Tomatomation; Japan's High-Tech Food Factories

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Tomatomation

Japan's high-tech food factories

THE harnessing of high technology tovegetable farming may be about to trigger a new agricultural revolution in Japan, where some large manufacturers are already offering fully automatic "factories' in which vegetables are grown in a computer-controlled artificial environment. In their use of automation and high technology these facilities resemble automobile or electronics plants, but instead of automobiles or video tape recorders their mass production lines produce fresh vegetables, regardless of season or climate.

Strictly speaking, today's factory farmingtechnology is based not on biotechnology but on applying industrial production management techniques to conventional agricultural engineering. The aim is to use artificially controlled environments to grow plants rapidly and efficiently rather than improve the adaptation of plants to natural conditions. Such ideas have already been applied to poultry farming, egg production systems, and even the production of foie gras. Factory farms may thus make a big impact on conventional agriculture since they provide planned cultivation regardless of weather, season, climate or soil.

The essential element in this newdevelopment is hydroponics, the cultivation of plants in nutritive solutions. Factory farms are air-conditioned, and high-pressure sodium lamps provide twenty-four-hour-a-day illumination. The density of carbon dioxide, oxygen, temperature and humidity are controlled by a computer to maintain an optimum growing environment.

The hardware used in this process is notnew. It is readily available from manufacturers of electrical consumer goods, and this may be the reason why Japanese electrical conglomerates are active in this field. Companies in Denmark, the United States and Austria are also experimenting with vegetable factories but for the moment the Japanese seem to be leading the field.

In 1985, a "supertomato' plant was displayedin the Japanese government-sponsored pavilion at an international exhibition held in Japan, Tsukuba Expo. '85 (see the Unesco Courier, March 1985). This was a major success for a hydroponic culture system developed after many years of research by a Japanese agronomist, Nozawa Shigeo. The growth of the plant was accelerated in a nutritive solution which replaced soil and in an artificially controlled environment. As a result the plant produced more than 13,000 tomatoes during the six months of the Expo.

Daiei, Japan's biggest supermarketchain, has installed a factory farm next to its store in the Tokyo suburb of Fanabashi. This experimental facility, constructed in co-operation with Hitachi Ltd. to grow lettuce for sale in the adjoining supermarket, may be the world's first commercial factory farm using full automatic hydroponic culture technology. The system produces some 130 heads of lettuce and other green vegetables per day (some 47,000 per year) on a floor space of no more than 66 square metres. Grown from seed, the lettuce is big enough for harvesting in only five weeks, 3.5 times faster than plants cultivated using conventional methods.

In this futuristic factory, the sun isreplaced by artificial twenty-four-hour lighting, soil with nutritive solution and farmers with a micro-computer. The crop is tasty and free from pesticides and herbicides, and is in great demand, regardless of the price tag, which is double that of conventionally grown lettuce.

In Mitsubishi Electric's Amagasaki laboratory,a prototype food factory assembly line succeeded in growing lettuce seedlings from 2 grams to 130 grams in 15 days--6 times faster than the natural growth rate. …