Grown from necessity: Vertical farming takes off in aging Japan

A sorting and packing line at a facility in Kyoto that grows lettuce using vertical farming techniques: 30,000 heads of lettuce grow here daily, under artificial light and with barely any human intervention. This “vegetable factory,” using the latest vertical farming techniques, is part of a trend born out of necessity in Japan. (AFP)
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Updated 01 January 2020

Grown from necessity: Vertical farming takes off in aging Japan

  • Traditional agriculture faces a double threat from an older population and migration to the cities

KYOTO: The nondescript building on an industrial site near Kyoto gives little hint to the productivity inside: 30,000 heads of lettuce grow here daily, under artificial light and with barely any human intervention.

This “vegetable factory,” using the latest vertical farming techniques, is part of a trend born out of necessity in Japan, where traditional farming faces a double threat from the aging population and migration toward the cities.

With the average age of a farmer in Japan at 67 and few candidates to replace those dying out, the country has been forced to become a pioneer in so-called vertical farming.

Globally renowned firms such as Panasonic, Toshiba and Fujitsu have tried their hand — converting old semi-conductor production lines with varying levels of success.

One of the few companies to turn a quick profit, Spread produces 11 million heads of lettuce annually from its latest factory in Kyoto, a vast sterile area where the vegetables are stacked on shelves several meters high.

Machines shift the lettuces around the factory to areas where the light, temperature and humidity are ideal for that stage of growth. The process works without soil or pesticide, and only a dozen or so humans are employed to collect the lettuce at the end.

Other countries have employed vertical farming techniques — notably in Denmark and the US — but Japan’s population crisis means the farmers are dying out, with question marks over how the world’s third-biggest economy will feed itself.

“Given the lack of manpower and decline in agricultural production, I felt a new system was needed,” said Shinji Inada, Spread’s boss.

Spread has taken some time to make the process nearly fully automated: an older factory in Kyoto still employs several dozen humans to move the lettuce — a “difficult task,” admits one staff member.

But the advantages are clear: “We can produce in large quantities and at a stable rate all year round, without being affected by temperature changes,” said Inada.

“The other benefit is that we have few losses because our products are preserved for longer,” added the vegetable tycoon.

Inada said that the firm initially experienced some difficulty in selling the lettuce, but they have now grown a good brand by producing consistent quality at a consistent price — in a country where prices vary considerably depending on the season.

Spread’s lettuce are found on supermarket shelves in Kyoto and the capital Tokyo and Inada has grand expansion visions to move production closer to where the vegetables are consumed.

The firm is building a factory in Narita near Tokyo and is eyeing further afield to countries where the climate is not suited for such agriculture. “We can easily export our production system to very warm or very cold climates to grow lettuce,” said Inada.

But is this system environmentally friendly? Inada said that he hesitated before launching the concept over this very question but finally reasoned the pros outweighed the cons. “It’s true that we use more energy compared to production using the sun, but on the other hand our productivity is higher over a similar surface area,” he said.

The system allows the firm to produce eight crops of lettuce per year, irrespective of the season. Spread also uses significantly less water than traditional agricultural methods. “I believe we are contributing to a sustainable agriculture for our society,” Inada said.

Japan already has about 200 lettuce factories using artificial light but the majority of these are small-scale. However, according to specialist consultancy group Innoplex, such factories will double in number by 2025.

And other companies are jumping on the smart-agriculture bandwagon, with Mitsubishi Gas Chemical building a factory in northeastern Fukushima that will produce 32,000 heads of lettuce daily.

Nor is its just lettuce: Tomatoes and strawberries grown by computer under artificial light are on their way to a table near you.


UK suffers biggest job losses since 2009 as coronavirus takes toll

Updated 11 August 2020

UK suffers biggest job losses since 2009 as coronavirus takes toll

  • Mounting job losses are expected as Britain winds down its job retention scheme which protects employees

LONDON: The number of people in work in Britain fell by the most since 2009 in the three months through June as the coronavirus crisis took a heavy toll on the labor market, even with the government’s huge jobs protection scheme still in place.
Led by a record plunge in self-employed workers, there were 220,000 less people employed in the second quarter, the Office for National Statistics said.
Separate tax data for July showed that the number of staff on company payrolls had fallen by 730,000 since March, sounding the alarm about a potentially much bigger rise in joblessness.
Mounting job losses are expected as Britain winds down its job retention scheme which protects employees. It is due to close at the end of October.
“The cracks evident in the latest batch of labor market data are likely to soon turn into a chasm,” said Ruth Gregory, senior economist at Capital Economics.
British finance minister Rishi Sunak said the figures showed the government’s support programs were working but job losses were inevitable.
“I’ve always been clear that we can’t protect every job, but ... we have a clear plan to protect, support and create jobs to ensure that nobody is left without hope,” he said.
The unemployment rate unexpectedly held at 3.9 percent but that reflected an increase in people who had given up looking for work and who were therefore not considered to be unemployed, and people who said they were in work but were getting no pay.
Economists polled by Reuters had expected the unemployment rate to rise to 4.2 percent. Last week the Bank of England forecast the jobless rate would hit 7.5 percent at the end of this year.
“Government needs to step in and help those who are likely to lose their job retrain for new openings in different sectors,” KPMG economist Yael Selfin said.
The number of self-employed people fell by a record amount in the three months to June, led by older workers, while the number of employees rose — something the ONS said was partly accounted for by workers reclassifying themselves as employed.
The number of people claiming universal credit — a benefit for the unemployed and those on low pay — rose to 2.689 million in July, leaping by 117 percent from March.
Pay fell by the most in more than 10 years in the April-June period, down 1.2 percent, reflecting how workers on the job retention scheme receive 80 percent of their pay. Excluding bonuses, pay fell for the first time since records began in 2001.
However, there was a small increase in job vacancies in the three months to July.
“The increase was driven by small businesses (less than 50 employees), some of which reported taking on staff to meet coronavirus (COVID-19) guidelines,” the ONS said.