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Business Trends

Factory-grown greens catch on in Japan

'Clean,' mild-tasting produce is a hit as prices for farm vegetables rise

A technician at Spread, a startup, moves lettuce plants at the company's indoor facility in Kyoto Prefecture.

TOKYO -- Vegetables grown in factories are finding their way onto more dining tables in Japan, as retailers take advantage of the stable prices offered by produce grown indoors. Customers, meanwhile, like their taste and texture.

At a Maruetsu supermarket in central Tokyo, customers examine packages of palm-sized lettuce leaves in the "factory-grown vegetables" section of the produce department. The vegetables are grown by Spread, a Kyoto startup.

"Ordinary lettuce is very expensive these days, so I bought it," said a 37-year-old housewife. "I like it because it's clean."

"It's soft and easy to chew," a 78-year-old woman said. Another shopper, a 21-year-old university student, said she was "not especially turned off by the image of vegetables grown in a factory."

The trend toward factory-grown produce is visible elsewhere.

Last November, Daigo, an upscale Japanese-style vegetarian restaurant in Tokyo's Minato Ward, gave the nod to factory-grown vegetables. The restaurant, which has two-star rating from Michelin Guide, sells packaged salads at local supermarkets with cavolo nero, arugula and tomatoes grown by Plants Laboratory, a vegetable factory operator in the ward.

Another factor driving the growth of factory-grown vegetables is high prices caused by erratic weather in Japan. According to the internal affairs ministry, fresh vegetable prices rose 6.4% on the year last December. Lettuce prices jumped 70.5% that month, versus an 8% rise in November.

Factory-grown lettuce typically goes for around 200 yen ($1.80) for 80 grams, which in normal times makes it more expensive than the farm-grown kind. But when supplies of produce are tight, as they are now, factory greens have greater appeal because their price is not dependent on the weather.

A woman checks out factory-grown vegetables at a Maruetsu supermarket in Tokyo's Chuo Ward.

People who try factory-grown produce for the price often find they like it for other reasons. Factory vegetables are free of dirt and can be grown without agricultural chemicals, as they are less exposed to pests or diseases. And because the vegetables carry few germs, often they can be eaten unwashed, improving their flavor.

"Plants that have been grown under a lot of stress factors, including ultraviolet rays, diseases and pests, and dryness, tend to produce protective secretions. That makes them taste bitter, and they tend to become tough. Factory-grown vegetables are less exposed to these and this may have something to do with [their mild flavor]," said Saneyuki Kawabata, a professor at the University of Tokyo's Graduate School of Agricultural and Life Sciences.

There are, of course, drawbacks to factory farming, such as limits to their scale and scope. It is possible to grow a variety of vegetables indoors, as Plants Laboratory does. But this does not always make business sense because of the cost of electricity for artificial lighting. That is why many factories grow mainly leafy vegetables, which are more efficient at converting light into growth.

Experts say vegetable factories must raise their output and increase automation to cut costs if the market for indoor produce is to grow as vigorously as their crops.

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