Taiwan 'plant factory' may be answer to post-Brexit veg price pressure

2018/01/20 15:43:32 fontsize-small fontsize-default fontsize-big
Taiwan 'plant factory' may be answer to post-Brexit veg price pressure

By Lee Hsin-Yin, CNA staff reporter

Consumers in the United Kingdom have been concerned that after they leave the European Union, they could face increased prices in leafy crops that the country depends heavily on other EU members for-- but they may find a remedy from a plant factory in Taiwan.

Resembling a space station, YesHealth iFarm is a 10-meter, 14-layer vertical farming facility that supports a daily production of 1.6 tonnes of vegetables, making it the largest "plant factory" in Taiwan.

Walking back and forth between rows of lettuce, crown daisy and Chinese broccoli, YesHealth President Winston Tsai (蔡文清) carefully checked his vegetables, along with the temperature and humidity.

"We are working with many British authorities to learn about their market demand, and they have faith in us," said Tsai, whose company will be the first Taiwanese plant factory to invest in the UK.

YesHealth boasts an area of 240 square meters, and a production yield that is 100 times higher than traditional agriculture.

The idea behind Tsai's farm comes from so-called "plant factories," which have received growing attention worldwide. They are basically indoor environments that use LED lights to grow vegetables year round.

(LED light are used to grow vegetables such as
lettuce at YesHealth iFarm)

Cutting-edge agriculture

The factories use advanced technology to build an artificial system that meets the basic need of plants, such as sunlight, air, water and nutrition.

They allow vegetables to grow to maturity in the best environment, no longer affected by the vagaries of nature and man-made pollution.

Less labor is needed to tend to the crops in plant factories compared with traditional farms. In YesHealth, there are only 30 workers making adjustments to the factory's environment and harvesting the crops.

According to the UK's Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA), foreign grown vegetables contributed to 46 percent of the UK's total supply in 2016.

During that year, vegetable imports reached 6,500 tonnes per day, mainly tomatoes, lettuce and cauliflower-- from Spain and the Netherlands.

This is why British consumers might feel the heat in the post-Brexit era, since the cost of imported fruit and vegetables are expected to rise by up to 8 percent, according to a 2017 report by Rabobank, a food and agriculture financing and sustainability-oriented banking company.

Setting foot in UK

Tsai said vertical farming might be the solution, adding that his company will start running an experimental factory in April in the National Agri-Food Innovation Campus (NAFIC) in York, northern England to tap into that market.

The facility is expected to produce 50 kilograms of vegetables per day, while there will also be marketing and promotion campaigns to see how the idea is received by the British public, he said.

Catherine Nettleton, head of the British Office Taipei, told CNA in an email that it is great news for YesHealth to set foot on the campus, one of the leading life sciences facilities in the UK.

"This is an excellent example of the UK and Taiwan working together on forward-thinking technology, which will bring good quality food to our people into the future," she said.

YesHealth also wants to sell vegetables in Taiwan, where the amount of land used for growing food has decreased in recent years and the average age of farmers has increased, leading to a shortage of people to work the land.

"We also hope to educate our customers to get to know the food they buy anywhere they come from, so we could work towards creating quality agriculture in Taiwan," Tsai said.

Tsai has set a goal for the British market to reach a daily production of 10 tonnes of vegetables, mostly lettuce, by the end of this year.

"This is just our first step to export Taiwan's top agri-tech to the world," Tsai said, adding that the company is simultaneously working with interested investors from China, Canada, Guam and Qatar.

Investment in science

The market prospect of plant factory is promising, but there are challenges, according to the Taiwan Plant Factory Industry Development Association.

Data it released last year showed the industry output worldwide was US$2 billion in 2015 and could hit US$12 billion in 2025, thanks to more advanced technology, which could enable mass production.

But at the current stage, not all industry players in Taiwan can afford large-scale production -- the key to making early profits in a business known for having a slow return on investment.

Another obstacle is that vegetables in plant factories are grown in water solvent instead of soil, which makes it more prone to disease.

A convenient solution is to use more fertilizers, but that way the vegetables not only become less fertile but also contain a higher level of nitrate -- a major health concern.

Tsai said his team has solved the problem using a patent formula of antagonist microorganism, which has significantly boosted productivity compared with 2009, when he first entered the business.

(Vegetables on the farm are grown in a patent formula; photo courtesy of YesHealth )

Together with the introduction of big data, YesHealth could predict market demand over the next two months and plan precise harvests accordingly.

"The approach is so scientific that we could harvest three kilograms of the luxury vegetable 'ice plants' per week, for instance," said Ray Tsai (蔡睿澄), the company's brand marketing senior executive.

Native to South Africa, ice plant is one of the most expensive vegetables in the world, and could cost NT$10,000 (US$338) per kilogram in Taiwan.

(ice plant; photo courtesy of YesHealth )

Industry outlook in Taiwan

Experts say it is exactly the science behind plant factory that makes it a good business, particularly for Taiwan, which is well-established in agriculture, bioengineering and information technology.

Fang Wei (方煒), professor of Bio-Industrial Mechatronics Engineering at National Taiwan University, said the industry has a great potential even just eyeing the local market.

But general development of the industry remains limited, mainly due to a lack of clear policy and integration between the agricultural and manufacturing sectors, he said.

There were around 120 plant factories in Taiwan in 2016, mostly of small or medium size, and their combined supply was 2,500 tonnes a year, accounting for only 0.15 percent of the total demand, Fang said.

The key for the industry to thrive locally is to create a niche, he said.

"The first step for local plant factories is to be able to provide seasonal, high-value vegetables on a year-round basis so consumers no longer need to rely on imports, which are much more expensive," Fang told CNA.

What the government can do, he added, is to help investors obtain idled public facilities and offer discounts in electricity, etc., to reduce their operation costs.

However, Chen Junne-jih (陳駿季), head of the Taiwan Agricultural Research Institute under the Council of Agriculture, said while the council welcomes technology development in agriculture, its priority is to popularize more basic greenhouses because they are easier and cheaper for ordinary farmers to operate.

But at least one local government, Taoyuan City, is willing to give this way of growing vegetables a try.

It will include YesHealth's factory into Taoyuan's tourist bus route around March, said Wu Shu-fen (吳淑芬), section chief of the city's Department of Agriculture.

"Plant factories could become part of the tourism resources, and after they walk into people's lives, they will naturally become a part of the market," Wu said.


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