Hydroponic farming grows food crops without the use of soil and natural light, instead replacing these conditions with liquid nutrient feed and light emitting diodes in indoor farms
Japan led the field of technological innovations throughout the 1960s and 1970s, engineering high order goods such as cars and robotics with well-documented efficiency. Now the country is turning its attention to technical innovation in agriculture, and in particular to the future of industrial scale hydroponic farming. The number of these farms more than trebled in the three years prior to 2014 and their use in producing food both for a domestic and international market is set to continue to grow (Kim, 2014).
What is Hydroponic Farming?
Why is this form of farming taking off in Japan?
What are the benefits of hydroponic farming in Japan?
What are the costs of hydroponic farming in Japan?
What is the future of hydroponic farms?
Hydroponic farming grows food crops without the use of soil and natural light, instead replacing these conditions with liquid nutrient feed and light emitting diodes (LEDs) in indoor farms. While this method of farming in a rudimentary form has been around for hundreds of years, the latest designs for hydroponic farms in Japan are very large in scale and take on modern technical management initiatives. Farms typically consist of multiple, multi-layered rows of plants, often stacked on top of one another in a highly managed and sterile environment. Mineral feed is stored in large tanks and fed directly to plant roots via automated systems that are constantly monitoring the plants nutrient needs and growth rates. The farms can run twenty four hours a day and provide daily harvests rather than one or two annual crops.
A hydroponic farm growing herbs (Source: Arielle Solomon)
Japan’s position on the boundary of four large tectonic plates makes it highly vulnerable to the effects of earthquakes and active volcanoes and current climate change is also increasing the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. When these hazards occur, the effects are felt more acutely in the relatively unprotected Japanese countryside and traditionally the country’s agricultural industry has suffered more long term economic problems as a result of these events than other sectors. This has not only made Japan vulnerable to increased food prices but certain foodstuffs can be very difficult to buy in normal markets following even relatively minor hazardous events. Rice production following the 2011 Fukushima earthquake and tsunami fell to dangerously low levels and in some areas eighty percent of land used for farming food was destroyed (Martin, 2011).
Japan’s ageing population and increased levels of students studying abroad means that fewer traditional farming skills are passing through the generations and fewer people are entering the industry to sustain agriculture within the Japanese economy. The average age of farmers in Japan is now sixty six (Japan Times, 2013), signalling the potential for future food insecurity as this generation ages further. Japan’s mountainous landscape also means that little of the country’s rural land is suitable for agriculture. Though 12.5% of the country’s land is farmed, (compared to around seventy percent of the UK’s) it has long been recognised that in order to maintain food security for the population, new ways of farming need to be found and, following the 2011 Fukushima earthquake, the Japanese Government started to subsidise research into and development of indoor farming projects.
The world’s largest hydroponic farm is Japanese; one of three hundred and eighty indoor farms in the country dedicated to producing vegetables for direct consumption. The farm, which occupies a former factory that was abandoned in the 2011 Fukushima earthquake and covers 2,300m2, is owned by Japanese company Mirai and produces ten thousand leaf vegetables a day which are either sold online, in supermarkets or directly to consumers (Mealey, 2015).
Compared to traditional agricultural methods, hydroponic farming has been found to be highly efficient. It can use forty percent less power and produce eighty percent less food waste than conventional farming. As little water is lost through evaporation or infiltration from the soil, hydroponic farming can use ninety nine percent less water and what is used is collected and recycled multiple times.
Produce can also be healthier for consumers, with higher levels of some vitamins and minerals than those grown outdoors (Kim, 2014). Mirai also produce varieties of vegetables with particular mineral content to suit particular people with health problems, such as a low potassium lettuce for people with kidney problems (Mealey, 2015) and varieties which could be branded as ‘medicinal plants’ are currently being investigated.
Such are the conditions found within a hydroponic farm that they can effectively bypass the risks of drought, insect damage and crop disease that outdoor farms are in a near constant battle to control. This can make the crops cheaper to produce if the farms are operating on a large scale as the cost of buying pesticides and the machinery needed to distribute is removed. Equally the risk of soil contamination from polluted water and air is zero.
Oakleaf lettuce grown through hydroponics in Hong Kong (Source: Farm Direct Hong Kong)
Although the use of space and water could be argued highly efficient, there is some concern over the carbon footprint of such operations. The electricity that is needed to run the indoor farms usually represents much more in tonnes of emitted carbon than the plants themselves sequestrate during photosynthesis (Shackford, 2014), contributing to climate change. There is also concern that the full impact of eating food plants produced in this way is under researched and while many Japanese consumers do not seem to mind the origin of their food, in wider, and especially European markets, knowing one’s food providence and eating proven organic produce is becoming ever more popular.
The cost of setting up a hydroponic farm is prohibitive for most average and small scale outdoor farmers and few would be likely to therefore make the change to hydroponics even if they wished. This makes those farmers particularly vulnerable to market forces and the seasonality of certain foods, while the large scale hydroponics are able to successfully compete with them all year round.
Despite environmental concerns, the growth and investment in hydroponic farms in Japan shows no sign of slowing. The Tokyo Yano Research Institute predicts a more than eight hundred percent rise in the value of the hydroponic industry between 2010 and 2020 (Yano Research Institute, 2011), creating an industry worth US$279 million by the later date. With land at a premium in much of Japan it remains to be seen whether this investment will happen at home or in internationally based hydroponic farms: many countries already have a small number of hydroponic farms and China, USA, Russia and the Netherlands are already looking to attract investment from large multinational hydroponic companies to generate a domestic industry on a substantial scale. As the world’s population looks set to exceed nine billion by 2050, hydroponics could, with further research into efficiency, become a sustainable solution to feeding greater numbers of people without having to rely on traditional and increasingly vulnerable farming methods.
Mealey, R. (2015) Japan's Future Farms, Al Jazeera
Kim, M. (2014) Salad Inc. Can plant factories save us from climate change?
Martin, A. (2011) Farmers struggle amid tsunami aftermath, Japan Times
Shackford, S. (2014) Indoor urban farms called wasteful, ‘pie in the sky’, Cornell Chronicle
The Japan Times (2013) TPP or no, ageing farm sector needs true reform, The Japan Times
Yano Research Institute (2011) Greenhouse horticulture and plant factory market
Industry that is concerned with farming the land for crops, animals or their products.
A form of agriculture which produces crop through highly-managed nutrient rich water rather than through soil contact.
Companies that operate in more than country.
Students can research a country that has already embraced hydroponic farming and study the impacts its development has had on traditional farming industries and whether they have gone into decline or have been boosted by the competition. This can feed into a wider piece regarding the costs and benefits of hydroponic farming.
Comparing a Malthusian and Boserupian viewpoint students can place different aspects of farming (including hydroponics) on a scale from one to the other and then estimate where the UK sits on the scale as well as where countries such as Japan may sit in fifty years’ time.
Students can suggest as many reasons as possible why a country may wish to invest in hydroponic farming. For each reason students can then link it to a particular country where that reason would hold true. Presenting their ideas to the class, a world map of hydroponics could be made as each student presents and as a conclusion, staff and students can see if there are any patterns to their ideas.
Future of Food and Farming
Fast Food Farmers
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