Agricultural Revolution: Growing Vegetables with Film without the use of SoilMebiol Co., Ltd.
Tomato Farm Using Imec® Film in Rikuzentakata City
- A film that replaces soil developed using advanced polymer technology fostered in the medical field is about to revolutionize agriculture.
Applying the advanced polymer technology in medical care to agriculture
Mebiol Co., Ltd. is a venture company established in 1995. President Yuichi Mori worked over many years at companies like Toray, Terumo, and W.R. Grace striving to use polymer materials in the medical field, and he carried out R&D in artificial blood vessels among others. When founding Mebiol, Mori thought of applying his research, which studied the human body until then, to plants, which are also organisms just like human beings. Agriculture thus became his prime area of focus. The agricultural industry developed in conjunction with the history of mankind, but the rapid increase in human population, the degradation of soil due to global warming, water shortages, and other issues have put agriculture in a critical situation. Mebiol carried out development of new materials that can play the role of soil and water based on the advanced polymer technology accumulated in medical care.
Birth of a film farming method without the use of soil
It took 10 years for Mebiol to successfully develop a hydrogel thin film which they named Imec® film. The film looks like a kitchen film, but it has numerous nano-sized pores through which water and nutrients can pass but blocking bacteria and viruses. Mebiol developed a film farming method of growing vegetables using Imec® film instead of soil. By laying the film on top of water containing nutrients, and planting seeds of vegetables like lettuce on the film, large amounts of hair roots attach to the surface of the film, absorbing the nourishing solution inside the film and aiding the growth of the lettuce. Furthermore, the film blocks bacteria and viruses from reaching the roots even if the nutritious solution goes bad, so the applied amount of pesticide can be significantly reduced, making it possible to cultivate vegetable safely. In agriculture, it is very difficult to learn skills for creating soil that is suitable for crops and watering the soil in a way that is appropriate for the weather, season, soil quality, and crops. The film farming method has eliminated these processes of creating and watering soil by using Imec® film. Although hydroponic cultivation is the popular method of farming without soil, it requires high equipment costs in order to prevent contamination of the nutritious solution in which the plant roots are soaked by circulating the nutritious solution as well as regularly disinfecting and replacing it. The film farming method does not require these equipment so it benefits users by being easier to implement than hydroponic cultivation.
Mebiol also found unexpected benefits of Imec® farming. They discovered that tomato cultivated with Imec® film has significantly higher sugar content and nutritional value (lycopene, amino acids, GABA, etc.) compared to hydroponic cultivation, thanks to moisture stress effects derived from its film. Tomatoes produced by this method are traded on the market at high price as "fruit tomato" with sugar content of 8% or higher. Farming methods using Imec® film were first implemented in Japan around 2008, and in 2016 fruit tomatoes are now being produced on farms in over 150 locations. Other than fruit tomatoes, leafy vegetables like lettuce, cucumbers, melons, peppers, and eggplants are being produced on a trial basis. What is intriguing is that the film farming method is being used in industries other than agriculture, too, such as manufacturing, wholesale, retail, and construction. It could be said that Imec® has created a revolution in terms of enabling anyone to enter the agriculture business.
Cultivating tomatoes in areas affected by tsunami and in desert lands
Imec® film has realized a farming method that liberates producers from soil. Owing to this, producers can now cultivate vegetables in places where farming was thought to be unfeasible in the past, such as areas affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake, or in China where there is serious soil pollution, and in desert lands of the Middle East.
In Rikuzentakata city, Iwate Prefecture, where farming became impossible due to brine damage caused by the tsunami following the Great East Japan Earthquake, tomato production has begun using the film farming method. In Dubai of the Middle East, tomatoes with high sugar content produced in the desert are gaining popularity in local restaurants as a luxury ingredient. Although desert areas were thought to be infertile land in the past, they may soon become a major agricultural producing area because of their abundant sunlight by leveraging the film farming method.
Mebiol has filed patent applications for Imec® in 134 countries, of which 116 countries have already granted patents. If implementation examples of Imec® continue to increase around the world, Imec® may even contribute significantly to solving the food shortage problem that has faced the international society for a long time.
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