Automation: The Solution to Japan’s Farming Woes?
Japan’s farming industry has been in steady decline for the past thirty years. The farming sector’s contribution to the economy has fallen by 25% since its peak in 1984, now making up only 1.2% of GDP. Most Japanese farms have had little incentive to increase output thanks to generous government policies, including a 341 yen ($3.09) per kilogram tariff on imported rice and up to 420,000 yen ($3,800) subsidies available per acre of farmland. Small-plot holdings dominate the industry, with the proportion company-run farms small compared to most countries. The number of farmers has declined from 2.2 million in 2004 to 1.7 million in 2014. The aging population has made the problem worse, with the average farmer in Japan being over 66 years old. However, some firms are taking a unique approach to solving the country’s agricultural problems: they have fully utilized automation in order to boost efficiency and output.
A vegetable producer called Spread shows how these types of farms operate. The company has an indoor lettuce farm in Kameoka where robots carry out every task in the farming process, with the exception of planting seeds, which must be done by hand. An automated system controls temperature, lighting, humidity, and carbon dioxide levels. The result is higher production, efficiency, and quality. These advancements have boosted production from 21,000 heads of lettuce a day to over 50,000, with a goal of raising that number to half a million by 2021. The lettuce produced is pesticide-free, and contains more beta-carotene, an antioxidant, than lettuce produced by traditional farms. Spread hopes this greenhouse will become a model for the farm of the future. There are numerous other examples. A company called Migaki-Ichigo has developed a similar greenhouse for strawberries; producer Shibuya Seiki and the national agriculture and food research organization have developed a robot that can pick one strawberry every eight seconds; and Panasonic has begun testing a robot that uses a camera and image sensors to detect ripe tomatoes at a rate of about three tomatoes per minute. Experts expect these developments to become more widespread in Japanese agriculture in the coming years.
Hokkaido University professor Noboru Noguchi predicts that in a few years, farming equipment will plow and prepare soil while human farmers sleep. Currently, the GPS technology for these robots is not accurate enough, but with the launch of four Quasi-Zenith Satellite Systems, this should improve. Another professor, Kazunuki Ohizumi at Miyagi University, posits that “[l]arge-sized farmers are the ones to revitalize Japan’s agriculture, which will be changed significantly.” This won’t, he argues replace human jobs, but rather create them: “IT, robots and artificial intelligence are needed, which will generate jobs to handle such technologies.” These jobs will likely originate in company-run farms, rather than the traditional small-plot farms.
The future of Japanese agriculture is bright. The number of company-run farms in Japan has jumped from 8,700 in 2005 to 20,800 in 2016, a sign of a shift away from the old small-plot human-operated farms to larger, automated farming. Of course, tariffs and subsidies will likely keep the old system in place for a while, but Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been advocating for a reform of the industry. The Nomura Research Institute predicts that by 2035, nearly half of all jobs in Japan, including farming jobs, will be performed by robots. In the coming years, automation is expected to increase greatly in the Japanese farming industry, and there are already new developments on the horizon. Kubota Corporation is expected to start selling self-driving tractors on a commercial basis; Professor Noguchi predicts that automated rice farming will be a reality in a few years; and a team at the Graduate School of Agriculture at Hokkaido University is building a robotic farming system that can autonomously detect obstacles based on observations of the surrounding environment. As these advancements continue, it will likely be recognized that automation is the solution to the problems of Japan’s agricultural system.
Written by Jack Vasquez & Edited by Alexander Fleiss