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Taiwan Bids to Take On Pioneering Role in Plant Factory Sector

Global food concerns and new technology drive moves for mass indoor food propagation.

Photo: Indoor incubation.
Indoor incubation.
Photo: Indoor incubation.
Indoor incubation.

With food shortages on the cusp of becoming a global problem, Taiwanese agricultural entrepreneurs are increasingly embracing the "plant factory" concept. This is a pioneering technique designed to nurture edible plants in inhospitable weather and adverse terrain environments.

The Taiwan Plant Factory Industry Development Association (TPFIDA) defines a plant factory as a "facility that offers environmental control and the year-round mass production of plants in accordance with set schedules". According to Liu Jia-ming, Secretary-General of TPFIDA, such facilities come in two distinct varieties.

The first type uses enclosed areas (artificially lit), with cultivation carried out indoors away from any natural illumination. With an LED installation functioning as the only light source, such facilities are immune to any external weather conditions. Such a system is said to be particularly suitable for leafy vegetables, many of which have short growing cycles and are harvestable within a month.

The other type of installation is more of a greenhouse, functioning through a combination of natural and artificial light. Light control in such facilities is reliant on shade netting to screen out excess sunlight and artificial light to supplement insufficient natural light at other times. As well as being suitable for leafy vegetables, this second category is also configured for growing fruit and other edible produce.

At present, Japan and the Netherlands are taking the lead role in the development of such facilities. Liu says that such plant factories have been around in Japan for some 20 years. In recent years their prevalence has been boosted by necessity, driven by earthquakes, tsunamis and radiation scares. Additionally, with many of Japan's electronics manufacturers relocating their production facilities overseas, many factory buildings lie idle, making them ideal for conversion into plant factories.

Overall, the successful operation of plant factories is reliant on the proper integration of agricultural, lighting and electronic technologies. Such systems allow for the control of temperature, humidity and light sources, as well as for the provision of irrigation control and monitoring systems.

Taiwan's own moves into this sector have benefitted from the ready availability of such technology within the territory. Despite this – as in Japan and Netherlands – the challenge remains to seamlessly integrate the software and hardware.

Compared with traditional agriculture, however, this monitoring and control of the environment incurs substantial costs, not least when it comes to converting factory premises. There are also high overheads in terms of electricity usage and equipment upgrades/maintenance. Such costs, inevitably, affect the competitive pricing of plant factory produce.

In view of this, a relatively small number of Taiwanese companies are currently selling plant factory produce and only through a select number of vendors. Despite this, Liu says many industry players remain optimistic with regard to the potential of the sector. Such sentiment is partly down to continued food safety concerns across the mainland, as well as climatic uncertainties around the world.

Sylvia Yeh, Taiwan Office

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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