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article imageAre Japanese germ-free vegetables the food of the future?

By Bart B. Van Bockstaele     Jun 7, 2009 in Food
People are becoming increasingly afraid of "germs" on their food. Conventional wisdom has it that food is a natural product, and as a result, contamination with harmful micro-organisms is unavoidable. But Japanese companies have found a solution.
The vegetables we eat are natural products. They are plants. Plants are very important for the animal kingdom as a food source, because they are able to do something that animals can not do, except for the tiniest amounts, and even then only in a limited number of cases: creating organic material out of inorganic material.
With very few exceptions, such as the carnivorous plants, plants do not have to ingest organic material to grow and stay alive. Instead, they absorb inorganic minerals from soil, water and air and combine these into the organic materials that they need to grow.
Animals cannot do this, and in order to grow and stay alive, they must ingest organic materials, or bio matter as it is also called.
Over time, humans have learned to sow, plant and grow plants as a food source, a labour intensive activity, that is vulnerable to any number of natural influences, such as weather, plant diseases, and pests. As a result, large parts of the population used to be active in agriculture for hundreds of years, but even that was not enough to guarantee a reliable food production.
Much of this changed during the mid-20th century when better agricultural methods in combination with the creation of higher-yielding plant varieties led to an explosion of food production. This is called the "Green Revolution" and it was pioneered to a large extent by Nobel Prize winner Norman Borlaug.
Plant production is often negatively affected by agricultural pests, such as the well-known Colorado beetle, or locusts or so many others, sometimes to such an extent that entire harvests are lost. Their effects are reduced by using pesticides, but pesticides come with a few problems of their own.
While they are solving a lot of problems, such as starvation, pesticides are designed to kill pests. What kills a locust is not guaranteed not to kill a human. Sure, the quantities needed to kill a human are usually substantially larger than those needed to kill a locust, but that does not necessarily make them entirely safe. There is always the potential for long-term effects caused by the consumption of modest amounts over longer periods of time.
An ever further refined use of pesticides is designed to minimize those risks, but it is difficult to guarantee that no adverse effects will ever occur. As a result, many people turn to so-called organic foods, thinking that these are healthier. That is by no means certain, and the evidence for this is at best scant.
Furthermore, while the yields of organic can temporarily seem satisfactory to the small producer, these productions are more sensitive to negative influences, and large-scale yields are substantially lower. So much lower that it has led Norman Borlaug to say this with respect to organic agriculture on existing lands:
We're 6.6 billion people now, we can only feed 4 billion. I don't see 2 billion volunteers to disappear.While pests are a major problem for agriculture, they usually aren't for the consumer who eats the products. That doesn't mean that there are no potential problems with this food. One of the main problems is contamination with harmful bacteria, such as E. coli, Salmonella or Listeria. This problem is potentially even worse in so-called organic foods because the organic protocols usually limit or totally exclude the use of disinfectants, such as the ubiquitous chlorine.
And this is where the new Japanese vegetable factories come in. The Daily Mail reports that in Japan, a whole new type of agriculture is being organized. No longer are vegetables planted in fields where they are subject to unpredictable weather, pests and contamination. No, they are now cultivated in factories.
These are not your usual run-of-the-mill dirty and noisy factories. They are rather more like the clean rooms in the factories where computer chips or pharmaceuticals are made. Everything is controlled in these factories: lighting, temperature, humidity, carbon dioxide and water. The plants are not even exposed to the air outside, nor are they exposed to any dirt or insects.
These factories, such as the Ozu Corporation in Tokyo, claim to be able to meet the demands of consumers who want safe foods.
Hydroponics, a series of techniques to cultivate plants without soil, only water and mineral nutrients, is well known to produce very clean, pure produce without the need for pesticides of any kind.
This newer form of agriculture takes the hydroponics idea even further by producing produce that is as close to sterile -as in: free of bacterial contamination- as possible.
Sterility and total absence of pests and hence, pesticides, are important benefits not the least of which is that the end customer does not even have to wash the vegetables. They can be eaten as is.
Another benefit is that production can continue 24 hours per day, 365 days per year. This vastly improves productivity. Lettuce, for example, can be cropped up to 20 times a year. Some factories produce up to 3 million vegetables a year.
The creators of these plant factories think that they do not only produce perfect looking vegetables that are completely free of contamination, but that this could well be the future of food.
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