• Signal of Change
  • Vegetable factory: the first robotic, farmerless farm

    02 Feb 2016
    By Will Ingram
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  • A vegetable factory that plans to open in Kyoto in 2017 will be the first farm without farmers. The 4,800-square-metre indoor facility will be entirely run by robots.

     

    The Japanese vegetable factory plans to grow 80,000 heads of lettuce per day vertically, beneath LED lighting, and aims to expand this to 500,000 per day by 2020.

     

    The company behind the new farm, Spread Co. LTD, already runs the world’s largest vegetable factory in Kameoka, Japan, which uses artificial lighting to grow 10,000 lettuce heads per day with a production yield of 97%.

     

    By fully automating the process the company is aiming to reduce labour costs by 50%, double productivity per unit volume, and optimise lighting, air conditioning, moisture and water use. Automation has also enabled 98% of the water used in cultivation to be recycled.

     

    Further proposed benefits include the reduction of risk of human contamination, and round-the-clock growing and harvesting.

     

    Initial investment costs of an automated facility are down by 25%.

     

     

    Image credit: Paul Tomlin / Flickr

  • So What?

    Showing that food production from seed to harvest can be automated is one thing. Making profit from producing 10 million lettuces a year using robots is another, and a clear indicator that much more food could be grown with zero human labour in the future.

     

    The company has outlined that its two goals are to reduce cost, and to work towards environmental friendliness.

     

    Minimising energy intensive inputs, and stopping soil erosion and agri-chemical overuse will certainly make this a more environmentally sustainable way of producing food. In the face of water and food shortages these are likely to be increasingly good solutions.

     

    Local production in urban areas also could also reduce transport.

     

    Cost reduction will facilitate these developments. “Operation costs have been falling due to advances in technology, such as more efficient LED lighting, water recycling, and air management systems. The introduction of automation also reduces many of the associated labour costs, so we believe that we are on the right track.” says J.J. Price, Global Marketing Manager for Spread.

     

    Indoor, automated vegetable factories could produce food in far more places than traditional farms. Could such systems be implemented in inaccessible world regions, in the hearts of cities, or off-shore? Or even in Space?

     

    Head of Food at Forum for the Future, Mark Driscoll, argues that “Many of today’s environmental and social challenges have been caused by the disconnection between citizens and the growing, cooking and preparation of food. Taken too far, could this drive to automation reinforce this disconnection and continue to drive unsustainable behaviours?”

     

    Furthermore, having large business rather than small-holders produce our food may foster unhelpful monopolies.

     

    The extent of how important human monitoring, control and decision making will be is unclear. Nevertheless, with the removal of a labour market from certain areas of the world, what could companies do to develop new opportunities for workers?

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What might the implications of this be? What related signals of change have you seen?


Great idea if there was labour shortage and prolonged bad weather outside.

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We underestimate the potential of this kind of vegetable factory to play a role in keeping urban populations fed without wasting lots of precious resources and depleting soils.  I am a huge fan of Spread Co. Ltd.!  Very happy to see this news. 

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On a related but slightly off-topic note...http://www.huffingtonpost.com/.../nature-wants-her-carbon...

 

Could organic farming reverse carbon emissions?

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Me with the work hat: Great technology, great yield, great money.

Me with the volunteer hat on: Automation of food production = Disconnection with the land. (Side chat: In Singapore, I really love what Ground-Up Initiative is doing with the Balik Kampung program, Open Farm Community and their Farmer's Market/ Social Market and Foodscape Collective, focusing on urban farming and farm tours.

In general, this article reminds me of GMO food and our ability to innovate solutions to mass produce food. To me, it's a question of capitalism and values.

 

And in the larger scheme of things:
-  As it is, about 1/3 of global food production is wasted. I'd prefer if we look into how we can minimise food waste rather than find ways to produce large amounts of food.

- How do we decide what crop to grow and what would be the effects on our consumption habits?

- If this was scaled up extensively, how would this affect local economies? Do all current food producing countries have the abilitiy to switch to automation? If they do not, and they have to buy food from countries which can make tthat transition, then what is the new market price? Would that be a fair price to pay?

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If only insects were as low maintenance!

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While most likely workable, the critique in the article on fostering more monopolies is not a real solution, at least from a healthy food, engagement and sustainable perspective.

And, as someone pointed out in another discussion on this group. Growing lettuce does not feed all the nutrition requirements to make it really a solution.

I want to see re-used warehouses with vertical, aquaponic etc. systems, but the human factor has to be a big part of it, and those enterprises have to be in conjunction with sustainable practices in and on the ground.

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I'll Have A Glass Of The Drone Wine, Please - spotted by Bethan Harris as pointing to a similar direction to this automated farm signal.

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In order to meet future demands for food, alternative methods such as vertical hydroponic "farming" will be/are already necessary...it's good to see some folks already thinking and experimenting with designing systems using existing, repurposed infrastructure to meet those needs using more sustainable methods that don't fry soil or waste fresh water...!

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Think of automated vegetable greenhouses in the same way as the combine-harvester. No one expects modern farmers to hand-harvest grain (although this is still the way in many parts of the world - which will change). As H.G. Wells said, "civilization is a race between education and disaster." Automation isn't the problem. Unequal sharing of the benefits is - think of the farmer with the $500,000 equipment loan and 4-dollar corn. But don't worry about the farmer - (s)he'll always be your slave. Worry about the robots - when they unionize it's going to be murder.

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Big cities will all have this facilities in a close future... Urban farms are a reality, and a growing model to feed urban people using less soil, saving fuels and trying to reduce costs.

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"OK so we will have large Farms with complete mechanization and least intervention by a Human hand, why just vegetables? it will be extended to all kinds of food including Dairies Poultries Sheep rearing etc. And then we have already started with Robotics in factory shop productions. And then we also have started on Analytics where intelligent problem solving is well on it's way. There will be nothing that AI will not be able to accomplish. Agreed. Also agreed that it is an astounding and wonderful Scientific Progress. My only question is what are Human Beings going to do to earn money for a living. Or is the state just going to make AI to look after Humans and provide everything for free? Would we just have to just sit back relax and eat and sleep watch TV and go on "enjoying" life? What is the role of Humans envisaged in this wonderfully progressive scientifically advanced society? 

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Unlike the other times when technology was being introduced and protested (Luddites) this time it is totally different. Earlier it was an endeavor to give better tools into human hands to increase productivity and efficiency and the same people in the same profession had a good chance to adopt and improve their status. But the one being hailed today is not aiming at replacing the tools of production but the Humans themselves. It's not aiming at improved tools but doing away with humans in production altogether. As it is; except for a very small percentage of technocrats in the profession the majority of the World is still under-educated and still depend on semi technical hands on production jobs for income and livelihood. Simple common sense seems to be missing here. How are the people going to buy the products if they don't have jobs to earn money? How are people going to live? on Charity? Most unlikely."

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"One way to solve the illegal Immigration Problem as it relates to Agriculture... If your interested in any part of the Robotic thing. The World Ag Expo Feb. 9-10-11 in Tulare, California. Will open your eyes really big. Electronically sorting 5000 blue berries per second for 5 sizes and 5 colors is just a start at the wonder there. Oh yes and hands free lettuce picking, you name it. A whole pavillion on Organics with at least 200 exhibitors alone. 240 some acres just for exhibits. Another 100 for parking. <World Ag Expo.com>"

 

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This would be interesting to review from a food safety angle; given the ever present food illnesses from ground grown produce in some countries.

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Situations are different in developed, developing and underdeveloped countries. Most underdeveloped countries are depending on agriculture for sustenance. Whether population is increasing or decreasing, the number of jobless youths are ever increasing everywhere. This is a fact which nobody can deny. As mentioned earlier, technology advancement was originally meant to aid people in proper, efficient and judicious utilization of resources. It was not at all meant for replacing human activity as such. Further without human involvement, how is it possible to ascertain proper quality and other aspects of the perishable agricultural produce. So the human aspect cannot be replaced fully by machines. Of course the machines may be programmed to assist man in saving time and improving precision.

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I completely agree with you in that we should not have a one-size-fits-all solution for food security or social sustainability - the context certainly matters. However, a common issue in a lot of countries - regardless of the level of unemployment or development - seems to be that the youth generally refuse to consider agriculture as a viable career option. Do you find that to be the case in your experience? If so, might roboticising the argicultural workforce be a way to ensure that these economies which are heavily dependent on agriculture can continue to be so in spite of the lack of availability of young farmers?

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This is encouraging and dramatic change in the development of agriculture. Also this Robotic farm tells us the capacity of human to resolve the problem related to food production. The food shortage,overutilized natural resource, hardship of labor expenditure,unsafe health of production are among others which can be resolved in Robotic farm. However, if the technology is monomolized by few previlaged persons it certainly foster social unrest. Particularly the workers who are largely depend on agriculture will lose their livlihood system. Hence,the rational use of this technology must be considered in future development.

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