Islands of Agricultural Innovation: Indoor Farming in Asia

What’s the real state of the indoor farming industry, beyond all the marketing and hype? How are food systems and societies actually adapting to these new forms of production and distribution?

These were a couple of the large questions on Jacob Eisenberg’s mind when he decided to leave his job and travel to Japan, Singapore, and Taiwan last fall to seek the answers for himself. Since that point of inception until his return flight home, Jacob journeyed through the three island nations visiting urban farms, meeting with farm operators and association representatives, and observing the failures and successes that define indoor farming at this present moment.

To share his findings with the world, Jacob created Agri-Future as a space to post firsthand accounts of his adventures within the intersection of food, technology and sustainability. This article is the first part to an Islands of Agricultural Innovation series that will share Jacob’s trip and bring his detailed accounts of Asia’s indoor farming landscape to Agritecture readers far and wide.

 Jacob Eisenberg visiting the Veggie Life Plant Factory headquarters in Singapore during his journey throughout Asia. This article is Part 1 of a series that will bring Jacob's adventures to Agritecture readers across the globe. (Credit: Jacob Eisenberg) 

Jacob Eisenberg visiting the Veggie Life Plant Factory headquarters in Singapore during his journey throughout Asia. This article is Part 1 of a series that will bring Jacob's adventures to Agritecture readers across the globe. (Credit: Jacob Eisenberg) 

“My curiosity first began looking at urban environments,” Jacob explained, adding that he has for many years had “a fascination with the development of cities, particularly of ancient cities and their relation to the natural environment.” For a while, he wanted to become an archeologist or anthropologist.

Similar to countless others, Jacob’s particular interest in urban farming took root while reading The Vertical Farm by Columbia professor Dickson Despommier, in 2011. “Something just clicked with that book,” Jacob reflected. “Even though it was such a novel idea at the time, it helped to address in my mind so many issues that I was trying to grapple with: sustainability, overpopulation, climate change, pollution.”

“There's so much optimism in that book,” Jacob added, “and being able to suspend reality and just imagine future possibilities made me very passionate and excited.”

This experience reading The Vertical Farm happened to coincide with the start of the Arab Spring, when food prices were having enormous geopolitical implications. Jacob was actually in high-school and studying abroad in China at the time, where he says the situation became particularly tense. “The whole experience really solidified my fascination with food’s relationship to the urban environment and to societal challenges and opportunities,” said Jacob.

During college, Jacob was able to pursue his new passion further with a study-abroad program that took him to São Paulo, Cape Town, and Hanoi. “We wanted to see what the state of urban agriculture was in these rapidly developing cities,” Jacob said. While traveling, he interviewed over 60 small-scale urban farmers, each grappling with different challenges and opportunities around growing food in some of the world’s fastest growing cities.

This experience clearly stuck with Jacob, because it wasn’t long after college that he decided to leave his job and go off on a similar adventure of his own. Jacob knew by now that he wanted to be somewhere within the ag-tech space, he didn’t know exactly where, but he was irreversibly attracted to the opportunities.

“Indoor agriculture is by no means the silver bullet,” Jacob writes on his site, “but it does offer a revolutionary opportunity to re-envision our food system — combining six thousand years of agricultural knowledge with precision technologies and food sourcing strategies of today and tomorrow.”

 Mahoroba Suikoen Plant Factory in Nara, Japan. In Vertical Farms, or Plant Factories as they're known in Japan, plants are grown hydroponically in stacked layers. Different color LED lights are used to emphasize different attributes during plant growth. (Credit: Jacob Eisenberg) 

Mahoroba Suikoen Plant Factory in Nara, Japan. In Vertical Farms, or Plant Factories as they're known in Japan, plants are grown hydroponically in stacked layers. Different color LED lights are used to emphasize different attributes during plant growth. (Credit: Jacob Eisenberg) 

For some, the prospect of leaving one’s job and venturing off to see the world would have been too daunting of a thought to ever actually pursue. But for Jacob, it was merely practical.

“My thought process at the time was: If I'm really passionate about learning more about this industry, then how can I see the actual state of indoor agriculture?” he said. “I saw this as such a tremendous and unique educational opportunity—well worth the time and preparation to use my savings from my job. I think that the best learning happens on the ground with the people actually doing the work. For me it was my jump into the world of indoor agriculture, instead of working my way up through a technical or business program.”

For this new journey into the world of ag-tech, Jacob selected three countries where he would explore the indoor agriculture industry and visit with farmers and technology providers: Japan, Singapore, and Taiwan.

You may notice some immediate similarities between these places, and for Jacob at least two of them were intentional.

This first obvious similarity is that each country is in Asia, but this wasn’t done simply to make the travel logistics easier. “I always had my eye on what was going on in Asia,” Jacob explains, “and I do speak Mandarin.” He’d also been paying close attention to the local food blogs in Asia and noticed that there's a strong focus on food quality and safety at this moment, leading entrepreneurs more and more into the realm of controlled environment agriculture as a way to recapture consumer trust.

All three countries were also selected because they are islands that are heavily dependent on food imports, which renders them extremely vulnerable to climate or geopolitical events and market fluctuations that are entirely outside their control. Singapore, for example, currently imports over 90% of the food consumed in-country. “They're the most predisposed locations to be food insecure in the near future,” Jacob explains, which has also made them some of the most innovative and important places when it comes to urban farming.

“These countries also have very limited farming land given the size of their populations,” he adds, “plus they each have fairly high levels of recent economic development and similar consumer classes that have diets high in plant based foods.”

 Strawberries growing hydroponically at a cultivation test facility outside of Taipei, Taiwan. (Credit: Jacob Eisenberg) 

Strawberries growing hydroponically at a cultivation test facility outside of Taipei, Taiwan. (Credit: Jacob Eisenberg) 

However, as Jacob discovered, not everything in the three island nations is similar. Despite their shared need to become more self-reliant in terms of food production, Jacob also discovered throughout his journey that each country’s indoor agriculture industry has many unique factors surrounding it.

“Taiwanese exploration into this space is often overshadowed by mainland China,” Jacob explained, “which is really unfortunate because there is so much going on in Taiwan with technology around indoor farming, such as horticultural lighting and automated systems.”

He also observed that Taiwanese entrepreneurs “are doing an incredible job of developing different business models for their farms, which are usually on a smaller scale and more diverse in nature than what you find in Japan.” Japan and Taiwan are similar, however, in that each country has a lot of industry associations, such as the more famous Japan Plant Factory Association, whereas these are not as commonplace in Singapore.

In Singapore, however, indoor agriculture currently enjoys an unparalleled amount of government support. The Singapore government has gotten behind urban agriculture in a number of ways, including recently instituted incentives for developers to integrate urban agriculture into new construction. However, “navigating the certifications for food safety and quality is still challenging for starting operations, even with all the government support,” Jacob noted. “I think this highlights the difficult regulatory environment that exists everywhere around urban farms, due to their very nature of being all at once a food business, manufacturer and office space— municipal regulators just don’t know how to deal with these sorts of unprecedented businesses.”

 Lettuce growing in a vertically stacked hydroponic system under LED lights at National Taiwan University. (Credit: Jacob Eisenberg) 

Lettuce growing in a vertically stacked hydroponic system under LED lights at National Taiwan University. (Credit: Jacob Eisenberg) 

Without a doubt, Jacob’s journey confirmed a suspicion that he already had: Japan, Singapore and Taiwan are right up there with the global leaders in indoor agriculture. But when pressed to say which nation is currently leading the world, Jacob was reluctant to point towards any single country.

“There's no real leadership in indoor agriculture yet from any one country, in my experience,” Jacob said. And his reason for this is simple: no one model can be exported everywhere, at least not yet. “I think that the Netherlands are incredible with what they've done in terms of glass greenhouses, for example, but their greenhouses can't be used in Taiwan with their monsoon rainstorms,” he explained.

Excluding greenhouses and speaking strictly about vertical farms, “Japan has had a decent start ahead of the competition with their Plant Factories,” Jacob adds, “but they still have their fair share of challenges too before they can be easily dubbed the leader.”

Be sure to stay tuned in coming weeks as we continue this Islands of Agricultural Innovation series and share Jacob’s detailed accounts of the indoor farming world in Asia.