Feature Article: Exploring Japan’s plant factory revolution

Today we will take a look at a fascinating trend overseas that may be a prescient leading indicator of what we can expect elsewhere in the world in the coming decades. This is the fact that large scale commercial vertical indoor agriculture has already taken root in Japan. As much of the rest of the world explores the benefits of indoor vertical farming using mostly smaller local facilities, Japan already has plentiful fully established industrial scale indoor farms – commonly known as “plant factories” in Japan – providing produce today and is one of the global leaders in introducing advanced technologies into the sector.  The first plant factory opened in 1983, and Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry estimates that there were 211 plant factories in the country by early 2013.

An example of this is Mirai, a commercial vertical leafy green production facility located in a former Sony factory in Miyagi Prefecture, an area impacted by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.  The Company says that its 25,000 square feet facility is the largest in the world.  It harvests 10,000 heads of lettuce a day, grown in a pesticide-free environment.  They are one of many Japanese companies that have taken up the challenge of utilizing the technologies of Indoor Agriculture to help offset the growing need to supplement or replace traditional agriculture for food production.

Japan is also home to one of the most renowned academic institutions in the industry, thanks to the work led by Professor Toyoki Kozai at Chiba University.  One of his recent papers compared the resource utilization of greenhouse and plant factories, and concluded that the latter was a more efficient use of resources such as water, carbon dioxide and energy.

There are many drivers for this transition. Japan is an unusual country with some unique geographic challenges.  Overall, the country is smaller than California with only 12.5% of total land being agricultural vs. 45% of the US, according to the World Bank.  As an island nation, Japan is already limited in the available land for agriculture, but when combined with the extremely mountainous terrain of the majority of its islands, the highly concentrated urban populations and industrial centers as well as the ongoing effects of the Fukushima Tsunami/Nuclear Disaster in 2012, Japan is under extreme pressure when it comes to meeting the food requirements of its population.

In addition to the physical challenges faced by Japan, it has cultural attitudes that encourage indoor farming. The Japanese people have long been one of the most environmentally conscious industrial cultures in the world, perhaps because the effects of pollution are so highly magnified by their dense urbanization and limited livable land. They also have a long standing preference for organic, fresh produce and vegetables most likely as a result of having to rely on local farms that provide same day delivery simply due to the lack of land for large scale industrial farming found in other first world nations.  In contrast to the ‘stack ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap’ approach taken to produce in many parts of the world, Japanese consumers focus on the quality, appearance and packaging of their produce, and are willing to pay a significant premium for a quality product.  A recent Buzzfeed article highlighted some examples; cherries at $4 each, a $21 apple and a $212 square watermelon.

Indoor Agriculture, and in particular Vertical Hydroponic Agriculture, is well-suited to providing uniform attractive organic produce and has been widely praised within Japan as an example of the positive use of technology to solve problems. This is another feature that is unique to Japan, the willingness to accept and embrace new technologies without the fear that often comes with new things in many other cultures.

All of this has made Japan an ideal test bed for the adoption of indoor agriculture.  We can look towards the successful implementation of indoor agriculture technologies in Japan as a positive example of how it can provide solutions for the rest of the world as we move deeper into the unknown agricultural future of the 21st century.

Feature image on blog archive page is courtesy of Buzzfeed