Plants need sunlight to grow – or do they? Japanese agribusinesses are replacing sunlight with LED lights, which they claim to be making our food safer, healthier and tastier.
The idea of indoor farming is nothing new: agricultural companies in Japan have been growing vegetables and other crops in ‘plant factories’ since the 1980s. Supported by government subsidies, these indoor farms have been investigating new technologies to improve agricultural methods.
Until a few years ago, farmers have turned to fluorescent lights when farming indoors because Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) did not emit wavelengths that were conducive for plant growth. This resulted in high electricity costs.
Over the last eight years, manufacturers have figured how to produce LED lights en masse at low cost, increasing the appeal for LEDs for indoor farming. LEDs lights are brighter than other electric lights, consume less power and last longer.
Sharing Japanese Expertise
Mirai Corporation, based in Japan’s Chiba Prefecture, started out as an agricultural venture growing vegetables. It has been running plant factories since 2011 in collaboration with GE Japan. Mirai’s factory in the city of Taga in Miyagi Prefecture, completed in 2014, is the largest plant factory in the world that only uses LEDs, and the company has developed its own state-of-the-art IT systems and software to improve efficiency.
Mirai is not just distributing the vegetables grown in its factories; by sharing its expertise, the company is helping promote the concept of plant factories around the world – building on Japan’s reputation for high quality and efficiency in production.
Safer, Healthier, Tastier
Rather than just building on traditional farming methods, agribusinesses have started to take a completely different approach, developing techniques that result in new types of produce. As well as ensuring safe and stable supplies of food products, plant factories have the potential to add value for consumers. By emphasising that their produce is healthy, pesticide-free and environmentally friendly, it can be marketed as an alternative and not a replacement to food grown using conventional farming methods.
At Sci Tech Farm, a joint project between Tamagawa University and Nishimatsu Construction, lettuce and other leafy vegetables are grown under LED lighting in the indoor farm on the university campus. By controlling the light emitted from the LED lamps, Sci Tech Farm’s researchers even claim to be able to improve the vegetables’ flavour, texture and nutritional value. The challenge now is to improve these unique features, to convince consumers of the advantages of factory-produced vegetables.
Farm in Your Kitchen
If you like the idea of healthy, fresh vegetables grown under artificial lighting, how about trying it in your own home? Several Japanese companies have brought out DIY hydroponic cultivation kits, allowing families to grow vegetables and flowers in purpose-built units fitted with LED lights. The Living Farm and Green Farm kits are designed to be an attractive feature, bringing lush greenery into your living space, as well as a practical way of growing your own produce.
According to Japanese food blogger Dalahast who has tried out several kits, the main attraction is the experience – the pleasure of cultivating, harvesting and eating your own pesticide-free vegetables. It may not be a cost-effective way to provide your family with food, but being able to care for plants and watch them grow is a rare experience these days, so these kits provide a way for city dwellers to reconnect with nature.
Indoor cultivation is not just a means of increasing productivity. By developing techniques to improve the quality of produce, such as controlling LED lighting to enhance flavour and nutritional value, research in this area is changing the future of farming and food culture.
The use of LEDs in agriculture is just one of the innovations set to change how our food is produced. The agricultural sector in Japan faces challenges with its ageing population and declining rural population. Technology – in the form of sensors, automatic control systems and the internet of things (IoT) – is providing solutions to these problems.