Figure 1 Sunlight type plant factory（Mitsubishi Plastics Agri Dream）
Agriculture began about 12,000 years ago, and through increase in production by development of various technologies such as irrigation and breeding of new cultivars, it became the vital source of food to feed a growing population. During the 20th century, proliferation of chemical fertilizers and fossil-fuel farm machinery brought about dramatic gains in productivity of an unprecedented scale, which became a direct catalyst for an explosion in global population. The number of people on this planet is still rapidly growing today, and is expected to eventually reach about 1.5 times the current number. The enormous population of the future calls for agricultural productivity to be raised even further in coming times. However, on the other side of all the prosperity and growth that agriculture has given humans, there is the devastating impact on the earth’s environment. Agricultural activity has put enormous environmental stress in many parts of the world, and more and more farmland is losing fecundity due to soil degradation. Global warming has also widened the range of climate change, which is seriously impacting the ability to conduct agriculture in many parts of the world.
One technology that has been undergoing development in recent years in an attempt to address the environmental and population problems is the ‘plant factory,’ an agricultural system that does not use soil, but instead grows crops in a facility where temperature, light, carbon dioxide gas, nutrients, and other environmental factors are highly controlled by mechanical means. Every step of farming - from seed sowing, replanting, harvesting, and shipping of produce - is conducted according to a seamless plan in this highly integrated system. In the facility, optimal growing conditions for crops are maintained independently of the outside environment. This enables a steady supply of produce all year round, regardless of season or weather, and there is no loss of crops due to diseases or pests. Furthermore, it is possible to grow crops with particular flavors and nutrient profiles by tweaking growing conditions of the plant factory.
There are mainly 2 types of plant factories: ‘sunlight type plant factory’ (Figure 1) and ‘completely-controlled plant factory’ (Figure 2). The sunlight type is relatively inexpensive compared to the completely-controlled type, but it gets influence from the outside environment to a certain extent. The completely-controlled type is enclosed, using artificial light as the light source to grow plants. It is not affected by the external environment at all, and can even be used to grow plants in places with extreme climates like Antarctica. Multi-level planting is possible in the completely-controlled type plant factory, which is a very good space-saving feature, but the artificial lights incur substantial extra cost for electricity and equipment.
Figure 2 Completely-controlled plant factory（Mitsubishi Chemical）
A concept for a plant factory that combines the merits of both types is the ‘vertical farm,’ as proposed by Professor Dixon Despommier of Columbia University (Figure 3). At first glance, the vertical farm may look like something out of a futuristic fantasy, but we at The KAITEKI Institute believe that it offers a promising method of farming for the not-so-far-off future, and are currently engaging research and investigation towards its actualization. The new materials and energy-related technology of the Mitsubishi Chemical Holdings Group will have an instrumental role in realizing such revolutionary forms of agriculture. We hope that we can help bring about a more sustainable form of farming that will be KAITEKI for humans, plant life, and the earth.
Figure 3 Vertical farm image