Just over an hour’s drive east of Melbourne, a cutting-edge hydroponic facility of KAITEKI Fresh Australia, an offshoot of Mitsubishi Plastics Inc. is producing pesticide-free spinach, rocket and kale.
It’s also developing technology that could come to play a vital role in managing one of this sunburnt country’s most overtaxed resources. Opened in July in the regional town of Bunyip, the facility is the first of its kind outside Asia. It was the result of five years of collaboration between the Victorian Government and the KAITEKI Institute (TKI) and Mitsubishi Plastics Inc. of Mitsubishi Chemical Holdings Corporation (MCHC) Group.
TKI was established in 2009 as a think tank and global research institute of MCHC with the aim of realising KAITEKI.
Greater yields with much less
KAITEKI Fresh claims its methods – developed in Japan and evaluated by scientists at AgriBio, Victoria’s Centre for AgriBioscience – use over 90% less water than average conventional farming.
The secret to the massive cut in water consumption lies in an innovative closed hydroponic system developed by Mitsubishi and dubbed Nae-Terasu, or “seedling-terrace”. These systems, sometimes referred to as “plant factories”, use a combination of sensors and clever computer software to control and adjust everything from the intensity of light to humidity, airflow and the amount of water supplied to the seedlings. Having such precise control of the growing environment means there are no seasons, resulting in a dramatic increase in yields. Yields eight times greater than those produced in conventional farming according to experts at LaTrobe’s AgriBio biosciences research and development unit.
There’s also no need for chemical treatments or pesticides, which makes for more wholesome veggies, notes KAITEKI Fresh CEO Katsutoshi Ogihara. “People are becoming more aware of healthier food and where it is derived from in the world and are seeking environmentally friendly, high quality, safe and secure vegetables,” he says. “KAITEKI Fresh was established to accelerate the promotion of pesticide free leafy vegetables grown by the state of art, water-saving hydroponic technology … I’m thrilled to launch the new company in Melbourne and am very confident we will continue to contribute to the growth of the Victorian agriculture and food sector into the future.”
KAITEKI Fresh is also handling the packaging, marketing and distribution of spinach, rocket and kale from the Bunyip facility. Its ecoLEAF™produce is now on the shelves of more than a dozen supermarkets and restaurants around Melbourne, and the company says it’s received “very positive” feedback.
Meeting future food demand
The KAITEKI Institute has big ambitions for the technology KAITEKI fresh’s trialling in Bunyip. The organisation’s website points out that access to fresh water is becoming an issue around the globe, particularly in Asia’s so-called megacities where expanding populations are competing for access to it.
“TKI is currently working on developing business concepts in sustainable agriculture that can help meet future food demand,” a company report promises. “One of our business concepts involves the production and distribution of Japanese varieties of vegetables in sunlight type water-saving plant factories in urban areas around the world.”
The type of technology being experimented with at the Bunyip facility could facilitate the widespread construction of bountiful ‘plant factories’ able to produce huge quantities of food in miniscule amounts of space. That’s something likely to be increasingly necessary if populations continue to grow and that very population growth, alongside climate change, reduces the world’s supply of arable land. Even though there’s no shortage of affordable acreage around Bunyip, KAITEKI Fresh required a mere 5000m2 for its operations there.
A win-win partnership
At a time when emotions are running high over foreign investments in Australia agriculture, KAITEKI Fresh is a timely reminder that such investments can be an entirely win-win proposition.
It seems likely that increasing numbers of Australian farmers will either make use of the water-saving hydroponic technology developed by pioneers such as KAITEKI Fresh or be spurred to develop their own. In the process, heavily populated Asian nations will be able to test agricultural innovations down under that allow them to guarantee food security for their populations.
That’s the optimistic view of Victoria’s Minister for Agriculture and Regional Development Jaala Pulford, who says, “This state-of-the-art hydroponic facility is a potential game changer for our local growers and exporters … Securing KAITEKI’s new operations confirms our reputation as a global leader in food production and as a state ready to attract and accept investment from across our region.”