Technology takes to the farm

Senior Reporter

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.