Deep in the Jordanian desert you might be surprised to find a team of academics, computer scientists and humanitarians buzzing around washing-machine sized boxes, punching code into nearby laptops. In a country where a mere 10 percent of the land is suitable for cultivation, that’s exactly what you’ll find.

Early in 2017, WFP’s Innovation Accelerator teamed up with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab Open Agriculture Initiative (OpenAg) to send ten high-tech Food Computers to Jordan. It’s an unconventional project with a very real ambition; to help design a healthy, next-gen food system that provides nutritious food in the most extreme conditions.               

The futuristic innovation is the latest in a long line of new ideas supported by WFP’s Innovation Accelerator that plan to strengthen a global food system increasingly under threat. A changing climate, weather shocks and emergencies are affecting where and how we produce food, the yield and nutritional value. Take into account the growing global population and it becomes clear that we need to move our thinking beyond age-old land, water and air inputs to ensure nobody goes hungry.  As the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) points out, “meeting the goals of eradicating hunger and poverty by 2030, while addressing the threat of climate change, will require a profound transformation of food and agriculture systems worldwide.”

 According to those leading the project, Food Computers offer a futuristic launch-pad to address the challenge. Whilst the units in Jordan are the first to directly address humanitarian concerns, they aren’t an unknown quantity. They’re already being used by some of the biggest companies worldwide, with US discount giant Target announcing plans to test 'in-store growing environments' later this year.

Behind the perspex screen is a specialized hydroponic-based growing chamber. These closed-environment agricultural technology platforms use robotic systems to control and monitor climate, energy, and plant growth. Climate variables such as carbon dioxide, air temperature, humidity, dissolved oxygen, light spectrum, electrical conductivity, and root-zone temperature are among the many conditions that can be controlled and monitored within the growing chamber. Together, they help us better understand the raw, simple ingredients needed to grow nutritious produce on a large scale basis.   

The food computer marks a technological step up from earlier WFP hydroponic pilots in both Peru and Algeria, and aims to increase our knowledge about what can - and can’t - grow in some of the world’s toughest environments. An initial pilot phase involves the split-testing of the device to gather data and fine tune the technology. A second phase using open source software will identify the optimum conditions - or ‘climate recipes’ - for different high yield and nutritious crops.

According to WFP’s project manager, Nina Schroeder, “Early results for our tested crops show that they grow twice as fast in the Food Computer compared to in the ground. It can recreate any climate in the world with the press of a few buttons, saving water, space and using only minimal natural resources.”

Using the results, the team plans to scale the production of ‘winning’ crops through the integration of larger low-tech, locally manufactured and cost effective food computers in Azraq refugee camp. Refugees - and the host communities - would be able to grow their own food, sell high-revenue produce on the local market and by running the technology themselves, increase self-reliance. The project isn’t limited just to Azraq camp. With millions of refugee worldwide currently receiving food assistance from WFP, the technology offers a new means to provide nutritious food fast and efficiently.  

If companies such as Target see agro-tech underpinning the future of our food system, so too can the aid industry. Whether the challenge is desert dry climates or lack of nutritious food, technology - like the Food Computer - can breathe new life into a global food system. 

 

By Nadia Papasidero and Alex Sloan

For more info on the Food Computers, please contact: global.innovation@wfp.org