Japan’s agriculture is increasingly moving indoors. With a run on growable land and an increasingly urban and aging population, the island-nation is faced with a series of conundrums: How to produce more crops with less space? How to manage that space more efficiently and with fewer human workers? And how to better control the outside influences affecting plant health?
Answers have taken many forms, but Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) seems to be part of all proposed resolutions. Following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that rocked Japan, and the resulting crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant, many believed the nation’s exports would take a significant and lasting hit. In fact, according to an April 2011 report from the United States’ Congressional Research Service, “the subsequent detection of radioactive contamination of food produced near the disabled facility, further raised fears about the safety of Japan’s food production systems and its future food exports.”
But now, four years removed from that tragedy, the Japanese government is encouraging growers and exporting companies to focus on only the highest quality fresh foods and the pressure the improve the national brand is (no pun intended) growing. That has brought a renewed focus on the nation’s agriculture systems.
Dr. Toyoki Kozai is the director of the Japan Plant Factory Association and a professor emeritus at Chiba University. He is also the keynote speaker at the International Congress on Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA), a conference from May 20 to 22 in Panama. He will speak about the six components of a CEA enterprise.
Because of a lack of arable land, decreasing population and an ever growing demand for fresh produce, Kozai believes Plant Factories with Artificial Light (PFAL) are the way of the future. “The average greenhouse floor area in Japan is 0.5 hectacres, compared to 10-50 hectacres in the Netherlands or the United States,” he says.
Kozai adds that the current state of Japanese CEA can be broken into three main systems of production: open field, greenhouse and Plant Factories with Artificial Light (PFALs).
1) The use of information and communication technology (ICT) has been important for open field growers. “ICT for agriculture, particularly for fruit, vegetable and rice production in open fields, has been developing rapidly, making use of ‘cloud computing services.’ Companies like Fujitsu, Toshiba and Hitachi have been doing good business.”
2) Kozai is quick to note that despite an international reputation of technological brilliance, he feels there are areas where his nation lags behind. “The current status of Japanese CEA greenhouses is far behind Dutch horticulture,” he says.
3) Plant Factories with Artificial Light have been surging in popularity. Kozai says they have a staggering annual growth rate of 2025 percent.
Plant factories, which are more or less exactly what they sound like, are airtight, well-insulated buildings that have been converted to the production of crops. Growers who work inside the factories take a cleansing shower (composed of either water or air) before entering the facility. Inside are stacks of growing pods topped with LED lights and connected to a water recycling system. It’s a high-tech operation that is capable of growing large amounts of produce.
Kozai says that PFALs can be built in any densely populated city in the world. They can be particularly profitable in areas where the climate is extreme, be that extreme heat, cold, or dryness, or in regions prone to hurricanes or typhoons.
“Several Japanese companies, including Panasonic and Mirai are exporting their PFALs to China, Mongolia, Singapore and Russia,” he says, adding that he anticipates future growth for PFALs.
Trends to note
In more general CEA terms, Kozai says there are three trends driving development in Japan:
1) Heat pump applications. “By using a heat pump, a grower’s heating cost can be reduced by 20 to 30 percent, although initial investment is relatively high, and it takes roughly 5 to 7 years to recover the investment,” Kozai says. “In the summer, the temperature outside is often 25° Celsius (77° Fahrenheit) or higher, which reduces the yield and quality of fruits and vegetables like tomatoes. Nighttime cooling is useful and partially solves the problem. In the rainy season, heat pumps are used to reduce the relative humidity inside the greenhouse.”
2) Fogging systems. More growers are utilizing fogging, rather than evaporative cooling. “Fogging rate can be adjusted to keep the water vapor deficit at a constant level. This is also used for humidification of the greenhouse (after transplanting).
3) The null balance CO2 enrichment controller has just been commercialized for use in Japan.