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Indoor farms have been emerging for some years now with a multitude of pioneering projects showing what could be possible with the technology; but for it to become a significant player in our food supply chain it needs big projects that put it on the map. Just such a project will turn its lights on in Tokyo, in the new year, when Japan’s biggest convenience store chain Seven-Eleven opens an indoor farm to produce vegetables for all the salads and sandwiches it sells in the city. The numerous benefits they will reap are likely to trigger growth across the field.

Indoor farming has been approaching a tipping point in recent years as technology has continued to advance. Maturing of the technology could allow large amounts of greens and fresh produce to be generated in urban environments with both minimal space and far smaller amounts of water than on a traditional farm. It can take as many as 34 gallons to produce a head of lettuce, for example, but the smartest indoor farms claim they can produce the equivalent crops with about 0.25 gallons, and water is just the tip of the iceberg.

“Vertical farms conserve masses of land, one indoor acre of strawberries, for example, is worth 30 acres outdoors. So in cities like Tokyo and Los Angeles, trapped between the mountains and the sea, they provide a local farming solution that would otherwise be impossible. Local farming dramatically reduces our use of fossil fuels, without the need for tractors, ploughs and shipping,” we wrote in a December 2017 article: Cities Need To Get Smart About Food.

“The proximity of vertical farms to outlets and consumers also reduces congestion in cities, meaning less pollution and traffic, creating health and economic benefits. Foods that do not need to be transported great distances needless packaging, cooling and chemicals to keep them fresh, also providing benefits for health and the environment. The increasing use of electric vehicles and the potential for drone deliveries could make these gains even greater,” the article continued.

The Seven-Eleven facility will cost about 6 billion yen (US$53.3 million) and is scheduled to open in January 2019, when it will be operated by Prime Delica, a subsidiary of Prima Meat Packers which makes items of boxed meals and others for the convenience store chain. The facility will be installed with LED lighting system to produce vegetables for about 70,000 salads per day, according to a report by Nikkei Asian Review. Seven-Eleven notes the benefits mentioned above but the primary motivator for the project, the company says, is weather.

Seven-Eleven typically buys its vegetables from farms across Japan’s rural areas, but the price and the quality of vegetables have been difficult to manage due to extreme weather patterns and events. While building up its own indoor growing facilities might temporarily increase costs for the convenience store chain, it can also ensure the stability of the supply. Seven-Eleven has already stated its intention to develop more indoor farms in Japan and considers these “plant factories” will eventually lower the cost of production, especially if the weather continues to be a disruptive factor.

In July, Japan experienced torrential rain leading to severe flooding and devastating across large swathes of the country. 225 people were confirmed dead across 15 prefectures, and more than 8 million people were advised or urged to evacuate across 23 prefectures. The rains were followed by one of the worst heatwaves in Japan’s history when more than 30,000 people were admitted to the hospital for heatstroke, and at least 77 deaths were registered within the space of two weeks.

The Pacific Ocean also reacted to the high temperatures across the northern hemisphere with one of the most productive storm seasons on record. 35 separate storm systems were identified in the Asia-Pacific region, including 14 typhoons, half of which directly impacted Japan. Typhoon Jebi was the strongest typhoon to hit Japan since Yancy in 1993, it led to 15 fatalities and injured more than 600 as historical records for 10-minute maximum sustained winds were broken at 53 weather stations. The highest sustained winds were recorded at Cape Muroto, at 108 mph (174 kph).

All of these weather extremes have taken their toll on Japan’s people but also its crops and infrastructure, disrupting food supply chains and encouraging many food retailers to find a solution. Other convenience stores in Japan will no doubt be tracking the progress of Seven-Eleven indoor farm project while considering their own vegetable supply strategy.

Weather-related farm supply issues are not isolated to Japan; with the effects of climate change seemingly becoming an unavoidable reality, extreme weather has been increasing around the world. The Caribbean and US East Coast have experienced back-to-back record-breaking hurricane seasons in the last two years. Last winter was one of the coldest on record for Europe and was followed by unprecedented heatwaves across the continent during the summer. Other extreme events have increased around the world and food supply chains have suffered.

“This year has thrown up completely different challenges with extremely cold weather, during the first few months and a very late spring. Farmers could not start planting spring crops until early May, and from almost this period it has been very dry and hot meaning that growth has been limited,” said Dr Nicola Cannon of the Royal Agricultural University (RAU) in the UK. “The first fields of oilseed rape would normally be planted from 15 August. However, where soils are so dry it can require greater quantities of fuel and power to cultivate the soil and there is such limited moisture in the soil that any seed planted is unlikely to germinate quickly.”

Outdoor farms are subject to weather, soil nutrient depletion, pests, and diseases, they also take up large areas of land and use machinery that produces significant pollution. Shipping from farms to population centers also pollutes, crowd our roads, and is subject to delays from weather, traffic, and road maintenance. Indoor farms, while someway off taking over from their outdoor counterparts, do reduce the impact of all of these problems, thereby increase the potential volume and security of supply of these vital crops.