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Technology takes to the farm

It’s often the case that great destruction can spark bouts of creation. And Japan is probably the most striking example of that, where towering skyscrapers grew up to dominate skylines that were literally flattened by the bombing of World War Two.

So it shouldn’t be too surprising to hear that an innovative new project is hoping to revive land ruined by the great tragedy of last year’s tsunami.

The Japanese government is planning to build a 250-hectare futuristic farm operated by robots on a site 300km north of Tokyo that was flooded by seawater, according to news reports.

The four billion yen (£33m) “Dream Project” will see carbon dioxide from farm machinery channelled back to crops to boost their growth and reduce reliance on fertilisers, while LEDs will supposedly replace pesticides (although how this will work hasn’t been made clear).

Major high-tech companies including Panasonic, Fujitsu, Hitachi and Sharp are expected to join the project, which the government hopes will provide a boost to the entire country’s agricultural economy as well as reviving the disaster-hit regions.

There is thought to be around 24,000 hectares of farmland damaged by the earthquake, tsunami and fallout from the nuclear disaster.

But while such a large, government-backed project is unusual, much of the technology of so-called futuristic farms is already being put to use around the world.

Technology has, of course, been reducing the need for human labour in agriculture for hundreds of years – and people have opposed the changes to their way of life it brings for just as long. But increasing numbers of farmers are now turning to fully automated systems for planting, maintaining and harvesting crops.

Satellite data can help pinpoint areas of a field where herbicides and fertilisers are most needed and plan tractor routes that minimise soil damage; sensors and scanners can detect when crops are ripe and look for signs of disease.

One idea that has been touted for decades but has yet to really take off is that of vertical farming: building greenhouse towers in cities that can more efficiently grow food in controlled environments without using up large tracts of land.

We’ve yet to see many of these urban skyscraper farms, partly because they require large amounts of energy to provide the light needed for the crops to grow – even if it’s efficiently used. It probably doesn’t help either that our cities are increasingly crowded as it is and competition for floor space in the world’s bigger population centres is already fierce.

But perhaps the Japanese project could provide a new model for controlled farming, combining the efficient controlled environment of urban farms on land that doesn’t already have another use and can be farmed on the larger scale that we are ever-more dependent on to feed ourselves.

It might even set out a picture of how we may one day colonise other planets. Richard Branson this week quipped that he was looking at pictures of the moon to find a site for a Virgin Galactic hotel. Should we be picturing space farms alongside it?

But keeping our feet on the ground, as the planet heads towards a predicted population of over 9 billion by 2050, re-building our existing farms as high-tech food factories might be our only solution, even if it means transforming the way our countryside looks and runs.

Readers' comments (8)

  • I think technology will be the demise of the human race. Technology removes people from the work force. The earths population is growing and unemployment is rising. Where is the tipping point where those than cannot provide will take from those than can.

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  • This is an interesting R&D project. I doubt that the concept will find wide acceptability but certainly there are components of the project that could have wide applicability. The search for knowledge and the use of technology is in our DNA. We need to move ahead as we search for new solutions and paradigms.

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  • Good way to utilise land

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  • Producing around 2/3 of our food in a hungry world and in spite of the huge bias to build on prime agricultural land, seems hostage to a bleak future.

    Farming (apart from the niche variety) has become very technical especially growing the huge amounts of arable crops needed, with a small labour force (a problem is, unemployed or not, most of those in UK don’t appear to WANT to work the land). Example, as mentioned above, using GPS location in tandem with land quality to determine where to put fertiliser specific to needs, down to a few square metre. The small number of skilled humans is easy to provide, working in modern tractor cabins. Likewise the huge machines capable of working the land and harvesting, fast & timely when the weather permits.

    And as for the predicted “world population” surge, why do all the commentators/pundits assume there is no solution, when there have been such for at least two generations - two’s enough! One big enemy is fallacious “growth” – e.g when car production or fuel sales reduce, a majority of commentators seem to regard that as “bad”, surely this is what we should be aiming for.

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  • What is "land that is not being used"? Do we think everything on the earth exists for our exploitation? Vertical farming has the opportunity to use true "space" for food production. If integrated with other human activities and engineered well it can be done with little or no added energy. Controlled conditions mean year round growth increasing yield. In addition, the proximity to human habitation will insure safe and aesthetic functionality. It's time we moved out of the agricultural dark ages, quit raping our planet, and allow our creativity to save the human race (not to mention everything else).

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  • The point, surely, is that much of Japan's agricultural soil has been contaminated by seawater and/or nuclear fallout! Given the contamination, vertical farming may make the only sense in these regions, and employment for farmers whose previous work has been swept away by the tsunami. Vertical farming may not be the best way to farm, except in such circumstances, where there is little alternative.

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  • With regards to the comment on possibilities of colonizing other planets or the moon:
    "Let’s pray that the human race never escapes Earth to spread its iniquity elsewhere" - C.S.Lewis

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  • Joan Schoepfer:
    "Do we think everything on the earth exists for our exploitation?"

    Seriously? - Yes, I think it's a good starting point. To exploit you often have to nurture.

    On balance, humans and humanity has been good for our planet and will be even more so as we develop.

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