Is Japan’s new, super-efficient indoor farming facility as awesome as we think it is?

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Urban farming is taken to another level with new completely indoor farms emerging across the globe. In Japan, a gigantic (currently the world’s largest) indoor farm has been shown to “use 99% less water, 40% less power and creates 80% less food waste” (1). The farm is the brainchild of Shigeru Shimamura and GE as a response to the recent Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Its facilities are incredibly efficient and rely on hydroponic technology to eliminate water loss to the dirt, and maximize the light/dark cycles and light intensity to suit the crop, which means more plants for less cost to the environment.

Although this all sounds incredible, there are limitations.

First, the cost of lettuce produced by this facility is about 15 times as expensive than ordinary lettuce ($4.30/lb compared to $0.30/lb). As development of this technology proceeds and costs of LEDs and other raw materials for setting up such a farm, the cost will decrease and become even more efficient, but as of now it is impractical for the most part.

Second, the food waste statistic derives from the fact that the particular crop grown in Shimamura’s farm is “coreless”, meaning most of the lettuce is not discarded (only 3% of the crop is eliminated as waste as compared to 30% (3)). This does not necessarily mean that other crops like tomatoes or cucumbers would see that much of an decrease in waste. However, the fact that the facilities are essentially pesticide free and avoid external pressures like wind or drought suggests that waste would be reduced simply because there is more product unravaged by the elements. Plus one for indoor farming.

Lastly, because the only plant produced by Shimamura’s project is lettuce at this point, we don’t know much about how other vegetables or fruits would fare. Other countries have delved into other ventures in a similar vein and show success in growing other crops. Iceland grows tomatoes year-round in similar indoor farms. Seoul in South Korea and Den Bosch in the Netherlands both have similar spaces (2), and other communities are thinking of adopting this space-saving and systematic method of growing food. Chicago has recently opened a warehouse that grows fruits and vegetables no matter the season using the same hydroponic technology (3).

These indoor farms are similar to the idea of “skyscraper farms”, or vertical farms. It’s a self explanatory name: a vertical farm is a skyscraper is made into one gigantic food-growing machine. One of the first people to propose vertical farming, Columbia professor of environmental sciences and microbiology, Dickson Despommier, has long been hoping for the day when vertical farms would be abundant. He argues that they are more efficient, often more environmentally responsible, and (eventually) will be more cost effective in the long run (2). With Japan’s recent success with indoor farming facilities, it appears that technology is finally catching up enough to move vertical farming from a pipe dream to a reality. The space maximizing, resource efficient, and environmentally friendly option will undoubtedly become more popular as the world’s cities grow and the technology has a chance to develop.

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