Manna from the HEAV­ENS



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.

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