How Social Innovation Powers Open Agriculture

By Ellie Burke
Reading Time: 2 minutes

“On average, how old do you think an apple in a U.S. grocery store is from the time it was picked, to the time it was eaten?”

Caleb Harper, the principal investigator and director of the Open Agriculture (OpenAG) Initiative at MIT Media Lab, walked across the Collaborative stage as people raised their hands to possible answers:

  • Two weeks to a month
  • One month to three months
  • Up to six months
  • Six months to eight months
  • Over eight months

The answer?

14 months old.

The average apple in a grocery store has lost all of its antioxidants and is essentially just sugar.

Questions like this help us realize today’s issues in agriculture go beyond food insecurity and extend into the quality of food being mass distributed today. Unfortunately, past efforts to create larger amounts of more affordable foods have created negative externalities that also beg to be addressed.

Empowering “What If”

Caleb proposes that the solution is an open source platform for agriculture that would support asking and answering “what if” questions together, including:

What if Climate Was Democratic?

Key Quote: “We are slaves to climate. They change and they move and they don’t know political boundaries at all. My question is, could we have Boudreaux in sub-Saharan Africa? Could we have the central valley in Argentina? Could we import climate somehow and make a democracy through that?”

What if You Could Email a Tomato?

Key Quote: “We can describe everything with data. Would it be possible to take physical objects, particulate them, create data, and reconstitute them on the other side? Therefore, skipping out on…all the problems associated with long-term hauling.”

To hear more questions and get his full speech, watch the video below.

Open Agriculture Tools and the Biology Movement

According to Caleb, we’re entering the biology movement hot on the tails of the network movement.

“In a place historically known for digital innovation, the Media Lab has six out of its 30 labs now focused squarely on biology or synthetic biology. It’s clear to us that bio is the new digital.”

At the Media Lab, Caleb is leading the way for the biology movement. He and his team are in the business of creating food labs, food operating systems, and a sharing network called Food WEB. They’ve even created food computers that are being distributed to schools around the country to help educate students and encourage interest and innovation in agriculture.

For more visuals of Caleb’s work at the Media Lab and the concept of open agriculture, check out the slideshow from Caleb’s presentation.


Customers are demanding more transparency when it comes to their food. In response to this, the future will revolve around sharing data through open sourced food computers and servers. According to Caleb, “The world is going to change from looking like a world connected full of strings to a world of beacons sending data about food to create food. In fact, it has already started.”

Interested in learning about other trends in social innovation? Join us at the 2019 Collaborative.

Join Us at the 2019 Collaborative

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