Automation and AI are helping vegetable factories gain a foothold in Japan


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

There were around 390 vegetable factories operating nationwide in February, roughly four times the number of 93 factories in 2011. Reasons for the increase are significant technological advances in automation that are now capable of processing vegetables from seedling to harvest.

Since such factories are not directly affected by weather conditions and require fewer staff than their outdoor counterparts, their future usage is expected to increase.

In the Kinokuniya International Supermarket Aoyama Store near the Omotesando Station in Minato Ward, Tokyo, parsley and herbs are grown under LEDs in a two meter wide and two meter high glass showcase.

The plants grown hydroponically do not require chemical pesticides. Twice a week, seedlings are planted and vegetables are harvested, which are then sold on site. Since the products are not loaded and transported by car, customers can buy super fresh vegetables with less environmental impact.

Commercial production of factory vegetables began in the 1980s and is mainly divided into two types: those that use artificial light and those that use the power of the sun.

A supermarket employee harvests locally grown vegetables in a display case in Tokyo. PHOTO: JAPAN NEWS-YOMIURI

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

“Vegetable factories are less affected by weather changes,” said Hiroshi Fujimura, 62, general secretary of the Japan Greenhouse Horticulture Association. “And soil is not required if you are using hydroponics.”

With the aim of diversifying their business strategies, many large companies have entered the field.

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

Chubu Electric Power Co is currently building a vegetable factory in Shizuoka Prefecture that can deliver 10 tons of lettuce daily.

Vegetable factories can be controlled remotely.

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

The lighting and other conditions of each factory can be individually calibrated using analyzes that are processed by the company’s artificial intelligence programs at the Berlin headquarters.

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