Japanese Yuichi Mori grew fruits and vegetables out of the soil and actually the plants do not need to be in the soil at any point.
The roots of his plants come from a device that was originally designed for medical treatment.
Mori cultivates on a transparent polymer film made from a permeable hydrogel that helps store liquids and nutrients.
The plants grow on top of the film and the roots develop to the side.
This technique allows the plants to grow virtually in any place. It consumes 90% less water than traditional agricultural methods and because of the pores of the polymer block viruses and bacteria, prevent the use of pesticides.
How this method works
Mori adapted the materials used to filter the blood in renal dialysis treatments to the plant growth medium.
His company, Mebiol, has patents for the invention registered in almost 120 countries and represents an the agricultural revolution in Japan.
The fields are becoming technological centers, with the help of artificial intelligence (AI), internet of things and knowledge taken from laboratories.
In a country with a shortage of arable land and a lack of labor, agrotechnology has increased accuracy in monitoring and maintaining crops.
It even allows cultivating without land or in areas with limited access to water, a growing concern worldwide.
The landless cultivation method is known as hydroponic agriculture.
This year's United Nations World Report on the Development of Water Resources estimates that 40% of the grain production and 45% of the world's Gross Domestic Product will be compromised by 2050 if environmental and water degradation continues at current rates.
Polymer cultivation, as Yuichi Mori does, has crossed borders.
It is practiced in more than 150 locations within Japan, but also in regions such as the desert of the United Arab Emirates.
The method is also being used to rebuild agricultural areas in northeastern Japan contaminated by substances that came with the tsunami after the great earthquake in March 2011.
With the expected increase in the world's population (from 7.6 billion to 9.8 billion people by 2050), companies are betting on business opportunities related to global food demand, as well as the potential of the machinery market.
The Japanese government is currently subsidizing the development of 20 types of robots, capable of helping in various stages of agriculture, from planting to harvesting in various crops.
In partnership with Hokkaido University, the Yanmar company has developed a robot tractor that is being tested in the field.
A person can operate two tractors at the same time thanks to an integrated sensor that identifies obstacles and prevents collisions.
The Nissan automaker has already launched this year a robot equipped with GPS, WiFi connection and solar energy.
Called Duck, the small-sized robot, navigates water from rice fields to help it get oxygenated, reducing pesticide use and environmental impact.
Agriculture without people
With technology, the government seeks to attract young people who have little interest in working directly in the field, but those who do like technology.
It is an attempt to revive a key industry that increasingly has fewer people.
In almost a decade, the number of Japanese agricultural producers has fallen from 2.2 million to 1.7 million and the average age is 67 years
The active population employed in agriculture represents only 7% of the available workforce and most farmers work only part-time.
Japan’s agriculture is greatly limited by the country’s topography. Production in this sector actually covers only 40% of the food its population needs.
Around 85% of the territory is occupied by mountains and most of the remaining arable land is dedicated to growing rice.
This grain has always been the staple food of the Japanese.
The government grants subsidies to rice producers to maintain production in small properties of one hectare, but the change in eating habits has robbed this crop.
Per capita consumption has fallen from 118 kg in 1962 to less than 60 kg of rice in recent years.
Thus, Japan has begun to promote diversification in the field.
The labor shortage has made farmers turn to machinery and biotechnology research.
More and more drones are used in tasks such as fumigation, doing in half an hour the work that would take a full day to any worker.
High technology has allowed the expansion of crops without soil.
Through production in greenhouses and hydroponics, Japan has been able to expand its production of fruits and vegetables.
The Mirai Group company is a pioneer in vertical food production and currently harvests around 10,000 lettuces per day.
Productivity is one hundred times higher compared to the conventional method.
Through a sensor, the company controls artificial light, nutrients, carbon dioxide and hydroponic culture temperature.
Artificial light causes plants to grow rapidly, and controlled management eliminates disease loss.
Despite the high energy cost of the method, the number of factories in Japan have tripled in a decade, to almost 200 current facilities.
The hydroponic market is growing worldwide and currently represents a little more than US $ 1.5 billion.
And according to the forecast of Allied Market Research, it is expected to multiply by four by 2023, reaching US $ 6.4 billion.
Assistance to developing countries
With the support of technology, Japan is also committed to helping countries in the African continent to double annual rice production to 50 million tons by 2030.
Specific projects are already being carried out in Africa.
In Senegal, for example, the Japanese invested in training agricultural technicians and in transferring mainly irrigation technology.
As a result, productivity increased from four to seven tons of rice per hectare and producers' incomes increased by approximately 20%.
Promotion of private investment, trade expansion in sustainable agricultural machinery throughout the African continent is part of the Japanese strategy too.
Over a period of 15 years, Africa's GDP expanded 3.4 times from US $ 632,000 million in 2001 to US $ 2.1 trillion in 2016.
With the intention of helping to reduce post-harvest losses, revitalize the food industry and increase rural incomes, in 2014 the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries of Japan formulated the Global Strategy of the Food Value Chain to implement it in the developing countries like Vietnam, Myanmar or Brazil.