Achieving the Ultimate Form of Local Food Production and Consumption in Tokyo: Infarm's Vision of a Next-generation Agriculture Capable of Supporting our Urban Population
According to the United Nations' "World Population Prospects 2019," the global population is expected to surpass 9.7 billion by 2050. On the other hand, land and water resources that can be harnessed for food production are limited and will only continue to decline (in Japanese only) as a result of population growth, environmental degradation due to human activities, and climate change. In other words, the urgent task we face is to address how we can possibly support our ever-growing population in a manner that is sustainable for both the planet and us without consuming more resources than before.
Against this backdrop, Infarm—an agricultural technology company based in Germany—is attempting to play a part in tackling this problem by making it possible for us to grow vegetables in supermarkets and restaurants in cities.
The company has developed a hydroponic farming unit that uses LEDs. Each unit is cloud-connected and managed remotely around the clock from the company's headquarters in Berlin. These units are also equipped with machine learning capabilities that automatically adjust the internal environmental conditions and optimize them for the species of crop cultivated.
By drawing on these cutting-edge technologies, Infarm's units have successfully reduced the usage of water by 95%, fertilizers by 75%, and land by 95%, as compared to conventional cultivation methods. They have also reduced the transportation distance of crops from the production site to the consumption site by 90%. Moreover, individual sections can be stacked vertically inside each unit, eliminating the need for vast areas of land for cultivation and making the units easy to install even in cramped urban spaces.
So far, Infarm has rolled out its hydroponic units in over 30 cities across 10 countries around the world. In 2020, the company began supplying its units to Tokyo, the first Asian country it has expanded into. We took this opportunity to speak to Hiraishi Ikuo, Managing Director of Infarm Japan (the Japanese subsidiary of the German parent company), regarding the problems surrounding food supply in large cities such as Tokyo, as well as the key to securing a more sustainable supply of food for cities.
Aiming to achieve the ultimate form of local food production and consumption
—Urban farming, where crops are cultivated in the urban areas of large cities, is attracting significant attention around the world. But why is it important for us to grow crops next to the residential areas of cities in the first place?
In the case of both conventional soil cultivation in open fields and large-scale indoor hydroponic cultivation (the so-called "vegetable factories"), the transportation of vegetables produced in urban suburbs into the city is something that cannot be avoided. It is believed that around 30% of vegetables go to waste in the course of being brought from their production site to the dining table.
Given these circumstances, it has become evident that in order to build a sustainable food supply chain with a smaller environmental impact, it is necessary to cultivate crops in urban areas themselves rather than in the suburbs. This would allow us to minimize the energy required for transportation and the disposal of food waste as much as possible.
—There are several indoor vegetable factories in Tokyo that carry out large-scale hydroponic cultivation. How does Infarm differ from these factories?
The most unique feature of Infarm is that our units have been designed for the ultimate form of local food production and consumption. Specifically, our farming units are not housed in the suburbs of cities, but rather in stores located in the city itself, especially supermarkets and restaurants that all consumers are familiar with. By decentralizing our farming units and installing them on the limited sites available in urban areas, we hope to create a platform for urban farming.
According to the "2018 Revision of World Urbanization Prospects" published by the United Nations, over half of the global population had already been living in cities in 2018. This figure is expected to rise to 68% by 2050. Both investors and consumers have high expectations and massive support for this ultimate form of local production for local consumption, where food is produced and consumed within populous cities like Tokyo, to take over as a new food system capable of supporting our growing urban population.
Igniting the interest of younger generations in agriculture
—Why did Infarm choose Tokyo as the company's first base in Asia? Can you tell us more about the challenges that are unique to this city in terms of food supply?
The average age of farmers in Japan is rising, and in recent years, Japan has been struck by many natural disasters, including floods triggered by torrential rain. We hope that the growing popularity of indoor farming in urban areas can allow consumers in cities to get their hands on fresh vegetables at stable prices.
At the same time, Infarm also hopes to create opportunities to ignite the interest of younger generations in agriculture. As farmers in Japan continue to age, the farmer population in the country will only decline if the current situation is allowed to persist. Moreover, Japan has an infamously low food self-sufficiency ratio, even as the demand for food around the world will continue to rise with the growth of the global population.
With these factors in mind, we believe that it is important to let people know that it is possible to grow vegetables in urban areas instead of the suburbs by utilizing equipment such as Infarm's hydroponic units. This would create valuable opportunities for individuals who have found it a challenge to engage in conventional agriculture, such as those who are interested in farming but have been unable to farm because of where they live or their physical condition.
—What kinds of initiatives do you think are necessary to build a more sustainable food supply system in Tokyo?
First of all, it is imperative for us to raise awareness of the impact of our current food production and distribution system on the global environment. I believe that our first step should be to alert more people to the risks of global warming if it is allowed to carry on at this alarming rate, as it would cause our remaining arable and habitable land to continue declining.