By Jacob Eisenberg, Editor of Agri-Futures
The Mecca of all vertical farming can be found an hour outside Tokyo, a city often heralded as the world’s largest metropolitan area. The Japan Plant Factory Association (JPFA) sits on a quiet plot next to the Chiba University campus.
Across from three towering apartment buildings and a sprawling UNIQLO mall, the JPFA greenhouses sit translucently illuminated on the boundary of a dense city center and quiet suburb surrounding the agricultural campus. Large crows sit quietly in the branches of the beautifully pruned dwarf tree orchard of the university — and for a few moments, it becomes easy to forget the traumatic commute in a “sardine can” — referred to colloquially as the Tokyo subway system.
The notion of indoor agriculture often invokes feelings of food far removed from nature — confined to the inside of a dark urban building or warehouse. However, I found it fitting to see the center of indoor agriculture actually situated at the crossroads of these two natural and urban settings.
From the outside, there is little to differentiate the transparent greenhouses and dark industrial sheds from any other small farm common around the periphery of Tokyo. And with the exception of a small sign, it’s easy to walk right by the entrance of the JPFA visitor center. It is truly a humble facility from the outside — but inside is a far different story.
A cornerstone of industry innovation
Since 2010 the JPFA has helped to test and research viable solutions to current problems related to food, the environment, energy, and resource use. Their work has helped to educate the development and dissemination of sustainable plant factory systems — that are both resource efficient and environmentally friendly.
With 6 different testing greenhouses and two fully enclosed plant factory facilities, the JPFA works closely as platform between the Japanese government and over 50 private companies to develop, manage and innovate the plant factory space. While their newest plant factory is under construction, their low cost, 10-layer cultivation facility produces 3000 heads of lettuce — every single day.
But what separates the JPFA from others in the plant factory space isn’t its technology per se, it is the platform it offers to help innovate the space.
The JPFA bridges the common innovation gap as an educational institution between private and public resources. In addition to working with dozens of commercial agricultural companies, the JPFA partners with the Japanese government to develop separate agricultural solutions for an aging Japanese farm workforce.
This has allowed the JPFA to become an aggregator in this highly fragmented and competitive industry. By collecting insights from technical consulting with private companies and receiving grants from the national government, the JPFA is perfectly situated to test, research and educate a market hungry for solutions. And interest is growing. The JPFA has a couple thousand visitors annually from many countries around the world — all eager to learn more for application in the public and private sectors.
After taking a brief tour of the facility and greenhouses, I had the pleasure to speak with arguably the father of the vertical farming industry, Dr. Toyoki Kozai.
“Plant Factories (at this point) will likely never be viable to grow large scale crops like wheat, corn and rice. But they could have a great impact on producing vegetables, medicinal herbs, cash crops and possibly fruits and nuts with dwarf tree varieties”.
Dr. Kozai was modest in our conversation, but his contributions to the industry have been immense. Since 1973, Dr. Kozai has helped pioneer the understanding of plant biology and physiology across different indoor growing systems. He has published dozens of academic studies documenting everything from the optimum light spectrum exposure to full automation with AI robotics.
While our conversation covered a dizzying array of industry topics, I wanted to briefly share his response to my question about the biggest continued issues in developing the industry. Since he is a premier thought leader, I was curious to know what challenges are anxiety provoking enough to keep him up at night and motivated to find solutions for.
- Keeping up with different farming systems. There is no definitive growing guide to using different systems with the same plants — and sensitive quality controls can change drastically with increased space/density affecting airflow and light.
- Scalability from an operations and business side is precarious since it is also based on the optimal size of a facility — and that is a factor that hasn’t been well defined either.
At the end of our conversation, I asked Dr. Kozai if he was optimistic about plant factories changing the food industry and he immediately prefaced his answer with a solemn “no”.
However he went on to explain that “Plant Factories (at this point) will never be viable to grow large scale crops like wheat, corn and rice. But they could have a great impact on producing vegetables, medicinal herbs, cash crops and possibly fruits and nuts with dwarf tree varieties”.
At the epicenter of indoor agriculture innovation, my visit to the JPFA highlighted the real shortcomings of a food industry often reimagined, rather than fully understood. Indoor agriculture faces many critical challenges before it can be truly revolutionary — let alone viable.
It is also much easier to understand why organizations like the JPFA are so critical for developing this early industry. With forefront concerns from industry leaders like Dr. Kozai on what cultivation practices even work, testing and collaboration are more necessary than ever.
By Jacob Eisenberg, Editor of Agri-Futures