Grown from necessity: Vertical farming takes off in aging Japan

A sorting and packing line at a facility in Kyoto that grows lettuce using vertical farming techniques: 30,000 heads of lettuce grow here daily, under artificial light and with barely any human intervention. This “vegetable factory,” using the latest vertical farming techniques, is part of a trend born out of necessity in Japan. (AFP)
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Updated 01 January 2020

Grown from necessity: Vertical farming takes off in aging Japan

  • Traditional agriculture faces a double threat from an older population and migration to the cities

KYOTO: The nondescript building on an industrial site near Kyoto gives little hint to the productivity inside: 30,000 heads of lettuce grow here daily, under artificial light and with barely any human intervention.

This “vegetable factory,” using the latest vertical farming techniques, is part of a trend born out of necessity in Japan, where traditional farming faces a double threat from the aging population and migration toward the cities.

With the average age of a farmer in Japan at 67 and few candidates to replace those dying out, the country has been forced to become a pioneer in so-called vertical farming.

Globally renowned firms such as Panasonic, Toshiba and Fujitsu have tried their hand — converting old semi-conductor production lines with varying levels of success.

One of the few companies to turn a quick profit, Spread produces 11 million heads of lettuce annually from its latest factory in Kyoto, a vast sterile area where the vegetables are stacked on shelves several meters high.

Machines shift the lettuces around the factory to areas where the light, temperature and humidity are ideal for that stage of growth. The process works without soil or pesticide, and only a dozen or so humans are employed to collect the lettuce at the end.

Other countries have employed vertical farming techniques — notably in Denmark and the US — but Japan’s population crisis means the farmers are dying out, with question marks over how the world’s third-biggest economy will feed itself.

“Given the lack of manpower and decline in agricultural production, I felt a new system was needed,” said Shinji Inada, Spread’s boss.

Spread has taken some time to make the process nearly fully automated: an older factory in Kyoto still employs several dozen humans to move the lettuce — a “difficult task,” admits one staff member.

But the advantages are clear: “We can produce in large quantities and at a stable rate all year round, without being affected by temperature changes,” said Inada.

“The other benefit is that we have few losses because our products are preserved for longer,” added the vegetable tycoon.

Inada said that the firm initially experienced some difficulty in selling the lettuce, but they have now grown a good brand by producing consistent quality at a consistent price — in a country where prices vary considerably depending on the season.

Spread’s lettuce are found on supermarket shelves in Kyoto and the capital Tokyo and Inada has grand expansion visions to move production closer to where the vegetables are consumed.

The firm is building a factory in Narita near Tokyo and is eyeing further afield to countries where the climate is not suited for such agriculture. “We can easily export our production system to very warm or very cold climates to grow lettuce,” said Inada.

But is this system environmentally friendly? Inada said that he hesitated before launching the concept over this very question but finally reasoned the pros outweighed the cons. “It’s true that we use more energy compared to production using the sun, but on the other hand our productivity is higher over a similar surface area,” he said.

The system allows the firm to produce eight crops of lettuce per year, irrespective of the season. Spread also uses significantly less water than traditional agricultural methods. “I believe we are contributing to a sustainable agriculture for our society,” Inada said.

Japan already has about 200 lettuce factories using artificial light but the majority of these are small-scale. However, according to specialist consultancy group Innoplex, such factories will double in number by 2025.

And other companies are jumping on the smart-agriculture bandwagon, with Mitsubishi Gas Chemical building a factory in northeastern Fukushima that will produce 32,000 heads of lettuce daily.

Nor is its just lettuce: Tomatoes and strawberries grown by computer under artificial light are on their way to a table near you.


Western Union closes Cuba offices close as sanctions bite

Updated 24 November 2020

Western Union closes Cuba offices close as sanctions bite

  • Money transfers from the US via Western Union were estimated at more than $1 billion last year
  • Current options for remittances include agencies that hire ‘mules’ to fly out to Cuba with cash

HAVANA: Western Union suspended its operations across Cuba on Monday evening as new US sanctions kicked in, cutting a key lifeline for many struggling Cuban families as the coronavirus pandemic deepens the Communist-run island’s economic crisis.
US President-elect Joe Biden has promised to roll back some sanctions on remittances. But any lifting of the suspension could take time and until then, Cuban Americans are expected to resort to alternatives that are more costly, less secure and less rapid.
Remittances to Cuba are believed to be around $2 billion to $3 billion annually, representing its third biggest source of dollars after the services industry and tourism.
Money transfers from the United States via Western Union were estimated at more than $1 billion last year, the majority of which was sent from Florida, according to John Kavulich, president of the US-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.
Current options for remittances include agencies that hire “mules” to fly out to Cuba with cash and which predate Western Union’s start in Cuba 20 years ago, as well as companies that transfer dollars to Cuban accounts – though that money can only be used at state stores.
Cryptocurrency exchanges are also promoting themselves as an alternative. Cuban Americans can transfer digital currencies to middle men on the island who then give money to the Cuban Americans’ relatives.
But such platforms lack oversight, cryptocurrencies can fluctuate rapidly and unexpectedly in value and Internet access is still not a given in Cuba, Kavulich said.
“We’ve looked but there are no safe services,” said local resident Arturo Labaut.
The closures of Western Union’s 407 offices in Cuba came into effect after US President Donald Trump’s administration banned US firms sending remittances via military-controlled companies that include Western Union’s main Cuban partner.
His administration has also previously capped the amount Cuban Americans can send family members at $1,000 per quarter, and transfers of money to non-family members are no longer allowed.
The new ban comes just as Cuba has started enacting structural reforms to revive its state-run economy which have been long called for but which will spell pain for its residents in the meantime.
“It’s a bad time to be doing this because of the suffering it will cause,” said Florida International University professor Guillermo Grenier.
“It’s not governments that suffer, it’s people.”