National

Antarctic team gets 'veggie factory'

Kyodo News

A “vegetable factory” that enables plants to be grown indoors under fluorescent lights free of agrochemicals is proving a welcome addition for the Japanese research expedition in the Antarctic.

The factory used technology based on the Green Room plant created in 2006 by Mirai Co. of Tokyo on the ground floor of a three-story building in Matsudo, Chiba Prefecture.

The Chiba plant produces a variety of vegetables, including lettuce, “sangchu” lettuce, “mizuna” greens, arugula rocket salad and basil. Situated at the back of the Green Flavor vegetable store, seven layers of shelves occupy the factory’s 70-sq.-meter floor space.

About 400 fluorescent lamps beam down on the plants grown on the shelves in the Chiba facility. The company says the vegetables are fed by nutritious liquid and are grown completely free of chemical fertilizers. They are also not affected by the weather.

Now members of the Japanese expedition wintering in the Antarctic at the Showa Base, where the Green Room’s growth techniques were installed last year, can cultivate and consume fresh vegetables all year round, despite outside temperatures plunging to minus 40. Previously, they had to rely on freeze-dried and retort food products.

“I didn’t think we could eat fresh crispy vegetables,” said expedition leader Shuki Ushio. “I was very impressed.”

Temperatures are set at a fixed level in the Chiba Green Room, which is almost airtight. The period of time the fluorescent lights are on and the amount of nonchemical fertilizer given to the vegetables is adjusted to conform to their growth.

“We harvest 300 heads of lettuce a day and a maximum of 20 harvests a year is possible,” Mirai President Shigeharu Shimamura said. They grow at double the speed of vegetables cultivated outdoors, he added.

A freshly picked lettuce leaves a sweet taste on the tongue. “The taste can be changed by the kind and amount of fertilizer used,” Shimamura said.

Prime Minister Taro Aso visited the Chiba factory in May and sampled the lettuce, noting its crispness.

“I don’t have to wash it because it has no soil on it and I can eat it safely,” homemaker Sugako Seki, 73, said of the lettuce sold at the store, adding that she comes to buy vegetables once a week.

The price of a lettuce is ¥200, 20 percent to 30 percent higher than the usual cost. Mirai is now gearing toward reducing electricity expenditure by using light-emitting diodes.

The company is also receiving inquiries about its vegetables from restaurants in Tokyo, and started to operate a large-scale cultivation factory in Yamanashi Prefecture in June. Its vegetables will also be listed on the menu of major restaurant chain Ootoya Co.

The Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry jointly launched a study group on a plant factory in January.

METI set up a real plant cultivation facility on the ground floor of its building for public relations, and is also considering keeping a float at sea to serve as a marine vegetation factory that can change seawater into fresh water.

Major food product companies, including Kagome Co. and Q.P. Corp., are part of the study group. The government plans to offer food-producing firms in the group low-interest loans or tax breaks to help them build such facilities by the end of fiscal 2011.

Takashi Kumagai, director of METI’s regional economic and industrial policy division, said indoor vegetable cultivation should be expanded “from the viewpoint of food safety, giving people peace of mind and enhancing self-sufficiency in food.”