| SHIZUOKA/OSAKA, Japan
SHIZUOKA/OSAKA, Japan Aug 20 Japanese
technology firms are applying their expertise in energy-saving
and cloud technology to help farmers cope with shifting weather
patterns, an onslaught of cheaper imports and a shrinking
Panasonic Corp, Fujitsu Ltd and others,
seeking niche business opportunities to offset a downturn in
demand for their consumer electronics, are touting automated
greenhouses and sensor-controlled fields that ensure constant
conditions to produce high-quality vegetables all year-round.
Fujitsu says its Akisai cloud-based farming system means
users can sit at a desk in Tokyo or even New York while tending
vegetables in Shizuoka, using a tablet to operate sprinklers,
fans and heaters in response to changes in heat and moisture
tracked by sensors in fields or greenhouses.
Companies are also converting factories into farms: Toshiba
Corp is to start growing vegetables at a former floppy
disk plant near Tokyo, while Panasonic is growing radishes and
lettuce inside a Singapore factory, and Sharp Corp is
trialling an indoor strawberry farm in Dubai.
This tech push into farming is endorsed by Prime Minister
Shinzo Abe's government, which is promoting robotics and sensors
to boost farm production and exports - essential if Japan
concedes to lower agricultural tariffs in the Trans-Pacific
Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement.
Domestic demand for farming systems using information
technology and the cloud is expected to expand ninefold to 60
billion yen ($586 million) by 2020, according to market research
firm Seed Planning, as farmers fret over the impact of climate
change on their crops. Last year's summer was Japan's hottest on
record, with temperatures in Tokyo topping 35 degrees Celsius
(95 degrees Fahrenheit) for a week straight in early August.
"For the past 4-5 years, vegetable prices have gone up every
year because of the heat," says Takayoshi Tanizawa, the manager
of Panasonic's greenhouse project. "Farmers are in a bind
because they can't grow summer vegetables any more. They say
they've never experienced this kind of heat before. There are
also many bouts of heavy rain. Unusual weather is becoming more
and more 'normal'."
While indoor farming has taken off in the United States and
Europe, particularly in the Netherlands, those systems are
designed more for a colder climate and are only equipped with
heating, rather than cooling systems. In Japan, rising
electricity costs mean that energy-intensive methods, such as
blasting out air conditioning, aren't a cost-effective solution.
"The Japanese model that deals with high temperatures and
humidity is more appropriate for Japan and other Asian
countries," says Yasufumi Miwa, an agricultural specialist at
the Japan Research Institute.
Panasonic has developed a "passive", low-energy greenhouse
that uses sensor-activated fans, sprinklers and curtains instead
of air conditioning to keep heat and humidity at a constant -
whether it's January or July. Fujitsu similarly offers
solar-powered posts equipped with thermometers, humidity sensors
and cameras for farmers' fields.
Greenhouses cover 11 percent of the land used to cultivate
vegetables in Japan, but account for 15 percent of total output,
or 165 billion yen ($1.6 billion), and farmers who use them can
have double the revenue of those who use open fields as they
more consistently produce high-quality vegetables.
Although Panasonic's greenhouses aren't cheap, at 55 million
yen ($540,000) for a set of ten, the company says the cost can
be recouped within seven years, and estimates it is half the
price of a system using air conditioning. A constant temperature
can double harvests to eight a year, says Panasonic, which aims
to sell 1,000 of its greenhouses by the year ending March 2017
and hopes the system will eventually be used to produce a tenth
of Japan's spinach output, or 26,000 tons.
High-tech systems that can produce higher-quality premium
vegetables could give Japanese farmers the competitive edge they
will need if the country joins the TPP, the free trade agreement
it's negotiating with 11 other countries.
"It's like semiconductors ... the low-cost ones have to be
sold at high-volume to keep costs low, whereas Japan's
semiconductor industry is about developing the next generation
and to add value," said Takeshi Sudo, senior vice president of
innovative business development at Fujitsu.
Low on effort and high on tech, Fujitsu's Akisai system is
designed to attract young blood into a sector where the average
Japanese farmer is 66 years old. Using big data to analyse
climate against output over a year can help newcomers understand
what conditions are ideal: one test user increased his revenue
by 30 percent and used nearly one-third less fertiliser.
Fujitsu says it has around 200 customers for the Akisai
system which it launched in 2012, including supermarket retailer
Aeon Co Ltd, which uses it to grow and time the
distribution of perfectly ripe vegetables from 15 farms straight
to stores. It aims to reap 15 billion yen ($150 million) in
revenue by the year to end-March 2016.
And the system hasn't ignored the meat industry either.
As Japan's government hopes to expand beef exports fivefold
by 2020, Fujitsu has come up with an anklet for heifers - which
could be the world's first wearable for cows.
The Gyuho, or 'cow step', pedometer can pinpoint when a
heifer is most fertile based on how much she walks around. The
farmer is sent an email alert so he can rush to artificially
inseminate the cow and have a higher chance of meeting the
target of one calf per year - a big potential improvement when a
head of cattle can fetch up to $5,000 at auction.
"Before, you'd either have to get on top of the cow and see
if she objected or not, or else check the floor to see if there
were a lot of hoofprints," said Hiroshi Kadomatsu, a beef farmer
in Miyazaki prefecture in southern Japan.
"I'm not quite at 100 percent success rate with Gyuho yet,
but it's certainly a lot better than before."
(1 US dollar = 102.4200 Japanese yen)
(Editing by Ian Geoghegan)