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Chiba Sees Farming Revolution Budding Underground

SNA (Chiba) — In the 1980s, the Japanese economy was growing by 4% to 5% annually. As the stock market surged, Japanese companies bought up US landmark properties such as Rockefeller Center and Pebble Beach Golf Links. In Tokyo, real estate prices floated higher and higher. The capital became home to some of the most expensive land on the planet, so developers looked elsewhere to build. Neighboring Chiba city was an obvious choice. It had plenty of reclaimed land from Tokyo Bay built in the 20th century and easy rail links to Tokyo and Narita Airport. After Pacific War bombing, it was rebuilt into a planned community that blended steel factories, port facilities, and modern residential complexes. City planners dreamed of raising a mini-Manhattan by the bay, with skyscrapers and ocean views. Then the bubble burst.

Japan’s economy capsized and went adrift for two decades. The skyscrapers were a pipe dream, but developers’ frothy optimism had already left its mark. One example is Makuhari Messe, opened in 1989 as one of the largest convention centers in Japan with some 80,000 square meters of space, but it’s also 30 kilometers from Tokyo.

Another legacy of better times is infrastructure hidden beneath the streets of the city’s Mihama Ward. There are 7.6 kilometers of abandoned tunnels ten meters underground, built as service conduits for the skyscraper city that never materialized. Built on reclaimed land in 1995 in the Narashino district, the tunnels are now being used to grow food. In a project grouping the Chiba prefectural government, Fujitsu and Itoh Denki, the Vechica underground farm opened in December 2017 and is now yielding some two hundred leafy vegetables per day. While indoor or vertical farms have been developed across Japan for their ability to produce high-quality vegetables faster than traditional methods while skipping pesticides, the Makuhari plant factory is almost completely automated.

“These tunnels were abandoned for twenty years, and we considered using them for wine cellars or a mushroom factory, but we eventually decided to build a fully automated plan factory that doesn’t need humans,” says Takefumi Toki, vice commissioner in the Chiba Prefectural Public Enterprises Land Management Bureau. “Thanks to Itoh Denki’s cutting-edge technology, this farm needs only one-third the energy of conventional factory farms.”

Vechica (from “vegetable” and “chika” or underground) actually requires a few workers to put lettuce, baby leaf, and other seedlings in trays. This is done in an aboveground room where the plants are incubated, then sent through conveyor belts and an elevator to the tunnel farm, a space of about 120 square meters where the temperature stays at about 18 degrees celsius year-round. The rack-and-tray-based system is modular, with cells assembled aboveground, and can be expanded as needed. Each cell has motor rollers to move the trays and an LED lighting plate where lights can be adjusted in terms of color, intensity and distance. The plants grow underground for forty days, automatically fed with liquid nutrients and CO2, then they’re shipped aboveground again where the workers harvest the veggies and wash the trays.

“I have tried factory plants all over Japan and I believe ours are the most delicious, not bitter, but with a distinct taste,” says Nobuaki Okada, a senior general manager in Itoh Denki’s Plant Factory R&D Department. “Plant factories can cater to customers’ needs, so if a restaurant wants lettuce of a certain length, we can produce that.”

Itoh Denki, which controls some 70% of the global roller conveyor market, is researching how to automate most of these human jobs as well as ramping up production from 200 to 2,500 plants a day by 2020, and then 5,000 by 2022 in a space with an area of 3,200 square meters. With increased automation, only five human workers would be needed to process that volume, according to the company. They’re currently supplying local hotels and soup kitchens with two types of lettuce, eight types of baby leaf, and three types of edible flower, and studying commercialization; their proximity means the cost of transport and packaging remains low.

The Itoh farm isn’t an isolated project. Over the past few years, indoor farming in Japan has exploded: major manufacturers like Fujitsu and startups like Spread are growing vegetables at indoor facilities more cheaply and quickly than traditional outdoor farming. There are more than two hundred “plant factories” in Japan that can harvest 20,000 heads of lettuce every day—and some of these plants are engineered with features such as low potassium levels for people with kidney disease. As Japan’s population shrinks, with worker shortages hitting agriculture hard, plant factories are being touted as one way through which Japan can do more with less. Some experts also see the technology as a way to fight one of the biggest threats to our planet.

“Climate change is affecting food production almost everywhere, and the economics of growing and selling produce is affecting everyone,” Dickson Despommier, emeritus professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University, told Bloomberg last year. “If we don’t do something soon to reduce the rate of climate change, vertical farming may be our last hope of getting food on the table for all those who live in cities.”

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