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.


Dubai rents may be bottoming out as ‘green shoots’ appear

Updated 20 January 2020

Dubai rents may be bottoming out as ‘green shoots’ appear

  • An estimated 45,000 homes were completed in Dubai in 2019 according to Chesterton estimates

LONDON: Confidence may be returning to Dubai property despite a bloated market for off-plan homes, according to a report from Chestertons, the real estate broker.

Although apartment and villa sales prices were down 2 percent and 3 percent respectively in the fourth quarter of 2019 compared to the previous quarter, rental rates are stabilizing.

But supply issues continue to represent the biggest challenge facing the market, with 45,000 new units completed in 2019 and that expected to double this year.

“The Dubai residential market in Q4 2019 is alluding to a more positive outlook for 2020 thanks to the slowdown of sales price declines and the leveling of rental rates,” said Chris Hobden, of Chestertons MENA. “This does, however, have to be tempered by the volume of new units scheduled for delivery in 2020, which makes the short-term recovery of prices in the emirate unlikely.”

In the rental market, no movement was witnessed in the fourth quarter with the market supported by a draft law which would fix rental rates for three years upon the signing of a contract. 

“To ensure high occupancy in 2020, landlords will have to be realistic in the face of tough market conditions. The incentives previously offered to tenants, such as rent-free periods, multiple cheques and short-term leases, will continue, with an increase in tenant demand for monthly direct debit payments also likely” added Hobden.