Scientists made better-tasting basil through “cyber farming”

Halcyon hydroponics.
Halcyon hydroponics.
Image: Reuters/Tom Mihalek
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A better basil exists, but it’s being grown in an environment that resembles something more likely to show up on an episode of Star Trek than in any backyard garden.

The team of MIT scientists behind it are calling their process “cyber agriculture,” a method of growing plants in shipping containers retrofitted with lots of high-tech gear that brings crazy levels of precision control to the environment. That entails using complex computers to track a plant’s minor genetic and epigenetic changes over time while searching for the right balance of temperature, humidity, level of ultraviolet light, and light-exposure time, among other things, to create the conditions that will encourage the basil to producer a richer, tastier version of itself. They call it a “climate recipe,” but really it’s using machine learning technology to farm. The details of their work were published April 3 in the journal PLOS ONE.

“We’re really interested in building networked tools that can take a plant’s experience, its phenotype, the set of stresses it encounters, and its genetics, and digitize that to allow us to understand the plant-environment interaction,” said researcher Caleb Harper in a statement.

Most of this research is being conducted in Middleton, Massachusetts, a small town about 20 miles (32 km) north of Boston. It’s there that the MIT team tends to a hydroponic farm of basil plants. They’ve discovered some interesting details: For instance, the plants tend to taste better when they have exposure to light all 24 hours of the day.

“You couldn’t have discovered this any other way. Unless you’re in Antarctica, there isn’t a 24-hour photoperiod to test in the real world,” said John de la Parra, a co-author of the study.

The scientists are making their data available to the public at no charge. Right now, there are companies working on similar high-tech hydroponic farming. Toshiba is churning out lettuce, it’s happening on rooftops in China, and a company called Farm.One is growing food out of basements in Manhattan. But most of these companies keep their techniques under wraps, making it hard for more people to enter the market or for nonprofit initiatives to get off the ground.

“Our tools being open-source, hopefully they will get spread faster and create the ability to do networked science together,” Harper said.

And that could lead to an interesting new era of urban farming, in which cities can more efficiently feed themselves without relying on the costly supply chain networks that currently exist to ship herbs, fruits, vegetables into municipalities from faraway farms.