Cleantech
Team at MIT CityFARM Growing Food 3-4x Faster, with 90% Less Water

A team consisting of engineers, architects, urban planners, economists and plant scientists at MIT has set out to shift traditional farming from the distributed, water- and energy-intense practices of the present to a high-performing, affordable, urban agricultural system with the potential to feed many people.

The MIT CityFARM team has already grown produce such as lettuce and tomatoes, using hydroponic, aquaponic and aeroponic production systems. Coupled with new diagnostic, sensing, automated and autonomous delivery and harvest systems, the team says their process has the potential to cut water use for agriculture by 98 percent, "eliminate chemical fertilizers and pesticides, double nutrient densities and reduce embodied energy in produce by a factor of 10."

Another benefit of the CityFARM system is a faster crop growing time — roughly 3-4 times faster: A head of lettuce that may mature in 100 days takes 15–20 days to grow in the lab.

The push for locally grown food is not new. But the team at MIT is thinking ahead to the dramatic shift that could occur if urban farms could scale using their research. Growing and consuming local food on a large scale could dramatically cut air pollution from transportation, fertilizer runoff, and nutrient depletion from the soil in remote farms, while creating jobs for a growing urban workforce. The team is combining their findings with architectural, light and space research to see how these urban farming systems can integrate into existing cityscapes through what the team calls the Urban Agriculture Facade. With the high costs associated with urban real estate, they are curious to see if existing and underutilized buildings can become the hubs of a new urban farming movement that provides food access to future cities.

Because getting access to agricultural information is difficult, the team plans to create an open platform that allows researchers from around the world to collaborate, share data, insights and work together to improve crop yields. The Open Agriculture project just launched and is looking for strategic partners for the first open-source agricultural technology research collective.

While the CityFARM team is hard at work trying to find ways to feed the world’s cities sustainably, their colleagues at the MIT Climate CoLab — a global, web-based community designed to pool intelligence through a series of contests — are busy crowdsourcing potential solutions to climate change. Check out their latest contests at ClimateCoLab.org.

Meanwhile, a startup in the UK is also exploring the untapped potential of growing food in cities — this time, underground. Despite conventional wisdom, Zero Carbon Food has found that growing produce in abandoned London Underground tunnels, away from light and fresh air, has a host of benefits, including:

  • 70 percent less water usage than open-field farming;
  • less energy usage than a typical greenhouse;
  • immunity to seasonal weather variations, making produce available throughout the year;
  • pesticide-free crops that reach markets within 4 hours of harvest;
  • and sourcing energy from a local, renewable energy supplier ensures keeps the operation carbon-neutral.
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