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Plant factories for safety

February 22, 2012

Safety certification system for plant factories to be launched with view to disaster areas



A private-sector safety certification system for plant factories that can produce high-quality vegetables all year round through artificially controlled cultivation environments is set to be launched next month in what could be a fresh move to help ensure the safety of groceries produced in northeastern Japan, which was heavily damaged by seawater and radiation in the March 11 triple disasters.

Consumers across Japan have been paying close attention to the safety and stable supply of food products as farmlands in northeastern Japan -- a major food supply region -- were badly damaged either by seawater brought by tsunami or radiation from the crippled Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant. The safety certification system could play a catalyst role in promoting the benefits of plant factories, which some disaster areas are trying to use as part of their reconstruction efforts.

"We want to produce and offer safe crops in line with the demands of consumers," said Kenichi Ikari, an official of the municipal government in Kawauchi, Fukushima Prefecture.

Following the outbreak of the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power station, part of Kawauchi village was designated as an evacuation zone and the rest as an emergency evacuation preparation zone. The designation of the emergency evacuation preparation zone was lifted in late September, and the local government declared in late January that it would reopen its office functions and schools in April, setting the stage for villagers to return home. Although decontamination work has been underway, it is not easy to put farmlands back on track. Moreover, even if cultivation were resumed on the farmlands, it would not be clear whether vegetables raised there could be sold.

Under these circumstances, plant factories, which entail the cultivation of vegetables in a closed environment without using soil, grabbed the spotlight. As these facilities allow growers to minimize the effects of radiation, the safety of vegetables grown in such conditions can be made into a major selling point. The local government in Kawauchi plans to start operating a plant factory in April 2013 and hire about 30 farmers who have lost their jobs. The municipal government of the neighboring city of Minamisoma has also started a feasibility study on a similar facility.

Because of a lack of public recognition and high costs, many companies have fallen into a cycle of starting and withdrawing from plant factory businesses in the past. Osaka Prefectural University professor Haruhiko Murase, a prominent researcher on plant factories, believes such facilities will take root in disaster areas. "Plant factories can produce safe food anywhere and help create jobs. They meet the needs of the disaster areas," he said.

After receiving advice from Murase, Osaka-based non-profit organization E-Being, which conducts soil assessments on former factory sites and other such land, is to start preparations to launch the safety certification system. The certification system applies to factories that do not use any sunlight. It is designed to check the amounts of such things as coli bacteria, heavy metals and radioactive substances contained in liquid solutions used to cultivate crops. It will also analyze sugar and vitamins contained in vegetables while examining whether the quality of products is being steadily maintained.

Whether or not to certify a plant factory will be decided by a committee of experts. Consumers will be able to get information on inspections through QR-codes, or quick response codes, attached to product packaging. ESPEC MIC Corp. in Oguchi, Aichi Prefecture, which has been operating plant factories since the late 1980s, is willing to receive safety certificates, saying, "Certification will be effective if vegetables grown (in certified factories) can be differentiated from ordinary vegetables."

Nevertheless, a single public health scare originating in one plant factory could trigger panic over plant factories across the country. Murase wants the entire food industry to accept the safety certification system, and therefore has called on about 120 companies that are involved in research with Osaka Prefectural University to try to receive safety certificates.

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