Agriculture x ICT: Will Tokyo-Style Smart Agriculture Help Solve the Global Food Crisis?
Cutting Down on Labor Needs in Agricultural Work
The dwindling birthrate and aging population in Japan have presented a serious issue for Japanese agriculture—namely, a decline in the number of agricultural workers in the country. The number of key agricultural workers in private farming enterprises decreased by 394,000 (22.4 percent) from 2015 to 2020, from about 1.76 million to 1.36 million. Of these key agricultural workers, 69.6 percent were 65 years old or older, demonstrating a 4.7 percentage-point increase in five years (source: "2020 Census of Agriculture and Forestry in Japan," Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries). It is clear that there will be a sharp decline in Japan's food production capacity and the international competitiveness of Japanese agricultural products if this trend continues.
As such, establishing efficient and highly productive agricultural systems and reducing labor needs for agricultural work are of the utmost importance. Indeed, municipalities, organizations, and companies across Japan are working on innovative smart agriculture initiatives to achieve this outcome. One such initiative is a project that was carried out by the NTT AgriTechnology Corporation, a company working to implement the advanced ICT technologies of the NTT Group in the field of agriculture.
Farming Newbies Grow High-Quality Tomatoes Through Remote Instruction
NTT AgriTechnology, the Tokyo Development Foundation for Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, and Nippon Telegraph and Telephone East Corp (NTT East). established this three-year project—referred to formally as a collaboration agreement for the implementation of cutting-edge agriculture using private 5G—in 2020.
The aim of the project was to create a Tokyo-based "model" case that could be used to bolster the future of Japanese agriculture. More specifically, the project involved setting up cutting-edge greenhouses equipped with private 5G in Chofu City, Tokyo, and using them to grow tomatoes. Ultra-high-resolution cameras, smart glasses, and other technologies were used to give the workers—who had no prior farming experience—remote instructions. The environments in the greenhouses were managed fully automatically, with sensors that measured factors like the temperature and CO2 concentration in the greenhouses in order to optimize the photosynthesis of the crops.
It has been about three years since the project began. Nakanishi Masahiro of the Corporate Strategy Planning Department at NTT East, who was a core member of the team that set up NTT AgriTechnology, says, "Workers with no farming experience were able to grow high-quality tomatoes with remote instruction. We've even had better yields from the second year onwards, so results have been great." The project has also managed to establish a "local production for local consumption" model, with the tomatoes produced in these greenhouses sold within Chofu City or given to local elementary schools.
Cutting-Edge Greenhouses See Visitors from Around the World
The Netherlands and Spain are two countries that have succeeded in using advanced environmental management technologies and labor optimization to establish large-scale agricultural systems. The Netherlands is a particularly compelling example in that it is the second-largest agricultural producing country in the world—with about 40 percent of the area of Japan. Representatives from NTT AgriTechnology visited the Netherlands for agricultural research, and were inspired by the semi-automated and standardized operations they saw in the country's large-scale greenhouse horticulture systems.
To implement something similar in Japan, however, they would have to cope with various environmental changes—including the seasons—and compensate for the lack of growers and workers with experience in large-scale greenhouse horticulture. As such, their goal was to develop a facility that could handle a wide variety of circumstances. This was done not only through the expertise they gleaned overseas, but also through the addition of monitoring systems that focus on "human" factors like labor and work management, and the digitalization of the facility itself.
Already, agriculture professionals and researchers from across the world have come to Tokyo to observe and inspect this example of cutting-edge agriculture based on the use of private 5G. Regarding the benefits of the project being based in Tokyo, Nakanishi says, "I think the reason we've gotten so much attention for this is precisely because this smart agriculture site is located in a city like Tokyo that's easy to visit from abroad."
NTT AgriTechnology is currently considering the dissemination of these cutting-edge technologies overseas, backed with training on how to use them. Indeed, this Tokyo-based agricultural system could be a key to solving not only the issues faced in the Japanese agricultural world, but also the global food crisis.