What is cyber agriculture? How computer algorithms could make crops taste better

An image to illustrate cyber agriculture
© iStock/tdub303

What is cyber agriculture? MIT has explored this new field using algorithms in agriculture to optimise growing conditions for flavourful crops.

According to a principal research scientist in MIT’s Media Lab, Caleb Harper, computer algorithms in farming are just the beginning for the new field of cyber agriculture. Harper’s group is also working on fighting diseases with herb properties and helping crop growers adapt to climate change by studying crop growth under different conditions.

Defining cyber agriculture

There are many alternative names for this emerging field of agriculture where plants are grown in a controlled environment, such as:

  • Controlled environmental agriculture;
  • Vertical farming; and
  • Urban farming.

The cyber agriculture market

According to Harper, it is still a niche market, but one which is growing quickly. Yet there have been many failed efforts and little sharing of information between different companies developing these facilities.

Harper explains: “Our goal is to design open-source technology at the intersection of data acquisition, sensing, and machine learning, and apply it to agricultural research in a way that hasn’t been done before. We’re really interested in building networked tools that can take a plant’s experience, its phenotype, the set of stresses it encounters, and its genetics, and digitize that to allow us to understand the plant-environment interaction.”

MIT’s research

MIT’s OpenAg plants are grown in shipping containers retrofitted to ensure a high level of control over light, temperature and humidity conditions.

The researchers have already made an interesting discovery about basil plants which would traditional agricultural techniques perhaps would not have informed them of. They found that exposing basil plants to light twenty four hours a day generated the best flavour.

John de la Parra, the research lead for the OpenAg group and an author of the study, added: “You couldn’t have discovered this any other way. Unless you’re in Antarctica, there isn’t a 24-hour photoperiod to test in the real world. You had to have artificial circumstances in order to discover that.”

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