FUKUSHIMA — In 1970, electronics company Panasonic inaugurated a factory in the Japanese city of Fukushima to assemble radio sets. In the 1980s, when Japanese electronics were at their peak, the site expanded to produce video material and CD players. In 2011, the earthquake that destroyed the Daiichi nuclear power plant left the Panasonic factory intact. Today, the Panasonic plant is being used as a laboratory for revolutionary new farming techniques.
At the end of the corridor in the factory, where GPS systems for vehicles are still assembled, a sign reads: "Field entrance." You have to take off your shoes, put on plastic overalls, a surgical mask and a protection hood before you enter the decontamination airlock. "We mustn't bring germs into the crops," says Matt Matsuba, who works in the company's agriculture division.
The 1,200-square-meter indoor "field" has shelves that are five meters high. On them, there are 30 varieties of leafy vegetables like lettuce and spinach, which are grown without soil. Mineral nutrients are used to grow the plants in white trays under blue and red neon lights. "We have a special lighting that helps better develop the flavors, certain nutritive characteristics and to accelerate the vegetable's growth," Matt Matsuba says, after he samples an incredibly sweet lettuce.
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Panasonic believes it can guarantee high yields using a battery of sensors and by managing temperatures efficiently. "We use 60 percent less electricity than traditional neon lights," Matsuba says, adding that Panasonic owns all the necessary technology for this cultivation technique.
"With these solutions, we can solve issues related to global warming, soil or water pollution, or even the drop in the number of farmers," says Yukinori Matsumoto, one of the directors of technology development at Panasonic.
Panasonic is already selling its lettuces to local supermarkets. It has also been marketing its pesticide-free vegetables to the restaurant industry. The company's priority now is to sell "out-of-the-box farms." One has already been installed in Singapore.
"There's a huge potential especially once we've reached almost complete automation," Matsuba says.
Inside the factory, the grow trays are moved along rails by a sorting machine. The company is testing a robot that's capable of gently transplanting, with tongs, minuscule sprouts.
Panasonic calculates that such a factory is profitable with just six employees and a daily production of 200 kilograms of lettuce. Moreover, the company believes it doesn't need professional farmers. Employees at the plant come from the company's former cellphone division, which has ceased to exist.
Panasonic continues to restructure its activities, and hopes its competitors will soon join the movement. "We need it, in order to create a real market," one manager says.
Toshiba, a multinational conglomerate, which had previously shown interest in the experiment, recently closed a similar factory in Yokosuka, near Tokyo. Sharp, an electronics maker recently acquired by Foxconn, another electronic manufacturer, seems reluctant to continue in that direction as well.