
Aeroponics could ultimately reduce agricultural water consumption by up to 98 per cent. CITYFarm envisions using existing, underutilized properties to house its innovative growing centres. Doing so will lead to urban job growth and increase access to fresh produce for low-income residents. Currently, Harper is working with the city of Detroit to establish its own CITYFarm in the coming months.
For urbanites, the farm-to-fork movement may not be so far-off after all. And while kale may not be the answer to everything, growing it in our cities, among high-reaching skyscrapers, may give rise to food production that is both nutritious and sustainable.