I have visited a number of indoor farms in Japan such as the Vechica facility outside Tokyo and a Toshiba plant in Kanagawa that once turned out floppy disks before pivoting to spinach and lettuce. They’re fascinating examples of innovation offering plenty of, er, food for thought. But are they the solution to population growth and limited food supplies? Asia is home to some of the world’s most populous countries, but food production faces challenges ranging from climate change to aging farmers. Information and communications technology (ICT) is one part of the solution.
In Japan, where the number of farmers has dropped below 2 million after peaking at over 7 million in the 1970s, rice is a staple that has been cultivated in paddies for thousands of years. But everyday foods are now being grown in hundreds of cutting-edge factories across the country. Unlike greenhouses of the past, this new generation of indoor farms, also known as plant factories or vertical farms, are equipped with clean-room technology that maximizes crop efficiency. Immune to weather, pests and disease, the crops from indoor farms are taking up a bigger and bigger share of domestic food production.
Fujitsu is known for its servers and supercomputers, but it’s now making a name for itself in farming. Its Aizu-Wakamatsu Akisai Vegetable Factory north of Tokyo once manufactured microchips. Today, it’s a modern indoor farm for spinach, regular lettuce and low-potassium lettuce, all powered by sensors and cloud computing. The low-potassium lettuce has been welcomed by patients with kidney disease or those on dialysis, whose potassium intake has to be restricted.
The lettuce racks are stacked seven high in clean rooms with artificial light and filtered air; workers here wear clean-room suits just as they would in a semiconductor plant and have to take air showers to keep foreign substances out. Sensors in the racks and elsewhere in the rooms are linked to a cloud-computing platform that controls temperature, humidity, nutrients, light, airflow and CO2. The leafy greens are harvested and packed for shipping in the rooms — no washing is needed — and can stay fresh for up to two weeks. At about 21,000 square feet, the factory produces 25 times more lettuce than a similar-sized farm.
Panasonic is another Japanese electronics manufacturer in this field, and it has developed innovations such as tomato-harvesting robots. The 2011 earthquake that devastated northern Japan caused serious damage at one of its Fukushima Prefecture plants for digital camera components. After repairs were made, the company decided to repurpose one building into its plant factory, where lettuce is grown in hydroponic planters.
Panasonic plans to eventually produce up to 3,000 heads of lettuce a day at the factory, and has already exported the business model overseas. A Singapore version of the facility grows 81 tons of greens annually including radish, mizuna, lettuce and chard using LED lights that shine at a frequency that promotes plant growth. Meanwhile, the company has also developed downsized versions of the plant using shipping containers. With solar panels and storage batteries to reduce grid reliance, the containers can produce 50 to 60 bushels of lettuce.
There are a number of factors driving indoor farms in Japan. Aside from its aging farmers, whose average age is 67, the export of electronics manufacturing overseas left a legacy of idled factories at home. Toshiba, Sharp, Olympus and JFE Holdings, a steel maker, have also built high-tech indoor farms, growing veggies such as baby leaf lettuce, Swiss chard and tomatoes.
Kyoto-based Spread, set up in 2006 and profitable since 2013, is dedicated to indoor farms and has distinguished itself with its emphasis on automation. By 2018, its two farms in Kyoto were set to produce about 50,000 heads of lettuce per day for distribution to supermarkets across Japan. An advanced water filtration system allows for a water recycling rate of 98 percent, while each head of lettuce requires as little as 0.11 liters, far less than 10 liters on a typical outdoor farm. While seeding is still done manually, the processes of raising seedlings, transplanting, growth and harvest are entirely automated, reducing overall labor costs by half. But Spread still has 75 plant workers and 100 percent automation isn’t the goal.
“I don’t see traditional forms of agriculture vanishing anytime soon,” Spread global marketing manager JJ Price told the Flash Forward podcast. “Each form of agriculture has its merits and demerits. In Japan, for instance, it’s an island country, it’s very mountainous, so there’s not too much arable land. Vertical farming or plant factories has a little more value here … Plant factories are another solution to a whole lot of problems that we’ll be facing in the future.”