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Increasing use of technology in Japan’s agriculture sector

April 1, 2020
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Why this is important to Wisconsin businesses: An aging agricultural labor force is among the factors driving the need for high-tech solutions.

About 5% of Japan’s labor force is in agriculture, compared with 2.5% in the U.S. Between 1960 and 2017, the number of farmers in Japan dropped from 14.5 million to 1.81 million, and the number has dropped by more than half just since the 1980s. The number of Japanese people working in agriculture and forestry fell to 3.9 million in 2000 and 2.6 million in 2010, down from 5.43 million in 1985. The decline has been attributed to the aging of Japanese society and the fact that many farmers have leased their land to large-scale farmers or agricultural corporations.

The average age of Japanese workers in agriculture and forestry reached 61.1 in 2000, 65.8 in 2010 and 66.7 in 2017. 63.5% of Japan’s farmers are over 65 in 2015, compared to 21.1% in 1975..
It is not unusual workers in their 70s to be carrying out a harvest, and many elderly Japanese farmers are having a hard time finding people to take over their farms, without family members who want to succeed them or even help them.

Currently the nation’s gross agricultural production totals about $100 billion, a decline of 30% from its peak. The only food items that Japan produces in sufficient quantities domestically are rice, eggs, onions and cucumbers. Japan relies on imports for most of the wheat and soybeans it consumes. Japan’s food self-sufficiency ratio dropped from 78% in 1981 to 38% in 2019; the government has set a goal of increasing that figure to 50%.

As with most things, the Japanese have taken a high-tech approach to agriculture. They grow their rice with an amazing variety of mini-machines, including mechanical rice transplanters and harvesters, helicopter spraying, vinyl sheeting, concrete banked paddies and massive use of chemical fertilizers. A surprising amount of food in Japan is produced in factories rather than farms, and this trend only seems to be increasing. As of 2005, there were 16 artificial-light-only facilities that produced 730 tons of vegetables on 10,978 square meters and natural-and-artificial-light facilities that produced 900 tons of vegetables on 26,957 square meters. When vegetables are grown in factories cut off from the outside atmosphere, problems such as weather damage, diseases and pests are eliminated. The temperature is regulated using air conditioners and heaters. Light intensity, temperature and fertilizers are regulated using computers. The vegetables are grown in trays that are stacked up like maps on a library bookshelf. Lights are positioned so they reach all the trays. Pumps circulate fertilizer-enriched water through the cultivation shelves.

Amid growing concerns about a global water shortage, Japanese farmers are using the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence to improve agricultural productivity and the efficiency of use of water and fertilizers, leading the way in sustainable agriculture. Wisconsin companies can contribute technologies to aid the modernization of agriculture in Japan.

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