From clean rooms to grow rooms: High-tech companies cultivate indoor farms

Panasonic indoor farming
Screen capture Panasonic

Tech companies that are more familiar to us as gadget and electronics manufacturers are beginning to branch out into indoor farming, applying their tech skills to growing veggies as well.

Over the last few years, we've started to see names such as Panasonic, Toshiba, Sony, Fujitsu, and Sharp pop up in our news feeds, but not necessarily for what you might think. Instead of catching my eye with tidbits about the latest gadget, gizmo, or tech component they've produced, it's the vegetables they're growing that piques my interest.

While I think that most of us who tend to be crunchy and rootsy prefer that our food comes from the soil, and be grown under the sun somewhere nearby (by someone that we might possibly know) with minimal off-farm inputs and chemical treatments (read: organically and sustainably grown), it isn't the reality, or even a possibility, for the majority of the population. As much as I like to grow my own food, and to support small local organic growers, my family and I still depend on the grocery store for many of the things we eat, especially in the off season. And that's true for much of the world's urban population as well, where access to fresh foods can be extremely limited, simply due to lack of local sources.

Creating more urban farms and more food production centers closer to where the market is, whether they are traditional outdoor growing areas, rooftop farms, indoor hydroponic and aquaponics systems, vertical farms, or vacant lot gardens, can go a long way toward building a more resilient local food system and reducing the ecological footprint of our diets. However, considering that cities don't tend to have acres of farmland to work with, any type of food production done in urban areas needs to be quite efficient, in terms of how much produce can be grown in a given area. Hence the appeal of indoor farms and stacked, or vertical, growing methods, especially in conjunction with artificial lighting, because every aspect of the growing rooms can be monitored and controlled for optimal yields.

One thing the tech industry is very good at is automation and building efficient processes for production, both of which are essential to successful indoor growing, and this trend toward indoor farming and local food production has been attracting some attention from that sector. By applying their expertise to create efficient and productive indoor farms, some tech companies are making inroads into the brave new world of factory farming.

Last month, I covered the conversion of a former Sony semiconductor factory into an efficient indoor farm capable of turning out an incredible 10,000 heads of lettuce per day, but there are a number of other similar projects worthy of a mention as well.

Here are a few of the bigger names in tech that have begun sprouting grow rooms in addition to clean rooms:

Toshiba is using a previously idle 1,969 square meter facility in Yokosuka to produce greens, including spinach, lettuce, and sprouts, in the sterile clean room atmosphere. As a company spokesperson put it, "Toshiba has all the integral technologies to achieve such a factory, including energy production and control, lighting, water and air control, ICT and a high level of production management. This is the major reason for us to enter the business."

Panasonic has begun production of vegetables at a facility in Singapore, which is said to be "the first licensed indoor vegetable farm" in that country. The current capacity of the growing operation, which produces 10 types of vegetables, is 3.6 tonnes annually, but over the next three years, the company aims to boost that number up to 30 varieties of crops, produced at a volume that could equal about 5% of the locally produced vegetables.

Fujitsu is using 2000 square meters of a former clean room once used to manufacture chips in a facility in Fukushima to grow a special low-potassium lettuce, which is part of a forthcoming line of "Kirei Yasai" (clean vegetable) offerings intended for people with kidney issues with low-potassium diets.

Sharp is growing Japanese strawberries indoors in Dubai, in part in hopes of rebuilding the company with a whole new line of business, plant factory engineering, as well as the strawberries themselves, which are a premium and in-demand product there. According to AJW, Sharp "expects to manage unmanned factories in Dubai through remote control from Japan," and apply their growing technology to crops other than strawberries.

Indoor farming operations such as these are never going to completely replace our traditional farms or outdoor growing plots, but they aren't meant to, and they aren't a 'be all, end all' solution to either feeding the world or solving local food challenges. However, they can augment the fresh food offerings in many urban areas, oftentimes by repurposing an older building and infrastructure, and could be one potential piece of the puzzle of the future of food.

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