MIT has closed down much of its Open Agriculture Initiative following allegations of academic dishonesty and improper dumping of wastewater, according to an article published in the NY Times. Late last week, MIT’s vice president of research, Maria Zuber, closed down all offsite work on the project, though she has allowed researchers to continue doing some design and document work.
The project, often simply referred to as “OpenAg,” is known for its food computers — small, high-tech containers meant to grow plants in controlled environments and without any soil. OpenAg also operated larger farms it called “food servers” in shipping containers housed outside the MIT campus in Middleton, Massachusetts.
Project leader Caleb Harper also had a vision that owners of these food computers would be able to share data on the perfect combinations of light, water, nutrient, and temperature levels with one another, creating a kind of open-source framework for high-tech indoor farming. “As an open source project, we believe the more Food Computers we all build, the more data we all have to play with, and the more we can radically alter the future of food,” states a page on the Open Ag site.
Instead, the project has been tethered to controversy of late. The Media Lab in general has been under scrutiny since August due to its financial dealings with convicted sex offender Jeffery Epstein. For OpenAg specifically, the trouble started in September of this year, when ProPublica and Boston radio station WBUR reported that OpenAg’s larger farms, housed in shipping containers near the town of Middleton, Massachusetts, were dumping wastewater underground that contained much higher levels of nitrogen than the legal limit in that state.
Most recently, the project is said to have exaggerated the results of its experiments. As the NYT reports, Harper “made exaggerated or false claims to the project’s corporate sponsors as well as in talks and interviews with the news media.”
Researchers on the project have also questioned the effectiveness of the food computers. For example, the food computers could not independently control conditions inside the boxes. One former special projects manager for Open Ag said she had to buy plants from the store for lab photo shoots and that some food computers sent to schools didn’t work.
In the meantime, the whole situation serves as a reminder of how little information we actually have about the true effectiveness of newer, tech-driven indoor farming methods. That’s not to say every company out there is claiming to be the future of farming while shopping at Home Depot’s garden center. But tech-enabled indoor farming remains surrounded by a number of questions around its cost, environmental impact, and long-term viability as an addition to agriculture.
Earlier this year, in a conversation with The Spoon, Paul P.G. Gauthier pointed out that we need more data on the realities of indoor farming in order to understand how much good it really contributes to the food system. His work at the now-shuttered Princeton Vertical Farming project was also studying indoor farming and releasing data on their experiments about what was and wasn’t working when it came to growing techniques and technology. “A lot of the small companies have something to tell, and we should hear their story,” he said.
Whether we hear more of OpenAg’s is yet-another question. For now, MIT has halted OpenAg activities “pending completion of ongoing assessments,” according to the NYT. There is no timeframe for when those assessments might be complete.