High-tech way to keep veggies healthy all year round

Japanese farms that grow greens indoors use technology to control the environment

A dome-shaped farm in Japan's Chiba prefecture, 30km east of Tokyo, looks every bit the futuristic scene.

There are no pillars inside the 572 sq m Sakura Green Farm. So there are no shadows, and every plant receives optimal sunlight.

A computer system controls temperature and humidity, keeping them constant year round, while a tank in the centre of the dome feeds water and nutrients to the plants.

To minimise disease outbreaks, an automated system moves the plants outwards for harvesting as they grow.

This reduces human contact with the 400 pieces of leafy greens that the facility produces every day.

The indoor farm's techniques could be adopted by Singapore farmers to raise their productivity in the face of climate change.

Sakura Green Farm is among several that a group of more than 20 Singapore farmers and academics visited during a technology-sourcing trip organised by the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) last month.

Known as pioneers in high-tech vegetable farming, Japanese farms are using technology to manipulate the indoor environment to their advantage.

Energy-saving LEDs, for instance, are used to make plants grow faster.

Conditions such as air circulation, temperature and humidity are also kept constant throughout the year - unaffected by the seasons or erratic weather changes. (See infographic.)

One farm in Hyogo prefecture - near Kyoto and Osaka - has used the dead space under a railway line to build its indoor facility.

Singapore now imports over 90 per cent of its food but climate change could threaten its food supply.

An Oxford University study, released in March, projected that increases in food availability would be cut by about a third before 2050 if greenhouse gas emissions continue at current rates.

So climate change is a reason why Singapore needs to build a bigger "buffer" to ensure its food resilience, said Minister of State for National Development Koh Poh Koon, who went on the trip to Japan.

Farmers can adopt a mix of traditional and modern farming techniques for now. But Dr Koh added: "In the longer term, if the weather does continue to be very chaotic, indoor farming might be the only option viable."

One advantage of indoor farming is that farmers can set precise conditions and parameters.

These include the wavelength of light and the concentration of carbon dioxide, so that the crops can grow in an ideal environment.

Vertical farming, meanwhile, maximises space - a constraint for a small country like Singapore.

Local farm Sky Greens in Lim Chu Kang , for instance, uses a vertical farming system which at full capacity can produce at least five times more than a conventional farm. The farm is now operating at about 30 per cent capacity, producing about 800 tonnes of vegetables a year.

Dr Toyoki Kozai, president of the non-profit Japan Plant Factory Association - which conducts research on sustainable plant factories - said that as urban populations grow, there will be a need to ensure that agricultural food production becomes more sustainable.

"We need to produce, deliver, process and cook the foods with much less water, less fossil fuel and less fertiliser," said Dr Kozai.

READY FOR BAD WEATHER

In the longer term, if the weather does continue to be very chaotic, indoor farming might be the only option viable.

DR KOH POH KOON, Minister of State for National Development, on Singapore farmers adopting some of the techniques.

Producing fresh food in Singapore rather than importing it will also mean less fossil fuel is used to transport it, reducing carbon dioxide emissions and costs, he added.

A vertical plant factory called Spread , in Kameoka, Kyoto prefecture- the largest indoor plant factory in Japan - produces 21,000 heads of lettuce every day.

Earlier this year, it said that it would open the world's first robot farm next year. Other than planting seeds, robots will do everything, from watering to trimming crops.

Singapore has been encouraging farmers to adopt technology.

In 2014, the AVA launched a $63 million fund that farmers can tap to modernise their facilities and invest in innovative technologies.

In June this year, the AVA announced that all new agriculture land would go back to the original lease period of 20 years.

This was after it had received feedback that the 10-year tenure, with a possible 10-year extension announced in 2014, was too short for investing in automation.

Dr Koh said he hopes that the trip will encourage farmers who are "sitting on the fence" to seriously consider adopting technology.

He said: "Obviously everything that we see and learn here cannot be directly transferred to Singapore.

"But, certainly, the business thinking and the considerations they take into account in terms of time, in terms of operating systems, will be helpful for our farmers to consider when they are embarking on a similar journey."


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 26, 2016, with the headline 'High-tech way to keep veggies healthy all year round'. Print Edition | Subscribe