South of Yokohama, in a small port town on the shores of Tokyo Bay, is one of the factories of the Toshiba corporation. Outwardly, it is no different from most Japanese industrial facilities: a well-groomed area, low white buildings, neat parking. But the exterior, as usual, can be deceiving: it is worth being inside a building, walking along the corridors and looking inside through glass walls to make sure that this is not an ordinary factory. Instead of machines and mechanisms against the background of snow-white walls, there are endless stands filled with greenery of all shades and sizes. It is home to Toshiba’s newest hydroponic plant, the smart vegetable garden.
Of course, hydroponics itself – growing plants in a liquid medium without using soil – is no longer a scientific novelty. However, the approach taken by Toshiba in creating its hydroponic systems takes this technology to a completely new level. This is not surprising, given that the factory has at its disposal the entire arsenal of innovations and scientific developments of the company.
First of all, the company uses the “clean room” method in its factory, that is, it maintains a certain air composition in the rooms where vegetables are grown, controlling the number of dust particles, chemicals and microorganisms in a given range. The incoming air is cleaned by multi-stage filters, so the atmosphere in the room is practically aseptic. To prevent contamination, the corridors through which the premises are accessed are treated with an antibacterial and deodorant compound (which is also a Toshiba development), and the staff, before starting to work with the plants, wash their hands with a disinfecting liquid and put on protective overalls.
What does this give in practice? Growing vegetables in clean rooms allows you to get a product at the output that is free of any contamination. Unlike their garden counterparts, vegetables grown in a purified atmosphere are not exposed to parasites and microorganisms, and, as a result, do not require the use of chemicals. Samples of lettuce samples have already passed tests for the content of nitrates, pesticides and insecticides and showed perfect compliance with Russian standards. The quality of these vegetables is higher, their taste is richer, and, moreover, they stay fresh longer. And in order to preserve these qualities on the way to the final consumer, the packaging lines of the factories are equipped with UV sterilizers.
But clean rooms are only part of the smart vegetable garden. For example, water for irrigation, passing through special installations, is not only purified, but also enriched with nutrients. Fluorescent lamps above the “beds” provide light with the optimal wavelength for growth, and the air conditioning system maintains a constant level of temperature and humidity in the premises. The company’s specialists have also implemented a monitoring system that tracks vital signs, monitors the growth process and signals when it is time to harvest.
Now the factory grows Romano and frills salads, mini-spinach, Swiss chard and Mistune salad, which is popular in Japan. However, experts say that they are ready to expand the range: basil, coriander, dill and other crops are next. The whole process – from placing the seeds in a nutrient medium to harvesting and packing the crop – takes about thirty days. Now that many months of tuning and testing all systems are completed, the factory can produce greens in volumes equivalent to three million lettuce heads a year. This amount is truly impressive, but most importantly, there is more than just vegetables.
Toshiba experts say: in a controlled environment created in a factory, it becomes possible to grow so-called functional food – products with a certain, predetermined composition. For example, foods that are low in potassium and high in vitamins and polyphenols can help prevent cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, and even cancer.
But even functional food is not the main goal of the smart vegetable garden.
Already, humanity is faced with such problems as climate change, population growth, natural disasters and a decrease in fresh water supplies. All this jeopardizes the future of the global agricultural sector, and every year the difficulties become more and more complicated. Modern technologies, according to Toshiba experts, are designed to help humanity to accept the challenge posed by the future.
The Smart Vegetable Garden demonstrates how innovation can be applied in practice. For example, in countries lacking fresh water and arable land, they will be able to provide the population with fresh vegetables on a targeted basis, reducing import volumes and logistics costs. In emerging economies characterized by urbanization and, as a consequence, the outflow of the population from the countryside, technology will make it possible to move farms from village to city; and in cold climates, plant factories help growers go beyond short growing seasons. Such decisions are especially relevant for central Russia, which has always been considered a zone of risky farming, and even more so for Siberia with its harsh climate. The Moscow office of Toshiba is ready to provide support to Russian companies and advise them on the implementation of new technologies for growing plants.