IT is hard to believe that the crisp and flavoursome lettuce, arugula and herbs drizzled with vinaigrette dressing and served at a family restaurant in west Tokyo were grown without sun or soil but in a plant factory in Matsudo City, Chiba Prefecture.
These leafy vegetables, grown in a completely controlled and "stress-free" environment, have created a steady demand among restaurateurs and consumers for the past five years. And the trend is likely to flourish, said horticulturist Shigeharu Shimamura, president and founder of Mirai Company Limited.
These plants are essentially grown hydroponically. Instead of soil, water is used as the medium to provide nutrients to the plant.
But unlike most hydroponic farms, Mirai has replaced the open air and sunlight with fluorescent-lit shelves in air-conditioned rooms.
There are three types of hydroponic cultivation - using the sunlight and open air, a combination of sunlight and artificial lighting in the open air, and in a completely controlled environment with artificial lighting.
"Our company uses the third method which eliminates all stress factors for the plants such as unpredictable weather, inconsistent amount of light, lack of nutrients, wind, fungus and pest infestation," he said.
In a nutshell, the plant factory has industrialised agriculture.
Mirai is also responsible for setting up a plant factory at Japan's Showa base in Antarctica.
"The plant factory allows indoor cultivation in artificial weather by controlling the light, temperature, humidity and nutrients, making extreme climate areas arable enough to produce leafy vegetables and herbs."
Shimamura said the stress factors are the culprits which hamper the growth rate of plants. In a stress-free environment, the plants have the potential to grow faster and with little variation in shapes and sizes.
"Instead of three months, lettuce grown in plant factories can be harvested after only 30 days," he said.
The trick is shortening "night time". Strange as it may sound, Shimamura said, plants recognise the natural day and night cycle.
"It is important to switch off the lights for several hours after a `daylight' condition of about eight to 10 hours, just enough to create the illusion of night time for the plants."
Come "night time", the lights are switched off so that the plants can rest and "wake up" the next day.
The unique selling point for these factory vegetables is that they are so clean and untouched that they are ready to be served immediately after
"In such a controlled environment, we do not have to use pesticides. The vegetables are safe to eat without the need to rinse off any chemical residue, bugs or dirt," he said.
Although priced slightly higher than conventionally-cultivated produce, the vegetables are perceived to be high value-added products which are pesticide and fungus free, clean and cost-efficient since they cut down the time and cost of processing. The flawless leaves and standard sizes ensure a tantalising visual presentation on the plate.
"The iceberg round lettuce, for example, wastes about 30-40 per cent of its weight because the outer leaves and the core will be discarded by food operators," Shimamura pointed out. "But the ones that we grow have longer leaves (like the romaine) and the preparation is reduced to twisting the root off and keeping the waste to only three per cent."
More than that, Shimamura said, the look and flavour of these vegetables can be engineered to the clients' specifications by adjusting the amount of nutrients and cultivation techniques.
Shimamura, however, declined to elaborate, saying: "It is a trade secret."
Plant factories allow the impossible such as cultivating seasonal vegetables and herbs throughout the year, tailor-made taste, stable production and land optimisation.
Ozu Industry Corporation, a manufacturer of traditional washi paper since 1653, has turned its unused warehouse into a plant factory last year at Fuchu City, Tokyo, making it the only full-fledged plant factory in the prefecture.
The plant has seven-tier shelves lit by fluorescent bulbs and grows eight types of leafy vegetables and herbs, lettuce, potherb mustard, Italian parsley, watercress, "Mizuna", sweet basil, rocket lettuce and garland chrysanthemum.
After a year of production, the subsidiary company Ozu Corporation's Nihonbashi Yasai head of business development Yuichi Kaneko is confident that it will make a profit in the following year.
"People are more discerning when it comes to food safety and this pushes the demand for pesticide-free vegetables, not just from the consumers, but supermarkets and restaurateurs," he said.
Going back to nature
AT the other end of the spectrum, a young farmer, Yukio Ogawa, 35, is doing away with agrochemicals and getting help from bugs to cultivate healthy vegetables fit for his family.
After graduating in agriculture management, Ogawa worked for two years with a company distributing agricultural machines.
It struck him then that Japanese farmers had become too dependent on agrochemicals, from fertilisers to pesticides, and this practice had increased cost and reduced profitability. Going back to basics, Ogawa is determined to cultivate tasty vegetables as nature intended, leveraging on the concept of "good bugs eat bad bugs". And he created organic fertiliser by using slugs to break down compost for his plants.
He has almost halved his costs while maintaining production at optimum level. The only downside to this farming concept is "imperfect" produce.
Ogawa feels too many chemicals are used in producing perfect-looking carrots, eggplants and cabbages, raising the question of the safe level of chemicals in these vegetables.
"It is true that these agro-chemicals are approved by the Ministry but how much of it is safe for our children? How do we know whether it will have adverse effects later in our lives? I want to be sure that my children are having tasty vegetables grown without the use of chemicals which may be harmful in the long run," he said.
Getting the right bugs to control pest and fungus is downright tedious and takes a lot of patience. Part of Ogawa's daily routine is to run a medical check on the health of his crops by carefully inspecting the leaves, barks and trunk, looking for telltale signs of pest attack or fungus.
Once spotted, he will place predator insects on the affected crops.
The whole concept hinges on the delicate balance of the insect eco-system, where one insect cannot do without another - predator or prey alike.
"At my farm I try to create a harmonious eco-system for the bugs and the plants, so it is essential to keep a variety of bugs and enough food for them, otherwise the bugs will die and the plants will suffer," said the farmer.
Ogawa is confident of the shift in consumption trends as people are becoming more aware of food safety: "My customers don't mind the odd shapes and sizes of the vegetables because they know they are completely free from agro-chemicals."
He sells direct to consumers and retailers from his farms. Local supermarkets carry his Ogawa farm brand, which ensures agro-chemical free cultivation.
New Straits Times, November 11, 2009