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Take That Malthus
Hyper-Efficient Indoor Vegetable Factories Prove Malthus Wrong, Again

A Japanese scientist working in conjunction with General Electric has developed an indoor vegetable factory that can produce huge crop yields in a small area—and one that’s well nigh impervious to droughts and extreme weather. Japanese plant physiologist Shigeharu Shimemura created an high-tech indoor farm in a disused Sony factory that grows lettuce in tightly packed stacks under ultra-thin LED’s. The Daily Mail reports:

Closely controlled using specially-designed LED lamps, the farm opened earlier this month and is already said to be producing 10,000 heads of lettuce a day. […]

It farm uses 17,500 LED lights spread over 18 cultivation racks, reaching 16 levels high – and these lights are used to mimic day and night.

By monitoring the photosynthesis process carefully, the system grows lettuce two-and-a-half times faster than an outdoor farm.

It also cuts waste product by 40 per cent and productivity per square foot is up 100-fold. […]

The GE Japan team believes that indoor farms like the one in the Miyagi Prefecture could be a key to solving food shortages in the world. 

Doomsayers have long warned that we are nearing the limits of human productivity. But over and over they are proved wrong by technological innovations. If this type of food production takes off, it could turn out to be yet another defeat for Malthus.

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  • Dan Greene

    Yes, and it will be particularly welcome for the Chinese. I wonder what effect it might have on the strategic balance between the US (where we have lot’s of arable land relatively) and China (which is desperately short of arable land and has significant water and food issues)? Sounds like a winner for China.

    • f1b0nacc1

      The magic word is WATER…the Chinese don’t have enough, and I suspect that this process likely uses a great deal.
      Arable land is an issue, of course, but only one. Water, labor (uneducated peasants are unlikely to be much use here), and capital costs are all significant problems for the Chinese, and all would militate against this process being used.

      • B-Sabre

        That may be, but the advantage is that this system is effectively a closed-loop system. You don’t have to contend with losses due to spillage and evaporation. And you can recylce every drop of water that is not immediately used by the plants.

        • f1b0nacc1

          Nothing is entirely closed-loop, and the overall system costs are likely to render even these savings nugatory. We are not talking about a spacecraft here, we are talking about feeding millions/billions of people…

      • Dan Greene

        The article linked to in the above piece states:

        “‘We want to achieve the best combination of photosynthesis during the day and breathing at night by controlling the lighting and the environment.’ This includes controlling temperature, humidity and irrigation.
        By doing so, the farm has also cut its water usage to just 1 per cent of the amount needed by outdoor fields.”

        Sound perfect for China.

  • lukelea

    Crowing is premature. Unless and until the world’s population stops growing exponentially, no amount of progress on the food front can stave off disaster in the long-run. Fortunately population has stopped growing exponentially in the developed world. It’s the undeveloped parts that we have to worry about most: if you don’t have any money it is hard to feed yourself no matter how much food there is in the world.

    • Corlyss

      “Unless and until the world’s population stops growing exponentially, no amount of progress on the food front can stave off disaster in the long-run.”

      You can’t really mean that. You s’pose at some point the empty-headed scare-mongering by the Paul Ehrlichs of the world must someday get it right because so far they’ve consistently come a cropper? Why?

    • Loader2000

      I was under the impression that, based on UN estimates, world population growth had already stopped growing exponentially and was starting to show the first indications that it might level off later in this century.

    • thomg875

      No matter how much anyone grows or how few people are in the world, food is going to have a cost. But the doomsday people earlier had a book out on it back in the 80s, I believe, and hopefully they weren’t disappointed to find out they were full of hot air. 🙂

  • Honk

    Well, the last number I had was 30-fold. Good to hear it has gone up again.

  • Boritz

    No mention of corn but this has the potential for a 75 ethanol 25 gasoline mandatory mix in the future as engines are reconfigured to burn it, and the third world will starve no more than ethanol policy causes at present. &nbspLettuce or the legal cash crop?

  • JGreer

    That yield is misleadingly stated. They may have 10,000 plants growing, but they are certainly NOT producing 10k heads/day. Also, no doubt the efficiency is improving on these indoor grow projects. Clearly water and chemical use is significantly more efficient than traditional ag, but the electricity from all those pumps and lights swings the needle far to the other side. Also don’t forget the substantial facility costs itself. All-in-all, yes if we ran short of arable land we could always start doing this sort of thing. But its not really economical

    • Loader2000

      Maybe not not now, but in the next 50 years, probably. Low cost energy and robotics are the key to 100 story, super efficient indoor farms basically removing the need for arable land. I don’t believe it is a question of if, but of when. The ‘when’ will basically be determined by the next big leap forward in energy efficiency. Weather that comes from LENR (low energy nuclear reaction), cold fusion, hyper efficient EM panels, or advanced nuclear reactors is unknown. However, the idea that it can’t happen (which I know is not what you are saying) is more a function of lack of imagination on the part of doomsayers than any real technological limitations. If the past is any indication, then we should expect the future to be unrecognizable to us 100 years from now.

    • Bill_Woods

      I don’t see why you’d doubt the 10k/day figure. The plant is stated to have 25k sq.ft with 16 (or 18) growing levels. Call it 300k sq.ft of growing area. A lettuce plant takes about 1 sq.ft.

      • JGreer

        Your 300k is probably a good estimate of required space given the articles claim of 2.5x accelerated growth. But then I’d ask, 17,500 LED’s over 300k sqft? Strong LED’s especially to also achieve the rapid growth cited. There’s an article today in WSJ that is a bit more informative. They are claiming 3500/day. And a pic of their product later helps to explain how they achieve that (small leaf lettuce). Still think the economics of this are highly situational. Large vacant factories, niche market, etc. are aligning to make this viable. Regardless, its cool stuff. And I agree with the other poster that the tech will only improve over time.

  • Not Rick

    Even if we got the full production the article would like you to believe, it sort of misses all the other reasons more population might not be a good thing. I’m not sure why people think that just because we can do something – we should.

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