Imagine going to the latest Ginza flagship store of an up-and-coming brand flagged as the “new Uniqlo”. You have to wait, as there’s a line of consumers around the block, hungry to get a piece of the latest trend. Inside, it’s a minimalist space, with light techno music. Produce is stacked up to the ceilings in cool white units. Literally cool, that is – these units are refrigerated. And what they’re chilling isn’t clothes but the latest must-have item: designer lettuce.
A taste of what may be the future already exists in Chiba Prefecture, east of Tokyo, at an award-winning produce store called Green Flavor. It sells vegetables grown in a “plant factory” located upstairs in the same nondescript apartment building. The plant factory is operated by Mirai Co. Ltd. and its 37-year-old founder, Shigeharu Shimamura. He calls his firm an “agricultural software company”.
Plant factories are slowly spreading in Japan, with support from the government. Vegetables are produced indoors and under controlled conditions. Lighting, temperature, humidity, carbon dioxide and water are all measured constantly to ensure stable production. For example, lettuce can be cropped twenty times a year.
Because the produce is grown in a clean room, it can be eaten without washing. That’s potentially attractive to consumers who want safe foods and restaurants that need to guarantee quality. The factories eliminate the need for physical labor in the countryside, so may create new jobs for young people in cities, according to the government.
Ozu Corp., a maker of traditional Japanese paper known as washi, turned its unused Tokyo warehouses into plant factories in 2008 in response to consumer concerns about unsafe food. The brand is called Nihonbashi Vegetables, after the central-Tokyo location of the company’s headquarters, where it plans to open another plant factory.
Another manufacturer, Fairy Angel Inc., has its main plant factory in Fukui Prefecture and others in Kyoto and Chiba. The Fukui factory’s temperature is controlled to +25°C by day and +18°C by night and is capable of producing three million plants a year, according to the Nikkei. Many factories are starting to use LEDs instead of fluorescent lighting to lower costs.
Mirai, which consulted on the Ozu project, says it receives 100 inquiries a month about the “green room” concept, including many from the Middle East and Africa. The government provided financial support for plant factories as part of its New Economic Growth Strategy in September 2008, and has pledged more as part of the so-called “Green New Deal”. However, concerns remain.
Plant factories consumer high levels of artificial energy compared with natural farming methods, raising the price of the produce, as well as questions about the net cost to the environment. When grown naturally, vegetables are a vital element of the food chain. The implications of their widespread removal from the natural environment are also yet to be measured.
This article was compiled using information supplied by the Japan Foreign Press Center.
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