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St. Louis startup MARSfarm works with students to build computers that grow food

A food computer device developed by St. Louis startup company MARSfarm.

When human exploration on Mars becomes possible, St. Louis startup MARSfarm aspires to grow crops there.

But because it will be years before humans will be able to fly to Mars, the company is focused on building technologies that help feed people on Earth. This year, the startup has developed its “$300 food computer,” a foil box that measures two feet on each side that contains plants, lights, sensors and single-board computers known as Raspberry Pi.

MARSfarm has also created instructions for citizen scientists to build their own food computers, using materials that can be acquired at home improvement stores.

Teaching people how to build a small growth chamber could help educate the public about nutrition and improve food access in urban areas, said Peter Webb, CEO and founder of MARSfarm. The company is targeting people who like to build things. MARSfarm is also looking for schools and educators who want to use food computers to teach students about agriculture and technology.

“What we tell kids is ‘you just landed on Mars. Everything you knew about your environment that was also normal and natural, that’s gone,’” Webb said. “So everything you took for granted, you have to recreate it. So there is no sun. You gotta make light. There is no nitrogen. You have to find that.”

The company has worked with some schools across the country, including Fox High School in Arnold. It’s also building an installation involving a food computer at the St. Louis Science Center’s GROW exhibit.

MARSfarm designed the product so that it can grow food regardless of season or what environment it’s in. Webb developed the concept of the food computer after getting involved with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab’s Open Agriculture Initiative, which focuses on on finding solutions for the future of agriculture. Technologies like the food computer are important, considering the increasing average age of farmers, Webb said.

“My generation does not want to be farmers, so we need to think of farming a little differently and I think that means bringing it closer to where we live, meaning cities,” Webb said. “And to do that requires technology as opposed to just space and access to abundant resources.”

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Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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