Manna from the HEAVENS
SKYSCRAPER FARMS ARE ABOUT TO GO GLOBAL – HERE’S WHY
HIGH-RISE indoor farms for vegetables are spreading across the world.
In a suburb of Kyoto in Japan, surrounded by technology companies and start-ups, Spread Co is preparing to open the world’s largest automated leaf-vegetable factory. It’s the company’s second vertical farm and could mark a turning point for vertical farming – bringing the cost low enough to compete with traditional farms on a large scale.
For decades, vertical farms that grow produce indoors without soil in stacked racks have been touted as a solution to rising food demand in the world’s expanding cities. The problem has always been reproducing the effect of natural rain, soil and sunshine at a cost that makes the crop competitive with traditional agriculture.
Spread is among a handful of commercial firms that claim to have cracked the problem with a mix of robotics, technology and scale.
Its new facility in Keihanna Science City, known as Japan’s Silicon Valley, will grow 30,000 heads of lettuce a day on racks under custom-designed LED lights. A sealed room protects the vegetables from pests, diseases and dirt. Temperature and humidity are optimised to speed growth of the greens, which are fed, tended and harvested by robots.
“Our system can produce a stable amount of vegetables of a good quality for sale at a fixed price throughout the year, without using pesticides and with no influence from weather,” says Spread president Shinji Inada, 58.
Inada won the Edison Award in 2016 for his vertical-farming system. He expects the new factory, called Techno Farm, to more than double the company’s output, generating 1 billion yen (Bt290 million) in sales a year from growing almost 11 million lettuces.
About 60 per cent of indoor-farm operators in Japan are unprofitable because of the cost of electricity to run their facilities, according to the Japan Greenhouse Horticulture Association. Most others only turn a profit because of government subsidies or by charging a premium to consumers for vegetables that are chemical-free. Spread sells lettuces for 198 yen a head to consumers, about 20 to 30 per cent more than the normal price for conventionally grown varieties, according to Inada.
Consumers pay the premium because the pesticide-free vegetables are increasingly seen as an alternative to often more expensive organic foods, which must be grown outdoors in soil. Japan’s hot summers and high humidity also make organic plants more vulnerable to insects and diseases, notes Yasufumi Miwa, an expert at the Japan Research Institute.
“Producing organic vegetables requires farmers’ extra-hard work and that should be reflected in the prices,” says Takumu Okuma, spokesman for online food supplier Oisix ra daichi Inc. “Pesticide-free vegetables are seen as safe by consumers and accepted by them as a substitute for more expensive organic ones.”
Small-scale vertical farms have been operating in Japan since the 1970s, niche players that took advantage of high prices for fresh food in cities in a nation that imports about 60 per cent of its food. But it wasn’t until 2010, that the sector began to expand rapidly with the adoption of energysaving LED lights and a government programme to support innovative farming with subsidies, according to the association.
Spread’s Inada, a former vegetable trader, founded his company in 2006 and opened his first facility the following year in Kameoka city in Kyoto prefecture. The company spent years refining systems for lighting, water supply, nutrients and other costs and the plant finally turned its first profit in 2013.
Its new Techno Farm, expected to open this month, will push efficiency further, yielding 648 heads of lettuce a square metre annually, compared with 300 heads at its Kameoka farm and only five in an outdoor farm. It will use only 110 millilitres of water a lettuce, one per cent of the volume needed outdoors, as moisture emitted by the vegetable is condensed and reused.
Power consumption per head will also decrease, with the new factory using custom-designed LEDs that require about 30 per cent less energy. A collaboration with telecoms company NTT West on an artificial intelligence program to analyse production data could boost yields even more.
Spread doesn’t disclose the cost of producing lettuce at its farms, but Japanese researcher Innoplex estimates the cost to make one head of lettuce at its existing Kameoka building is about 80 yen (71 cents), among the lowest in the world. Japan Research Institute expects production costs at the new Techno Farm would come close to parity with outdoor farms within about 5 years.
But extreme weather events and climate change, major disrupters of traditional agriculture, are making vertical farming competitive even sooner. Japan’s hottest-ever summer this year with heavy rains, typhoons and flooding, sent supermarket lettuce prices soaring to more than double the level at which Spread retails its products.
“Climate change is affecting food production almost everywhere, and the economics of growing and selling produce is affecting everyone,” says Dickson Despommier, emeritus professor of Public and Environmental Health at Columbia University, who has been promoting the idea of vertical farming since the 1990s. “If we don’t do something soon to reduce the rate of climate change, vertical farming may be our last hope of getting food on the table for all those who live in cities.”
Around the world, many existing vertical farms are located in climates that are inhospitable for vegetable farming and have high transport costs to import fresh produce. Singapore is a prime example and the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) and a local firm, Sky Greens, launched their first sky farm back in 2012.
In Antarctica, where weather conditions prevent shipments of supplies for much of the winter, scientists at Germany’s Neumayer Station III harvested their first batch of indoor lettuce, cucumbers and radishes this year to feed the station’s staff. And in space, astronauts grow food on the International Space Station in a mini-farm nicknamed Veggie.
Spread is planning to export its farming system to more than 100 cities worldwide, competing with companies such as Crop One, Softbank-backed Plenty Inc. of the US and Sanan Sino-Science of China. Inada says Spread has signed an agreement with a food producer in the UAE to supply its system and is holding talks with about 300 other companies and researchers. `“We are targeting countries where fresh vegetables cannot be produced because of scarce water, extremely low temperatures or other natural conditions,” Inada notes. “Our mission is to provide infrastructure for vegetable production to anybody, anywhere in the world.”
Inside Spread’s existing facility in Kameoka, Japan
Sky Farms Singapore hopes to increase the country’s resilience and food security with a new rooftop garden technology.