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An old-fashioned lettuce farm. (Inga Spence/Visuals Unlimited/Corbis)

Japan’s Massive Indoor Farm Produces 10,000 Heads of Fresh Lettuce Every Day

The innovative farming solution could help cut down on food waste

smithsonian.com

Shigeharu Shimamura's indoor farm is the largest in the world. Built in a location devastated by the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, the 25,000 square foot factory farm is more than just a proof of concept. 

"[W]e wanted to prove that vegetables can be produced anywhere now," says Shimamura, a plant physiologist and CEO of indoor farm equipment company Mirai Co. in a Q&A with National Geographic. But on top of that, the massive farm might also be a sign of the future of industrial agriculture. The indoor farm uses less water than outdoor farming, because it doesn't lose water into the soil, and it drastically cuts down on food waste.

The trick is that rather than a field, some fertilizer and the Sun, Shimamura's indoor farm uses vertically-stacked racks, LED lights and a pest-free environment. There's more up-front costs, but it keeps production high. Conventional farms can grow 26,000 lettuce plants per acre, and farmers tend to plant two to four crops per season. The indoor farm can produce 10,000 heads of lettuce every day on a much smaller footprint. 

Worldwide, 1.4 billion tons of food are wasted every year. That is a figure that has food suppliers scrambling for innovations at all points in the food production and consumption process. A National Resources Defence Council report recommends ditching "sell-by" dates in favor of "freeze-by" dates, for instance, which could help consumers extend the shelf life of their food. Similarly, a grocery store in the UK has plans to recycle waste food into electricity

Shimamura's plan is to cut down on some of that organic waste at the source. In a conventional agriculture setting more than 30% of the lettuce grown ends up in the trash heap, while just 3% of Shimamura's special "coreless" indoor lettuce gets wasted.

Shimamura and his Mirai Co. are planning to build similarly large and less-wasteful produce factories in Russia and Hong Kong. To help out around these urban farms of the future, he tells National Geographic, he expects "an emergence of harvesting robots." His ultimate goals are ambitious: 

[I]f 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.

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About Shannon Palus

Shannon Palus is a science writer, and a researcher for Popular Science. Her work has appeared in Discover, Slate, Ars Technica, and elsewhere. She is based in Philadelphia.

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