Activity Report

Learning from the Netherlands’ IT Agriculture

The Netherlands is quite a small country with a land area of 4.15 million ha, roughly the size of Kyushu island of Japan. Its population of 16.4 million is also very similar to that of Kyushu. So considering the country’s size, it may come as a surprise that the Netherlands is only second after the US as the largest exporter of agricultural products in the world.

Inside a Dutch greenhouse growing praprika. Wearing lab coats prevents germs from entering the sterile environment.

IT (Information Technology) has played a big role in the development of agriculture in the Netherlands. The country has achieved very high land and labor productivity, and currently exports about 80% of its produce to other EU countries. Dutch greenhouse horticulture is highly automated, and it is not an exaggeration to liken it to tomatoes and peppers being mass-produced at factories. Unlike the vinyl-covered greenhouses in Japan, the gigantic greenhouses in Holland are mostly made of glass. All aspects of their internal environment - temperature, humidity, CO2 concentration, amount of sunlight, irrigation water, fertilizer administration, etc. - are automatically controlled, enabling very efficient production.

Tomatoes growing on a vine. LED lamps supplement light.
CO2 blows out from greenhouse floors to feed the plants.

Let’s compare tomato yield between Japan and the Netherlands. In Japan, average yield for tomatoes is 20kg/㎡. In the Netherlands, it is about 60kg/㎡, which is nearly three times as much. There have even been reports of yields as high as 100kg/㎡in recent times. In Dutch greenhouses, plant growth is closely monitored by cameras, and whenever signs of disease or growth defects are detected, the problematic plant is immediately eliminated by machine. This very strict system of maintaining optimal growing environment within the greenhouse results in the very high yield. Furthermore, information about plant growth collected in the process is intricately analyzed, and fed back to the program that continues improving the system.

This kind of merging of agriculture and IT has given rise to a new form of business, which is called “IT agriculture” or “smart-agriculture.” In the Netherlands, there are even systems now that employ solar panels on greenhouse rooftops, so that they can take advantage of both energy-saving and energy production technologies.

In contrast, what is the current state of agriculture in Japan? Facing the issue of possibly joining the TPP, the government has been calling for a more “aggressive” approach to agriculture in recent years. However, can the agriculture of Japan, with its aging farmers, and which for many years has been protected by government subsidies, compete with highly advanced agricultural systems like the Netherlands? In Japan, it was only 2-3 years ago that a major domestic IT company started being active in the field of agriculture. In the Netherlands, joint efforts between industry, government, and academia, especially Wageningen University, has been going on for over a decade now. They have formed clusters of agriculture-related enterprises that conduct joint research and development, and efficiently drive the industry forward. Japan has much to learn from looking at the Netherlands’ example. In the near future, Japan will hopefully find ways to implement bold agricultural policies, and get its younger generations to become more actively involved in agriculture.

A worker harvests paprika. Harvesting robots are currently under development.

TKI is currently investigating trends in agriculture within Japan and abroad in order to formulate a proposal for a new form of agriculture for the 21st century. We hope to realize what we call ‘KAITEKI agriculture,’ an innovative, sustainable, efficient agricultural system that will be internationally competitive. By integrating the Mitsubishi Chemical Holdings Company’s innovative materials and energy-related technologies, KAITEKI agriculture might be realized sometime not too far off in the future.

August 21, 2013