Open Agriculture / Free (as in Freedom) Food

Carsten Agger agger at
Thu May 11 08:00:12 UTC 2017

On 05/10/2017 05:54 PM, Daniel Pocock wrote:
> If you are not comfortable putting non-free software in your computer,
> have you ever thought about the non-free nature of the food you put in
> your body?
> A group at MIT's Media Lab have started the Open Agriculture (OpenAg)
> initiative and there was a TED talk (video[1]) about it in Geneva that
> makes it really clear what they are doing and why.
> The documentary Food, Inc[2] also helps understand what is at stake.
> Has anybody else looked at this or any similar projects already?
I'm working with permaculture, which I see as analogous to free software
in that it represents a science-based and ethical approach to food
production based on natural processes and the maximising of useful

In permaculture, the idea is also to replace the constant waste of
fossil fuels by growing food locally, and generally decrease the energy
spent in food and energy production by careful design, e.g. of a guild
of edible annual and perennials, including trees, shrubs and herbs, and
allow a full mycorhizal network to develop by ot tilling or turning the
soil. Instead of electronically microcontrolling the nutrients (obtained
as artificial chemicals) as in these food computers, the mycorhiza (the
so-called "internet of the plants") will distribute nutrients between
"friends" in the network.

The drawback of the food computer with respect to permaculture is, in my
view, the degree of complexity involved - yes, you avoid shipping food,
but you still need someone to produce (extra) electricity and to move
all material for doing that around, and you need to source a wide array
of metals and have them processed in a very complex and energy-consuming
factory and afterwards have them shipped to a lot of locations in order
to build the food computer. I believe permaculture, avoiding chemical
fertilizer and pesticides, keeping a careful tally of the ressource
consumption so at least as many ressources (water, energy, carbon) are
recreated as consumed, is a more sustainable future for food production.
The variation advertised in the video could also be achieved by growing
and developing many different varieties as well as species, which in all
cases gives more resilience against pests and diseases.

Plus, while many people may not want to be farmers, which might either
mean complete industrialization with pesticides, fertilizers, giant pig
farms fed with soy beans grown on former rain forest, or impoverished
thirdworld farmers,  many people *would* like to grow their own food and
become more self-sufficient and independent.

That said, the ideas behind the food computer are interesting. It might
be the most rational way to source some plants (rather than exploit
vulnerable ecosystems and have them shipped across the globe), and in
terms of sustainability it might be more rational than industrial farming.

But I think it would be more of a supplement and that the majority of
the food we eat should be produced by natural methods, following the
permaculture principle of rebuilding at least as many ressources as are

The Mocambos network and other social movements in Brazil represent an
interesting way of working with communities, combining free software,
permaculture and more low-tech and traditional ways of living as may be
seen in this video:
(direct link

Interestingly, what that video shows is a way for communities and
individuals to take back control that these food computers might also
enable. But, as I said, as more of a complement than as the thing itself.


> A group has been formed[3] in Zurich to try and build one or more of the
> food computers collaboratively.  A venue is to be announced shortly.  I
> already raised this on the Zurich mailing list, but would anybody else
> want to come to Zurich to participate, be part of this remotely or
> replicate the idea in their own location?
> One challenge for us in Zurich is to try and find an efficient way of
> ordering all the parts, the list[4] includes over 100 items from about
> various suppliers.  Making up orders would be rather tedious, so
> grouping the orders together could help lower the hurdle for people to
> get started.
> One significant opportunity with this initiative is the outreach to
> other groups with environment, sustainability, urban agriculture and
> culinary interests.  OpenAg provides a way to developed a shared
> philosophy about what free really means and how free software is part of
> the solution to social problems like food security.
> Regards,
> Daniel
> 1.
> 2.
> 3.
> 4.
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