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Greenhouse farming – the future for Asia?

Greenhouse farming - the future for Asia?
Greenhouse farming - the future for Asia?

With close to 5 billion people and 783 million living in extreme poverty, Asia has more hungry mouths to feed than all continents combined. But due to the COVID-19 pandemic—among other global threats like climate change—food insecurity has sharply accelerated in the densely populated region. As Asian countries grapple with the fear of the pandemic that caused lockdowns and food supply disruptions, new technologies give hope. Smart Greenhouse Farming, for example, a method of increasing the growth of different varieties of good quality crops in a closed environment, is now playing a major role in Asia.

The early introduction of vertical agriculture practices in urban centers to farming villages has ensured a steady food supply in the region’s capitals. Of the world’s 489,214 hectares of greenhouse vegetable area, Asia takes in close to half of the world’s total. The greenhouse agriculture land area in Asia is at 224,974 hectares based on International Greenhouse Vegetable Production figures in 2017. The biggest greenhouse agriculture countries are mostly found in Asia. They are China, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.

The most populous country in the world, China, is already one of the leading countries in Greenhouse Farming. As the first COVID-19 cases surfaced at the epicenter of the outbreak in the Chinese city of Wuhan, authorities ordered a lockdown of the city to restrict the spread of the virus. This move by Chinese authorities abruptly disrupted food supply chains and caused panic buying among the city’s 11 million people. Supermarket shelves went empty.

Only a few days later, however, empty shelves were replenished anew with farm-fresh vegetable produce that pacified fears of people running out of food. At the forefront of this uninterrupted supply of grains, fruits, and vegetables in China are the huge indoor farms and vertical agriculture infrastructure previously in place.

Greenhouse farming infrastructure in China

China’s unprecedented economic growth brought about the conversion of agricultural lands into industrial zones. Rice paddies and vegetable terraces became high-rise residential buildings and industrial complexes. With over 1.4 billion people to feed, Chinese authorities had to act quickly by building major agricultural infrastructure.

A 2018 study published at the China Economic Review showed China’s overall food self-sufficiency is likely to fall from 94.5% in 2015 to around 91% by 2025. Most food security studies also anticipate that China will increase its food and feed imports in the coming decade.

To address this problem also in other ways, huge greenhouse farming infrastructures were built. The 53-hectare Dezhou Smart Agriculture Industrial Park, the largest single smart greenhouse in Asia, has been made operational in August 2019. It is equipped with rows of vegetables planted in cocopeat and maintained by an automated irrigation and fertilizer system. The park’s four greenhouses yield 20 times more than regular greenhouses.

Huge indoor farms such as the Chongqing Shugu Farm also use big data, artificial intelligence, and Dutch greenhouse technology. A showcase of modern agricultural practices, the 26-hectare farming complex also mixes modern agricultural production, technology demonstration, agricultural science education, and agro-tourism.

Leading agriculture into the era of smart farming, indoor farming has been boosting agricultural production and management, especially in the countryside.

Japanese companies embrace indoor farming

Among the countries in the Asia Pacific region, also Japan has been a pioneer in greenhouse farming. Vertical agriculture and indoor farms have long been a major food source. Rapid industrialization, calamities such as typhoons and earthquakes, and an aging population made the archipelagic nation heavily reliant on agricultural imports. Despite this setback, some Japanese companies see the massive potential in greenhouse farming. Among them is one of the country’s largest real-estate developers – Mitsubishi Estate Co.

As Nikkei Asian Review reported, Mitsubishi Estate made its entry into agriculture through a capital partnership with Okayama Prefecture-based Sara, a specialist in innovative greenhouse facilities. The Japanese company is counting on growth in greenhouse agriculture and aims to generate annual sales of about 30 billion yen or $280 million in 10 years.

In 2018, a former Sony Corporation semiconductor factory in Miyagi prefecture has also been converted into one of the world’s largest indoor farm. Through a partnership between GE Japan and Japanese plant physiologist and Mirai Co. CEO Shigeharu Shimamura, water, space, and an energy-efficient indoor farming system was developed in a 25,000 square feet facility. It is equipped with 17,500 LED lights spread over 18 cultivation racks reaching 15 levels high that is now producing 10,000 heads of lettuce per day.

Smart technology and urban agriculture

In Singapore, an early hotspot of the coronavirus pandemic, smart greenhouse farming technology has been a major lifesaver. The island nation of 5.7 million people for such a long time has been relying heavily on its neighbour Malaysia for most of its food supply. But the quarantine measures wrought by the pandemic pushed Malaysian fruit and vegetable growers to struggle in transporting produce to Singapore. Empty shelves in supermarkets due to panic buying have been rampant. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Long appealed to Singaporeans to avoid hoarding supplies by assuring residents of ample stocks and fresh produce.

Singapore has already started to prepared for possible shortages in the agricultural supply chain more than a decade ago since the 2007 to 2008 global food crisis. With only less than 1 percent of its 700 square kilometres land area classified as agricultural, the government knows of its own vulnerability.

As an immediate response to the recent crisis, Singapore accelerated the release of funds to local farms and urban agriculture researchers. The Singapore Food Agency (SFA), established in April 2019, is furthermore working on supply chain security and looks into new possibilities for domestic production.

The agency plans amongst others to convert rooftops of multi-story car parks and residential buildings into sustainable vertical gardens. With hydroponics, aeroponics, and aquaponics capabilities, these smart indoor farms and urban gardens are to provide a steady food supply for the island nation known for its bustling culinary scene. Using smart greenhouse farming technologies and modern urban agricultural practices, Singapore’s leaders hope that in the near future they will no longer be dependent on other countries whenever supply chains are disrupted.