Vertical farms are the third type of agriculture
Put simply, a vertical farm produces crops such as vegetables indoors, and it also means technology. Because it is indoors, there is no light, water or soil. Therefore, they are given artificially to carry out farming.
Farming began with the creation of fields in nature. This is the first type of agriculture that has continued from the time of Egyptian civilization to today.
The second type of agriculture is greenhouse cultivation, which uses sunlight and heat effectively. In Japan, it spread rapidly after the war. As a result, tomatoes, for example, can be eaten all year round, regardless of the season.
What has been considered as the third type of agriculture is the method to grow crops indoors. In this area, technologies developed through greenhouse cultivation and those of hydroponics, in which plants are grown in nutrient-rich water without using soil, are utilized.
In other words, vertical farms are a new form of agriculture that uses the knowledge and skills that we have learned from nature-dependent agriculture to grow crops in an artificial environment.
So, why should we build a vertical farm? Because as the first type of agriculture is dependent on nature, crops may be susceptible to natural conditions such as sunshine and rain. This has become particularly evident owing to recent extreme weather and climate changes.
For example, in the summer of 2021, the growth of lettuce was poor owing to bad weather, and its market price soared. However, when the weather stabilized in early autumn and the shipment volume increased with the improved growth, the price then dropped sharply.
In short, stable production and stable supply are difficult and depend on climatic conditions and the like, which affect prices.
Vertical farms that grow crops in an artificial environment do not have such concerns and can always supply them at certain prices. This is of great benefit to not only consumers, but also crop processors and the food service industry.
In addition, since a nourishing solution is used without using soil, and air is also managed artificially, disease and pests are rare. As a result, complete pesticide-free farming becomes possible.
Of course, crops in the fields are also safe because they are controlled by safety standards. However, crops from vertical farms that do not require the time and cost of cleaning are also of great benefit to processors.
In recent years, vertical farms have also attracted attention overseas.
For example, even in an environment unsuitable for farming such as deserts, vertical farms have the advantage of being able to supply fresh vegetables.
In fact, a vertical farm has been built at Syowa Station in Antarctica, and it has been introduced to large ships with long voyages.
These benefits of vertical farms are becoming widely recognized. As a result, vertical farms in Japan are increasing their production year by year.
There is no doubt that the quantity of agricultural products produced in vertical farms is small compared to the amount produced in fields, and it is unthinkable that the vertical farms will ever replace field agriculture.
However, vertical farms that are capable of stable production in diverse environments with high flexibility will play an increasingly important role as a safety net that supports a stable supply of agricultural products.
Research and development through interdisciplinary activities and industry-academia collaboration
In the meantime, there are challenges to be overcome for vertical farms to develop further. It’s a matter of cost.
In outdoor fields, you can get the light for free. However, you have to create artificial light or use air conditioning indoors. Therefore, the energy cost, that is, the electricity cost, becomes a large production cost.
This is also related to the fact that leafy vegetables such as lettuce are the main crops that can be produced practically in vertical farms at present.
For example, you can grow tomatoes in a vertical farm. However, that requires a lot of light. Taking into account these costs, tomatoes would cost 1000 yen each. In that respect, leafy lettuce requires a lower light cost than tomatoes.
Nevertheless, lettuce from vertical farms are still more expensive than field lettuce. But as I mentioned earlier, when the price of lettuce rises owing to bad weather, it becomes cheaper to supply lettuce from vertical farms.
The introduction of LED lights tends to be thought of as the reason for bringing down the cost of growing lettuce to a practical level. However, the fact is that it has largely come from the improved performance of air conditioners, which must be operated 24/7. It has allowed considerable reductions in the running cost of air conditioners.
In this sense, for the practical application of vertical farms, not only the research of the School of Agriculture, but also the cooperation with the School of Science and Technology, which studies lighting and air conditioning equipment, is essential.
In addition, we need marketing and management know-how to not only produce crops, but also sell them, determine break-even points, and turn them into profit. To that end, we need to collaborate with the School of Commerce and the School of Business Administration.
Meiji University is a comprehensive university capable of conducting interdisciplinary research and development, and as a matter of fact, we have promoted a collaborative project among four faculties. It has now developed into an industry-university collaboration project between companies and the School of Agriculture.
We, the School of Agriculture, are studying crops that are suitable for vertical farms and are looking to make them bigger, fast growing and more delicious.
Of course, there is a limit to the increase of functional components because crops that exceed conventional varieties, which are generally called functional vegetables, are also living organisms. If you can double the sweetness or increase the vitamin C by 1.5 times, that’s actually a big change, but how consumers perceive it is important.
If consumers don’t place value on it, then it means that that variety is less cost effective.
In that sense, although we have the knowledge of basic features of crops and cultivation methods, we believe that our role is to obtain advice from companies and others to create new varieties that can be put to practical use and develop new technologies.
To change Japan’s agriculture in crisis
In fact, agriculture is said to be the last frontier in the field of technology. This is because the basic work of agriculture has not changed since the time of Egyptian civilization.
Agriculture has plenty of room for new technologies. In this sense, there is great potential for the development of vertical farms, which are the third type of agriculture.
We also hope that the younger generation will be interested in vertical farms that develop new technologies, unlike conventional agriculture, where experience and intuition are important.
In Japan today, the labor shortage has become a problem in various industrial fields due to the declining birthrate, but the problem of young people shifting away from agriculture is even more serious.
For example, just as students who have studied IT technology at universities are attracted to the IT field, if students who have studied the technology of vertical farms know the appeal of agriculture and can make use of the technology they have learned, Japan’s agriculture will be greatly changed.
As I mentioned earlier, vertical farms do not replace field farming. It is important that the younger generation be attracted to agriculture through vertical farms and companies regard agriculture as a promising business field and advance into it.
I think this will lead to an increase in the agricultural population, or the technology developed in vertical farms will be used in the fields as well.
If these new developments do not take place, Japan’s agriculture will remain as the last frontier and may die out. I believe that co-existence and co-prosperity of the first type of agriculture and the third type of agriculture will lead to the continuation of agriculture in Japan.
In the early days of vertical farm development, this new technology was not understood and distrusted by the general public. Through our Advanced Plant Factory Research Center, we have held events for elementary school students and others to promote understanding of the third type of agriculture.
There are still people who doubt agriculture that does not use sunlight, but I think it is our role to dispel those preconceptions.
I hope these activities will encourage people to think about food and the state of agriculture in Japan.
* The information contained herein is current as of January 2022.
* The contents of articles on Meiji.net are based on the personal ideas and opinions of the author and do not indicate the official opinion of Meiji University.
* I work to achieve SDGs related to the educational and research themes that I am currently engaged in.
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