There was a time when buying vegetables directly from a farmer might leave you with traces of cow manure on your shoes. But those days are long gone. Visit a farm now, and what clings to your heels is more likely to be a combination of fertilizers, pesticides, and maybe a little actual dirt.
But even that state of affairs could be in for a change. In fact, for some Japanese, the days of eating vegetables grown in the ground, under an open sky, are already coming to an end.
Reacting to a scandal caused by the importation of pesticide-tainted dumplings from China, the Japanese food industry has set its sights on a new type of agriculture facility, the “vegetable factory.”
In vegetable factories, “farmers” in dustproof suits, gloves, and surgical masks raise produce under completely artificial conditions. Humidity, temperature, light, and other factors are carefully controlled, and the plants grow in a solution of nutrients rather than soil.
Japan’s agriculture ministry hopes to have as many as 150 vegetable factories running within the next three years.
The benefits of the system are obvious. Imagine being able to harvest “organic” lettuce 20 times a year rather than two or three. Imagine packaging and selling vegetables that need no washing, and that will last for three weeks in the fridge because there were so few germs in their growing environment.
Not only that, but these “plant plants” can provide a profitable opportunity for recycling: The idea is to convert manufacturing facilities shut down by the recession into sites for producing food.
Which is all well and good, provided your definition of food includes antiseptic greens grown in fluorescent-lit wading pools by guys in lab suits. That may be what’s in store for all of us someday. But if so, the future doesn’t sound particularly appetizing.