Automation, AI help veggie factories take root in Japan

THE JAPAN NEWS-YOMIURI – Vegetables grown in factories with the help of information technology to control temperature, light and other conditions have taken root in Japan.

As of February, about 390 vegetable factories were operating nationwide, about four times the 93 factories in 2011. Reasons behind the surge include significant technological advancements in automation, which are now able to handle veggies from their seedling to harvesting states.

As such factories are not directly affected by weather conditions and require fewer staff than their outdoor counterparts, their future use is expected to grow.

At the Kinokuniya International Supermarket Aoyama store near Omotesando Station in Minato Ward, Tokyo, parsley and herbs are grown inside the store under LEDs in a two-metre-wide by two-metre-high glass case.

The plants, grown hydroponically, do not require chemical pesticides. Seedlings are planted and vegetables are harvested twice a week, which are then sold on the spot. As the produce is not loaded up and transported by vehicle, customers can purchase super fresh vegetables with less harmful impact on the environment.

The commercial production of factory-grown vegetables kicked off in the 1980s and is primarily divided into two types: those that use artificial light, and those that use the power of the sun.

A supermarket staffer harvests vegetables grown on-site in a glass case in Tokyo. PHOTO: JAPAN NEWS-YOMIURI

But recent developments include computers that precisely control humidity, carbon dioxide levels, nutrition and other factors.

“Vegetable factories are less affected by changes in weather,” said Hiroshi Fujimura, 62, secretary general of the Japan Greenhouse Horticulture Association. “And soil is not required if they use hydroponic culture.”

Aiming to diversify their business strategies, many large corporations have been entering the field.

Tokyo Metro Co produces lettuce and other vegetables on land in Edogawa Ward, Tokyo, underneath a section of elevated Tozai Line railway tracks between Nishi-Kasai Station and Kasai Station. The company supplies the vegetables to hotels, restaurants and other facilities.

Chubu Electric Power Co is now constructing a vegetable factory in Shizuoka Prefecture capable of delivering 10 tonnes of lettuce a day.

Vegetable factories can be remotely controlled.

German agricultural start-up Infarm is involved in 1,400 facilities in 11 countries including Japan. All facilities are equipped with sensors and the company measures and records the growth of all produce via cloud technology.

Each factory’s lighting and other conditions can be individually calibrated based on analyses processed by the company’s artificial intelligence programmes at their Berlin headquarters.