Japan tech helps farmers cope with climate shifts
Japanese technology firms are applying their expertise in energy-saving and cloud technology to help farmers cope with shifting weather patterns, an onslaught of cheaper imports and a shrinking workforce.
Panasonic Corp, Fujitsu Ltd and others, seeking niche business opportunities to offset a downturn in demand for their consumer electronics, are touting automated greenhouses and sensor-controlled fields that ensure constant conditions to produce high-quality vegetables all year-round.
Fujitsu says its Akisai cloud-based farming system means users can sit at a desk in Tokyo or even New York while tending vegetables in Shizuoka, using a tablet to operate sprinklers, fans and heaters in response to changes in heat and moisture tracked by sensors in fields or greenhouses.
Companies are also converting factories into farms: Toshiba Corp is to start growing vegetables at a former floppy disk plant near Tokyo, while Panasonic is growing radishes and lettuce inside a Singapore factory, and Sharp Corp is trialing an indoor strawberry farm in Dubai.
This tech push into farming is endorsed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government, which is promoting robotics and sensors to boost farm production and exports - essential if Japan concedes to lower agricultural tariffs in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement.
Domestic demand for farming systems using information technology and the cloud is expected to expand ninefold to 60 billion yen ($586 million) by 2020, according to market research firm Seed Planning, as farmers fret over the impact of climate change on their crops. Last year's summer was Japan's hottest on record, with temperatures in Tokyo topping 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit) for a week straight in early August.
"For the past 4-5 years, vegetable prices have gone up every year because of the heat," says Takayoshi Tanizawa, the manager of Panasonic's greenhouse project. "Farmers are in a bind because they can't grow summer vegetables any more. They say they've never experienced this kind of heat before. There are also many bouts of heavy rain. Unusual weather is becoming more and more 'normal'."
While indoor farming has taken off in the United States and Europe, particularly in the Netherlands, those systems are designed more for a colder climate and are only equipped with heating, rather than cooling systems. In Japan, rising electricity costs mean that energy-intensive methods, such as blasting out air conditioning, aren't a cost-effective solution.
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