Agriculture production data should be public and the open source movement should be the model for analysing it, according to the Open Agriculture initiative at MIT Media Lab.

This could involve making the data from every farming IoT sensor public - so you could use the climate data to understand how best to grow what and where, or use other IoT data points to trace where the food has come from across the whole supply chain.

Image credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Petra van der Ree
Image credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Petra van der Ree

Caleb Harper, who leads the initiative, believes that a radical rethinking of agriculture could help solve some of the problems surrounding transparency, distribution and climate inherent to the market today. But governments will have to take the lead.  

"I think most of what people talk about right now are symptoms," Harper told Techworld. "They're like: nutrition has attenuated 50 percent over the last 100 years. Yes, that's true, but why? And why don't we know that? People will say: there's too much water use in food. There are all these symptoms being viewed in isolation."

In 2015, the United Nations reported that by 2030 there will be 8.5 billion people on the planet and nearly 10 billion by 2050. Enough food is already produced yearly to feed 10 billion people but severe food poverty continues to plague large parts of the planet. Clearly there is a social crisis in food production and distribution, only compounded by looming climate disaster and other man-made global factors. 

The Open Agriculture initiative arose from Caleb Harper's trip to Japan following the Fukushima nuclear meltdown in 2011.

Radiation had poisoned the land, and researchers were unsure if traditional agriculture could be sustainable or safe in these conditions. This led to the concept of a 'Food Computer', as Open Agriculture explains:  "The idea for the Food Computer came about, and extended into a solution to the general problem that outdoor climate cannot be controlled."

Open Agriculture describes its 'Food Computer' as "a controlled-environment agriculture technology platform that uses robotic systems to control and monitor climate, energy, and plant growth inside a specialised growing chamber." The set of conditions, MIT says, can be "thought of as a climate recipe, and each recipe produces unique results in the phenotypes of the plants. Plants grown under different conditions may vary in colour, size, texture growth rate, yield, flavour, and nutrient density."

"All of the data that we gather is about what's called expression, or phenomics," Harper says. "You have genome, you have genes, and then you have expression of genes – in food that means flavour, nutrition, colour and texture. So what we're gathering is data about phenomic expression, or as normal people would say, the effect between climate and what you get to eat."

"If people say 'I love the tomatoes in Tuscany', well, we're trying to understand what it is about Tuscany that makes that tomato or set of genetics express something awesome, and why, if we take that same set of genetics and put it in Norway, it's not going to taste the same."

The team is starting small, but the ideas driving it are potentially far-reaching.

One such problem is a generational gap in agricultural knowledge that has so far gone largely unaddressed.

In the United States right now, Harper explains, just two percent of the population is involved in agriculture – and these people are aging.

"An entire generation has gone by without getting into agriculture," he says. "And so we're just reawakening again, and frankly, reawakening with a general kind of ignorance about what is the system that feeds us? How good is the food for us? Where did it come from? What went into it? Is it environmentally sustainable?"

Parallel to this is a lack of transparency about the food supply chain, and most data that is available is proprietary.

"About 40 years ago a lot of the information became proprietary, and the public doesn't have access to it," Harper says. "I would say it took us 20 or 30 years to figure that out and raise our heads – that's what happened with GMO. People said: 'Oh my gosh, I didn't even know this was happening. And I don't understand what it is.'"

However, the transformative potential of the internet of things – in short, connecting everything to generate and then analyse data – provides an opportunity to uproot the way food and agriculture is understood. Every point of information along the chain could be made public.

"The fact is we've gone incredible proprietary with agricultural information," Harper says. "Whether that's genetic information, nutritional information, sustainability information – that's a systemic issue that needs to be addressed. One of the best ways I can think of is, if government money goes into agricultural research, then it has to be open source. We have to bring in the technological tools to bear that create trust and create transparency."

How could that work? Harper believes the infrastructure could be built in such a way to benefit the most people as possible – while remaining friendly to the interests of business. Just look at the internet, he says. HTML is an open source language and most commercial servers run the internet on open source software.

"A ton of big companies make a lot of money on the internet, but they had to have that baseline of a shared core of technology that allows them to do that."

Structurally, it could take the shape of the Human Genome Project, which saw tens of thousands of researchers, with the backing of public-private partnerships across governments, to map the human genome.

Whatever the way forward, Harper believes that the insights gained from creating an open source and transparent agricultural network would ultimately be win-win for all parties involved.

The world's largest greenhouse is located in Almeria, Spain, and Harper holds it up as an example for why agriculture is in desperate need of more transparency and accountability. This is where 80 percent of the UK's vegetables are grown, and it uses 1,200 millilitres, per square metre, of water a year to function.

"It's in the middle of a desert," Harper says. "There's only 200 millilitres of rainfall. So how does this work? That's one of the reasons I went – it turns out it's on a fossilised aquifier. The run-off from this, what they call "plastic sea", has killed sperm whale breeding grounds, and it's all run on Moroccan slave labour. Yet it's sold at Sainsbury's as 'Grown in Europe'."

"This is the kind of transparency and accountability that cannot be left to the private sector."

"We're starting the project but I see a lot of data about right now – companies like the Farmers Business Network have collected more data in the field about agriculture in the last three years than the USDA has digitised ever. It's the big data grab that's going on right now, caching your personal data, just like Facebook – preparing data sets to use with machine learning and artificial intelligence."

See also: How Walmart will use the blockchain to improve food supply traceability

"My question is: when can we get to that point with agriculture? And when we get to that point, does machine learning and artificial intelligence only benefit certain companies that can pay for it, or does it become a way to make money that benefits the most people? Government has to lead it: if they give out any money for agriculture, they need to enforce that any of that research is open source and contributed back to a commons."

"Right now, that's just not the case – you wouldn't believe the amount of knowledge the world already has about agriculture and how much of it is completely useless in the world of computing. It's not organised into libraries – agriculture needs to be brought out of the industrial revolution, in to the networked economy, and given a core."

"If we don't build the public assets it will just be another heist. It'll be another agricultural revolution that doesn't result in a more democratic use of agricultural technology."

Open Agriculture's largest financial sponsor is the enormous American retailer Target Corporation. Although that might sound at odds for a food retailer, Harper believes that these mega-brands are desperate to rebuild trust. "The big players know their future has to be more transparent, more trusted," he says.