Washington Insider -- Tuesday

MIT Media Lab Food Project Closed

Here’s a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN’s well-placed observer.

USTR Notes Progress In US-China Trade Talks

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin spoke by phone Friday with Chinese Vice Premier Liu He, and afterward USTR said that the two sides “made headway on specific issues and the two sides are close to finalizing some sections of the agreement.”

More talks of course are on tap. Indications are the components so far are the halt of additional U.S. tariffs in exchange for a two-year phase-in of Chinese purchases of a U.S.-reported $40 billion to $50 billion of U.S. farm goods, new rules on currency manipulation and efforts by China to finish opening its financial sector to foreign firms. It might include some measures to protect intellectual property.

In a statement from China, Xinhua reported the two sides reached an agreement for the U.S. to import cooked poultry products from China, as well as to regard its catfish product regulation system as equivalent to the United States.

“Both sides agreed to appropriately resolve the core concerns of both parties,” Xinhua said. “Working-level deputies will speed up talks for the trade deal before the principals talk over the phone in the near future.”

EPA Publishes Supplemental RFS Plan

EPA’s supplemental proposal for the 2020 biofuel and 2021 biodiesel levels under the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) has been published in the Federal Register.

There are no discernable changes to the plan that the agency released earlier this month. There is a 32-day comment period on the plan – it runs through November 29 which that means the agency will not meet the statutory deadline to finalize the 2020 levels by November 30. EPA will also hold a public hearing on the plan October 30 in Michigan.

The Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) will stay in the headlines via a House hearing today regarding the small refinery exemptions (SREs) granted by the Trump administration. The House Energy & Commerce Environment and Climate Change Subcommittee will hold a hearing on "Protecting the RFS (Renewable Fuel Standard): The Trump Administration's Abuse of Secret Waivers."

Washington Insider: MIT Media Lab Food Project Closed

The New York Times reported this week that MIT has “mostly shut down the futuristic project known as “OpenAg” following accusations of “misleading sponsors and the public." The once-celebrated Media Lab’s micro-greenhouses were supposed to grow food under virtually any conditions — but apparently “worked under almost none,” the Times said. And now, MIT has turned off the lights, possibly for good.

The Times report said that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology confirmed Thursday that it had “mostly closed” the OpenAg project which has been accused of misleading sponsors and the public by exaggerating results. In addition, the Media Lab has been under scrutiny for its financial ties to the convicted sex offender and financier Jeffrey Epstein.

OpenAg received millions of dollars in corporate sponsorships and was promoted in glowing news features, including a “60 Minutes” segment about the Media Lab called “The Future Factory.” MIT shut down the project late last week after a sweeping assessment, it said.

The project was a favorite of Joichi Ito, the Media Lab’s director until September when he resigned under pressure after his efforts to conceal his financial connections to Epstein were disclosed. The financier killed himself in jail in August after being indicted on federal sex-trafficking charges.

The OpenAg project focused on designing and deploying so-called “food computers,” small high-tech greenhouses meant to allow crops to thrive in thin air, without soil or sunlight and under precisely controlled conditions. The project also operated larger “food servers,” which are housed in shipping containers about 15 miles north of the MIT campus in Middleton, Mass.

According to the university statement, its vice president for research, Maria Zuber, “halted OpenAg activities, pending completion of ongoing assessments.” Zuber consulted with other members of the executive committee running the Media Lab and agreed to permit some documentation and design work to resume, but provided no timetable for finishing those assessments.

Throughout the tumult at the OpenAg project, its leader, Caleb Harper, had been posting to Instagram photos and a video of what looked like experiments. Harper did not respond to requests for comment, the Times said.

The Times described Harper as an architect “without any scientific training” who described food computers as integral to a “fourth agricultural revolution.” In a TED Talk from 2015, which has more than 1.8 million views, Harper laid out his vision: Food computer owners would share their data on optimal growing conditions — called “climate recipes” — with fellow food producers around the world, who would use that information to improve yields from their own food computers.

According to former researchers at the project, however, Harper made exaggerated or false claims to the project’s corporate sponsors as well as in talks and interviews with the news media. They said plants bought in stores had been inserted into the food computers so visitors would think they had been grown there.

More broadly, the researchers said, the food computers could not independently control the conditions within their boxes — changing the amount of light would raise the temperature, and so on. Whatever data was collected by the food computers would therefore have little scientific significance. Nonetheless, the lab produced a paper for a peer-reviewed journal that claimed to have used machine learning to discover the ideal combination of light, nutrients, temperature and water to grow the most flavorful basil.

The independent news organization ProPublica and the Boston radio station WBUR reported last month that the larger food servers in Middleton were dumping wastewater with 20 times the legal limit of nitrogen underground, an apparent violation of state regulations. MIT halted the research at Middleton and said it was evaluating how the water had been disposed of there. The nitrogen levels were not an immediate danger to the public, the town administrator, Andy Sheehan, said in an interview, but could lead to overgrowth of plants that can threaten local wildlife.

On Thursday, IEEE Spectrum, the publication of the one of the world’s largest professional organizations devoted to engineering and applied sciences, released a lengthy investigation on OpenAg. The investigation examined OpenAg’s plan to deliver personal food computers to a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan through the United Nations World Food Program.

According to the investigation, Harper, in talks to sponsors and the public, described his pride in giving the refugees the means to grow their own food inside the camp. However, as the IEEE Spectrum article noted, the food computers never made it to the camp itself, but were kept in a Jordanian research lab where they faltered because of hot, dry conditions and technical failures.

So, it seems that yet another “super tech” idea and application is raising more questions than answers. Clearly, super tech approaches can yield ideas and lessons more conventional market participants can use some of the time but artificial environments have often proved both difficult and expensive to manage. It is not clear yet what lessons were intended by the Open Ag experiment, but they seem likely to reveal that even heavy investments do not always provide large returns and that promises of fundamental breakthrough technology in basic food production processes should be watched very carefully by producers as they emerge, Washington Insider believes.

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