National Geographic News
A photo of the interior of the largest plant factory in Japan.

A worker tends vegetables at the world's largest "plant factory" on July 2, 2014. The Japanese factory produces 10,000 heads of lettuce a day.

Photograph by Kyodo via AP

Gloria Dickie

National Geographic

Published July 17, 2014

An abandoned Sony factory in Miyagi Prefecture, Japan, has been transformed into what could very well be the farm of the future.

Shigeharu Shimamura, a plant physiologist and CEO of Mirai, has constructed the world's largest indoor farm—25,000 square feet of futuristic garden beds nurtured by 17,500 LED lights in a bacteria-free, pesticide-free environment. The result? About 10,000 heads of fresh lettuce harvested each day.

The unique "plant factory" is so efficient that it cuts food waste from the 30 to 40 percent typically seen for lettuce grown outdoors to less than 3 percent for their coreless lettuce. (Related: "Stop Wasting Food in the West and Feed the World.")

National Geographic spoke with Shimamura recently about the innovative food factory and indoor farms as a potential solution to the global food crisis.

What was the inspiration for this business venture?

Japan has had an interest in research and development in the field of farming in a factory setting for about 40 to 50 years now.

Our company built a plant factory at a location devastated by the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011 because of the general concern in Japan about the declining rate of domestic vegetable supply, and how we might remedy the problem of the heavy dependence on imports.

The reason we chose this particular location is because we wanted to prove that vegetables can be produced anywhere now. Second, we wanted to help restart the economic development in this disaster area. And last, looking into the future, if we could succeed there, we could also see a possibility of exporting the technology we developed all over the world. (Related: "Inside the Looming Food Crisis.")

What impact could your plant factory have on the future of food production and as a remedy for food shortages?

Currently we have a world population of 7 to 7.2 billion. Among them, about 800 to 900 million people are suffering from starvation, or close to it. People around the world are all wondering how we can produce more food to mitigate this grave situation.

We know that water plays a big role in this, and the technology Mirai developed uses less than one percent of the water commonly used to grow vegetables—so we can conserve water by growing vegetables in a factory environment and use the water to produce more grains elsewhere.

Using this method, if we can build plant factories all over the world, we can support the food production to feed the entire world's population. This is what we are really aiming for.

How do you manage to use so little water?

With the conventional method of farming, a lot of water is wasted seeping through the soil as well as evaporating into the air. In an enclosed environment of a factory, we don't lose water down the soil. That is one way.

We can also collect the moisture the plant itself emits into the air. The water collected is recycled; this is similar to how our Earth works. The moisture released from living things on Earth collects, forms clouds, and drops back down to Earth as rain. This is the recycling system of our planet. Our factory works just like that. Water is collected, filtered, and recycled in an enclosed space.

Your lighting system was specially designed by GE Japan. What's unique about these lights?

The lighting we are talking about is LED [light-emitting diode], and it is very suitable for plant growth. The light from the particular product GE Japan developed for us promotes photosynthesis as well as cell division. What's unique about this lighting system we have now is that it can provide multiple types of light that not only encourage photosynthesis and cell growth, but also provide all other aspects necessary for plant growth.

Here is an example: If we only use the type of light that encourages photosynthesis, plants will grow too big, too fast—this causes crowding and then not enough light will reach the whole plant. The particular kind of lighting product we use now will also emit a type of light capable of penetrating the plant so every part of the plant can absorb the light.

With 10,000 heads of lettuce, how labor intensive is it to harvest the produce? Do you use robots?

I'd say it is only half automated. Machines do some work, but the picking part is done manually. In the future, though, I expect an emergence of harvesting robots. For example, a robot that can transplant seedlings, or for cutting and harvesting, or transporting harvested produce to be packaged.

You already have a few small-scale versions of the plant factory elsewhere in the world, and you're planning two more large factories in Hong Kong and Russia. Can you tell me a little bit more about these facilities?

We are building a factory in Hong Kong as we speak. We will be producing 5,000 heads of lettuce a day there. The reason we are there is because most of the vegetables consumed there come from outside Hong Kong. People are very concerned about food safety, and they want domestically produced, safe food.

The interest in Russia may have something to do with our company's success in Mongolia, where we have two smaller factories: one in the south Gobi desert and one in Ulaanbaatar. There the climate is so severe that they can't grow any vegetables outdoors during the cold season, so they import them mostly from Europe—a long distance away, especially for people who live in the far eastern part of the country. They wanted to be able to grow vegetables domestically. Our plant factory in Russia will produce 10,000 heads of lettuce next spring once it starts the operation. (Related: "Is Your Country Food Independent?")

What are some of the challenges in creating these indoor farms elsewhere in the world?

There are two big challenges. In order to build a plant factory, we need certain infrastructure in place, such as electricity and water supply. A dependable supply of electricity and water is essential right from the start. We consulted with GE Japan on this; we talked about the possibility of building a factory where electric generators are already in place.

Another big factor is the availability of telecommunication infrastructure. In Japan, we do a lot of training as well as overseeing of the operation remotely online, so having a dependable Internet connection and other telecommunication infrastructure is also critical.

Right now you're focusing on growing lettuce and leafy greens. Can this system be adapted to other produce like tomatoes, potatoes, or fruit?

I believe that, at least technically, we can produce almost any kind of plant in a factory. But what makes most economic sense is to produce fast-growing vegetables that can be sent to the market quickly. That means leaf vegetables for us now. In the future, though, we would like to expand to a wider variety of produce. It's not just vegetables we are thinking about, though. The factory can also produce medicinal plants. I believe that there is a very good possibility we will be involved in a variety of products soon.

When it comes to solving food-supply issues in the future, what can we learn from this project?

What is important here is that the success of this project depended not only on the technology, but also on the accumulated knowledge of farming practices. Mirai, our company, had the knowledge of how to grow vegetables in a factory setting, but we needed the technology to make it work.

As we face world shortages of both water and food, plant factory operations will not only stay but expand worldwide. The merging of our expertise is essential in expanding our operation to other places in the world.

Follow Gloria Dickie on Twitter.

39 comments
Harry Riggs
Harry Riggs

The PodPonics plant Factory in Atlanta, Georgia is currently shipping over 1 ton of lettuce per day to customers of Whole Foods, the Fresh Market, and Kroger in 7 US states. It has been the largest farm in the world since early 2014, growing 3,000-6,000 heads of lettuce in each 240-sq. ft. 'pod'. Four varieties of 'Lettuce Buy Local' packaged salad mix are available, with more varieties in development. PodPonics has recently built a farm in Dubai, and has begun construction on a farm in Oman. Japanese plant factories lead the way in some aspects of lighting science and are progressing towards functional foods, while the American company has been able to commercialise production by using cost-saving technology, smartphone-based software controls, and food safety regimes that are replicable throughout the world. Both approaches will conserve resources such as arable land and water for staple crops such as soy, wheat, corn and rice while expanding into root crops and vine crops.

Dave Wingler
Dave Wingler

I've always been interested in this technology for home applications and even made the effort of creating my own LED / Hydroponic system to successfully grow strawberries.  My question:  The tech uses a plastic medium in which to grow the lettuce.  What degree of BPA (or other chemicals) leaches into the produce during production?  Is this a cause for concern with long term consumption of produce grown with this method?  I'd love to hear thoughts regarding this.  


Gloria,  when you spoke with Shimamura-san, was there any mention to bring this tech affordably into the home?  I'd love to pick up a system and install it in a spare room!


Regards,

Jay  Clark
Jay Clark

Mr. Beytes, I  think you are missing some things that are critical in the equation; the rapid and continuing loss of arable land from this world, the lack of fresh water (soil based farming is hugely wasteful of water), and the burgeoning population here and abroad.  Without this kind of industry and investment, our problem will not be carbon footprint, it will be feeding the world.  Reduced carbon footprint and other food crops (grains and tubers) will follow.  Indoor farming treats head on these issues; albeit is not perfect, but it is developing in capacity, technology, process, and environmentally at a rapid pace.


I have not been writing about food stuffs for the last 20 years, I have been raising them on the American farm for 50 years and am acutely aware of the issues I raised above.

Jay  Clark
Jay Clark

Mr. Beytes, I  think you are missing some things that are critical in the equation; the rapid and continuing loss of arable land from this world, the lack of fresh water (soil based farming is hugely wasteful of water), and the burgeoning population here and abroad.  Without this kind of industry and investment, our problem will not be carbon footprint, it will be feeding the world.  Reduced carbon footprint and other food crops (grains and tubers) will follow.  Indoor farming treats head on these issues; albeit is not perfect, but it is developing in capacity, technology, process, and environmentally at a rapid pace.


I have not been writing about food stuffs for the last 20 years, I have been raising them on the American farm and am acutely aware of the issues I raised above.

Chris Beytes
Chris Beytes

Lettuce and microgreens are not food, and they won't feed the world. They feed the 1% who are willing to pay $25 for a lb. of fancy greens, or $40 a plate for fine cuisine sprinkled with microgreens. Where is the corn? Wheat? Rice? Staples that feed the planet? Apples, oranges? Not in a warehouse under lights, no matter how cheap to power (and lights will never be as cheap or as effective as natural sunlight). Even tomatoes won't be economical in this sort of system compared to a modern, high-tech hydroponic greenhouse. Sorry to burst any bubbles, but I'm a journalist who's been covering agriculture/horticulture for more than 20 years; and indoor growing, while a novelty and interesting for a few very minor upscale gourmet crops, is not the future of agriculture.

Read this by Professor Emeritus Lou Albright of Cornell if you'd like to see some of the technical reasons.

http://news.cornell.edu/stories/2014/02/indoor-urban-farms-called-wasteful-pie-sky


Nicole Yau
Nicole Yau

It is fascinating to hear that Japan's new technology can achieve mass production of green farming without natural day light, water & soil in a complete control cleaned environment at a location destroyed by the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. I do support the positive intention of this project of solving future food supply issues. I can see the plus points of using this mass & fast crop production as alternative food supply solution at the overpopulated urban cities and extreme climate locations, where natural farming is simply not possible. Also I can just imagine the amount of carbon food print reduction can be achieved by having this massive indoor farm close to where the food demand is. This could be a life saver in solving the potential food shortage for our mass population of the future. However I am deeply concerned if our natural farming production is replaced entirely by this alternative indoor farming become the primary farming production, how would this impact our ecosystem and globally warming issues? We must focus on the restoration of the divine balance, the sophisticate mother earth cycle & natural rhythms. Hopefully we are not trying to outsmart Nature by inventing another smarter 'cover up' for our past imbalance. We have to learn from our past lessons... I hope the top global team of scientists are doing their their homework properly before allowing our 'trusted' governments and corporations blindly jumping on the bandwagon of this innovative farming for the short term gains only, and jeopardizing or scarifying the long term sustainability of our children's future.        

Yves Sautter
Yves Sautter

Amazing, but how good does it taste? Reminds me of the flavorless factory style grown tomatoes vs. the delicious home grown vegetable garden ones.

I hope they never grow wine grapes that way...

Joyce Yapp
Joyce Yapp

By and by we all will eat on the green vegetables that have never seen the light of day, never shivered under the cold rain and never known the taste of soil. But seriously I think this innovation is viable only for rich urban areas that have not really experienced starvation and the citizens have the means to pay a bit extra for safe fresh green veggie. For eliminating starvation, the plant factory needs to be operated as a charity act.

John Reyesvilla Méndez
John Reyesvilla Méndez

¡Brillante!. De poder, podemos, pero deberíamos frenar la reproducción de los hombres, también, para equilibrar la balanza.

ruby garcia
ruby garcia

strict quality control and adherence to that - no shortcut but human has to deal with greed. have they tried other crops?

JEAN  FROUD
JEAN FROUD

What about taste, texture and most of all nutrition??  No so important with lettuce, but what about other crops like tomatoes (still not great from any type of grower other than outdoor soil, sun and rain). 


Daniel Jacques
Daniel Jacques

Those medical plants and other items have to be marijuana

JOHN LONGENECKER
JOHN LONGENECKER

July 19 Yeah, sure this sounds great and all, but can they grow apple trees, ready to eat sushi or Nathan's hot dogs. And what about salsa or ketchup. Do they have free delivery to your house or apartment by innovative drones or do you have drive to some supermarket like regular food.

They say their place is a factory "farm" with LED lights. So if it's really a farm, how will the roosters know what time to wake up and start crowing with LED lights always on. Do teen age kids get to drive around on an old tractor.

And what about the farmers daughter? She will clearly have less chance for romance if the barn has got them LED lights on all the time in the hay loft. What this place needs is pickup trucks, dogs, cats and horses to make it a real farm.

I generally see this farm place as a good idea. I think these farms will be able to use all them LED lights instead of on again off again sunlight to create reliable and consistent electricity with there solar panels. That's the ticket. It's a beautiful day in the oligarchy.

Judith Brooke
Judith Brooke

This system requires much smaller areas to grow food that would take many acres.  That is a good thing.  Growing food that saves on water, great.  Growing food that has less waste is also great. The cost to the consumer would be important as it has to be affordable.  And why not use solar or wind power to create their own electricity, then all they need is water source?  A completely germ free environment would mean a very vulnerable product that could easily be wiped out if a bacteria penetrated the environment.

Stevo Le Bit
Stevo Le Bit

where are they living?? is there no sun or is it illegal to grow lettuce so that they have to hide behind rooms where no sunlight comes in,lol. Wow they use the water again..that´s hightech... Can`t see any inovation or something new. Hydrogardens exist allready. .Recirculated watering,Led, indoor growing, nothing new. Give me news if japan has the idea of houses made full of glass so that they can use the real sun....ah i forgot this also allready exist...


Paulette LeBlanc
Paulette LeBlanc

I like the fact that it would be pesticide free. Great idea, it's about time!

Oliver Kruppa
Oliver Kruppa

The idea sounds good, but it is sad, that they are not talking about the electricity, that they need. I mean, they have to run these thousands of leds the whole time. They have to do the job the sun does for free. And the question is: How expensive is that? Its not like in poor regions, the energy is for free. And if the energy makes the food more expensive then lets say to import it, then it doesn t help the people (even if its better for the CO2-Index etc., if its produced domestic instead of transported for a long way). Then its "just" something for scientists and maybe for a space station.

Vincent Tropa
Vincent Tropa

Hope this could help eradicate poverty. Great innovation.



megan mckinney
megan mckinney

Okay germ free, good lettuce grown indoors, less water waste, and less waste in general, good. Questions is, how much for that head of lettuce that has special light, air conditioning, and is tended to from start to finish? Hopefully the fact that it is local will help, but can't it be more expensive than ordinary vegetables? Also plants evolve to out compete other plants and survive against germ and insects. What happens if we put them in an environment where they don't exist anymore? Where they get the exactly right amount of water and sunlight? There tolerance isn't going to be there in a few decades and they might not survive outside those conditions.

This is a great idea, but I think they need to study it more

Meichen Qian
Meichen Qian

希望能帮助世界上更多国家脱离饥饿!Hope this can help more people in the world stay  away from hunger!

Lovely Claire D.
Lovely Claire D.

The Japanese have always been respected for their innovation, technological expertise and high quality standards. Hope the same standards will be replicated in the places where this new 'farming method' will be adopted.

Mary Dowdy
Mary Dowdy

Japan is always a leader in Sci-Fi Technologies freak. They have thought to do it years before, but now they succeeded in that. see more 

Danielle L'aviere
Danielle L'aviere

@JEAN FROUD It can´t be denied that most of the people prefer the tradicional farming for the taste of the veggies, but a big part of that taste comes from the amount of fertiizers and pesticides that have to be used to produce them and the acidity the put on the soil, the nutrients in  the soil get low as the plants grow and with every harvest  and nobody uses organic ferrtilizers anymore...The taste of the tomates for example is a little milder and less acid but you add a bit of vinegar or balsamic in your salad and problem solved. green house farming do not need pesticides because the bugs do not have access to them and the water is recycle to ponds with lots of tilapia fish that eat a lot and poo a lot and reproduce a lot to give organic value to the water used. green house farming have a much lower carbon foot print.

Romeo Loh
Romeo Loh

@JOHN LONGENECKER

What's wrong with you? Are you haters? Can't you see the big pictures? If you are looking for old-school farming and barn love story, or you are playing Farmville, you are going to wrong websites!
Growing sushi and hot' dog, seriously?

They are talking about efficiency and less wastage, with small scale of land for mass production. You want some healthy food with love, plant yourself.

Romeo Loh
Romeo Loh

@JOHN LONGENECKER

You are ridiculous and hater. You can't see the big pictures? If you are looking for old-school stuff like barn and farm love story, you are reading in the wrong websites.

Grew sushi, seriously? Think before you talk.

Mohamed Ayed
Mohamed Ayed

@JOHN LONGENECKER It is about production, not family life, there will always be normal farms, but these are urban farms.

Seriously? Dogs? Chicken? A barn? What for you will need those in an urban farm? And chicken are already raised indoor btw.

Also I don't think that it will be efficient to produce fruits and trees here, so I don't think that it will replace all farms. 


Mohamed Ayed
Mohamed Ayed

@Stevo Le Bit : Did you not read??

Alot less water use, alot less waste and faster production, also you can't use real sun when you have many plants packed up on each other like that, light will not reach them all that way, only the ones on the top shelve, that's why they use LED lights, also these LED lights only give the plant the light that it needs for photo synthetis and cell division. As you know, plants don't need green light for example (that's why the plant is green for example)

Romeo Loh
Romeo Loh

@Oliver Kruppa

I am not expert nor staff of the company, but my opinion are... in some countries, the sun only hang out for few hours, and it depends on the weather issue as well.

What they planned here are production for 24/7 for 365. LED are quite fuel efficient and the profit can cover that.

Gloria Dickie
Gloria Dickie

@Oliver Kruppa 

I did ask Mr. Kimura, president of GE consumer products in Japan, about the cost, and he explained there were several factors influencing cost.

In previous models, linear fluorescent lights were used, but by changing to LED they’ve reduced wattage consumption by 40 percent, allowing the factory to become profitable. LEDs are also thinner, allowing for more racks which means more lettuce (16 racks as opposed to 10). 

Another factor to consider is food mileage. “We want to have the plant within the city so that, from the vegetable delivery standpoint, you can pick vegetables in the morning and it’s on your table in the afternoon,” he said. This saves on a lot of associated transportation (and environmental) costs. Basically, it’s advantageous for urban areas (like Japan) that have limited outdoor space for agriculture.

 

In addition, they’re able to have stable “weather” and conditions 365 days a year, so they don’t experience any crop loss. And they save money on irrigation and pesticides.

You can view direct estimates on page 21 and 22 here: http://www.fieldrobotics.org/~ssingh/VF/Challenges_in_Vertical_Farming/Schedule_files/SHIMAMURA.pdf

For example, utilities would run 72.6 million Yen a year.

Mike Barrett
Mike Barrett

@megan mckinney In a controlled environment what is the need for wide tolerances in growing conditions? 


However, there are some crops that improve taste and nutrition with environmental stress i.e. variations in moisture, heat, humidity, light.  These can be created in this controlled environment in a precise fashion. dim the light, slow the watering cycle, raise the temp, etc if it would produce a taste and nutritionally superior product.  Controlled environment means the "farmer" or now "Plant engineer" can dial it in precisely.  PS picking DNA that is resistant to nonexistent disease would be????

Olivier Lévesque
Olivier Lévesque

@megan mckinney I have to inform you that, if you keep cloning them their DNA wont change at all. You have to select the best cloning with the best resistance and clone it to infinite. While you use this DNA as "common DNA" you keep training other seedlings to "improve" their resistance. When the "common DNA" succumb major weakness, you use the training seedlings to clone them again and again. It's easly to do of what I know.

Mike Barrett
Mike Barrett

@Danielle L'aviere @JEAN FROUD So you have gotten accustomed to the taste of pesticides?  All the other nutrients, acidification, etc can be introduced to the soil.  Including all the appropriate bacteria.  As well as the stress (which is what causes grapes to produce tasty wine) of alternating moisture, heat, light that is found in "nature."


The thing I would like to see is the return to more heirloom thin skinned tomatoes as the plant itself would be shaped, etc such that the thin skinned tasty versions could be successfully harvested.


Improved taste and nutrition - now that would be cool.

Harry Riggs
Harry Riggs

@Gloria Dickie @Oliver Kruppa Just as GE Japan sees a large upside in manufacturing LED lights for indoor farms, other Japanese companies such as Sharp, Fujitsu, Mitsubishi Chemical and Panasonic have joined the rush. Currently the typical Japanese LED lighting system costs over 10X what the world's largest indoor farm is using in Atlanta and the Middle East; PodPonics sells over 1 ton of lettuce per day in the southeastern USA, and is doubling capacity now to meet consumer demand of up to 4,000 lbs/day for various leafy greens. As the price of the LED systems come down, there will be greater availability and affordability for food importing countries to become more self-reliant by growing their own fresh vegetables, fruits and root crops, saving land for staple crops.

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