Humans have spent around 10,000 years mastering the art of farming. But one thing we have yet to figure out is how to prevent the destruction of crops as a result of natural weather-related disasters, like severe droughts and violent storms.
Shigeharu Shimamura, a plant physiologist and indoor farmer based in eastern Japan, thinks he may have solved that problem.
Shimamura got the idea to pursue indoor farming when, as a teenager, he came across a “vegetable factory” at Expo ’85 (an international science and technology world’s fair that was held in the Japanese city of Tsukuba in 1985).
Shimamura went on to get a degree from the Tokyo University of Agriculture. Then, in 2004, he started his own indoor farming company called Mirai (a Japanese word meaning “future”).
In 2011, a powerful earthquake and resulting tsunamis damaged huge swaths of Japan, destroying hundreds of acres of crops and creating food shortages across the country.
Shortly after the tsunami, General Electric (GE) reached out to Shimamura with the idea of using their advanced LED lights – which last longer and use 40% less energy than fluorescent bulbs – to illuminate his indoor crops.
Shimamura was more than willing to try out the new lights. Mirai and GE set up shop in a former Sony Corporation semiconductor factory that had been abandoned following the 2011 tsunamis, turning it into the world’s largest indoor farm (25,000 square feet).
The results have been staggering. The indoor farm produces around 10,000 heads of lettuce per day – 100 times more per square foot than a conventional outdoor field.
The farm has also cut discarded produce from 50% to only 10%, and is able to use 99% less water than an outdoor field by closely controlling temperature, humidity and irrigation.
GE’s advanced LED lights play a key role in the farm’s success. Specially designed to emit light at the optimal wavelengths for plant growth, the LEDs give Shimamura the ability to control day and night for his plants:
“What we need to do is not just setting up more days and nights – we want to achieve the best combination of photosynthesis during the day and breathing at night by controlling the lighting and the environment,”
the plant expert says.
According to Shimamura, the lights allow him to grow nutrient-rich lettuce two-and-a-half times faster than he would be able to on an outdoor farm.
Both Shimamura and GE believe that the idea has the potential to revolutionize agriculture – Mirai and GE have already started construction on similar facilities in Mongolia, Hong, Kong, Russia and mainland China, and have aspirations of eventually expanding the concept worldwide.
“Finally, we are about to start the real agricultural industrialization,”