World of food has gone digital, MIT professor says

World of food has gone digital, MIT professor says

Food industry should benefit from this revolution, after shelf life of an apple becomes 14 months

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Abu Dhabi: The world of food has gone digital and consumers want to understand where food comes from and how it’s produced, even if that means redefining what is “natural’ and what is “organic”, an MIT professor said on Monday.

“Our world is controlled and described by data more than ever and the food industry should benefit from this information revolution,” Dr Caleb Harper, Director of the Open Agricultural Initiative at MIT Media Lab, told the majlis of His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces.

Dr Harper said new approaches to agriculture will help produce good-tasting and highly-nutritious agricultural products where as “the average age of an apple in a US store lasts for 14 months,” losing in that process its antioxidants and other nutrients.”

Shaikh Mohammad and His Highness Shaikh Saud Bin Rashid Al Mualla, Member of the Supreme Council and Ruler of Umm Al Quwain, attended the lecture held at Al Bateen Palace in Abu Dhabi.

Dr Harper said he started his journey developing agricultural tools about six years ago. “If I could code-climate, I could code-flavour,” he said. “I built a farm meant to travel around the world. Inside of this lab we are designing ‘climate’ that can produce high-quality agricultural products such as tomato.”

He said in the lecture themed “Eating Digital: The Fourth Agricultural Revolution”, that one of the tools he and his team have developed in the MIT Media Lab was a biometer, which is a device that can tell what are the contents of a certain plant, including nutrients and chemicals. He said this could be of particular help for checking the authenticity of organic foods.

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, compounded by looming climate disaster and other man-made global factors.

Harper spoke about his experience as the Director of the Open Agricultural Initiative at MIT Media Lab where he and his team created an agricultural lab that aims at developing a highly-controlled, digital-based method for agricultural production by making use of data gleaned from plants and from other sources.

He said that after sequencing plants at the lab, they found that a single plant contained 3.5 million data bits. He pointed out that they used this data by connecting it with data gleaned from thousands of weather centres, with the resulting data helping farmers figure out where the best climate is for each plant.

Dr Harper also spoke about his experience with chefs who get excited about the prospect of developing flavours that no one in the world will have.

“Everything you’ve ever eaten is GMO or a genetically modified organism that has had its DNA altered or modified in some way through genetic engineering,” he said, adding that humans have been breeding and selecting plants for thousands of years with the only difference now being that this process is moving “at light speed,” he said.

Dr Harper leads a group of engineers, architects and scientists in the exploration and development of the future food systems, where they are developing an open-source agricultural hardware, software and data common in order to create an agile, transparent and collaborative food system.

The first agricultural revolution was kicked off with the introduction of steam-engine powered agricultural production machinery. It was followed by the second agricultural revolution which took place when farmers substituted steam for electricity. The third agricultural revolution came to being with the emergence of electronics and information technology, which streamlined the automation of mass agricultural production. The fourth agricultural revolution is essentially a continuation of the efforts that were first laid in the third with the fourth taking advantage of the significant advancements heralded by digital technology.

The Ramadan series of lectures is part of Shaikh Mohammad’s efforts to spread the spirit of knowledge and learning in the United Arab Emirates, by inviting renowned scholars, experts, officials and entrepreneurs to speak at his majlis at Al Bateen Palace in Abu Dhabi. The lectures are attended by senior government officials, diplomats, business leaders and others.

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