Tokyo Farmers

by AFP, Nov 7, 2008 | Destinations: Japan / Tokyo

TOKYO, November 6, 2008 - Tomohiro Kitazawa makes an unlikely farmer. He works neither under the sun nor in the fields, instead reporting for duty in the bustling heart of Tokyo.

As Japan's capital city struggles with problems from food safety to global warming to unemployment, a growing number of people in the famously crowded metropolis are becoming city farmers, planting crops atop tall buildings or deep underground.

Kitazawa, 31, arrives for work in Tokyo's financial district of Otemachi in a heavy-duty silver elevator. What was once a bank's underground vault has been transformed into a subterranean world of greenery and warm, moist air.

Kitazawa was one of many young people here left without a stable income as Japanese companies slashed jobs. But he finally ended years of job hunting when he found the position growing vegetables right in the middle of Tokyo.

"I felt a bit odd at first growing vegetables like this, but I've learned its merits," Kitazawa said.

The state-of-the art farm, known as Pasona O2, was created by Tokyo-based temp staffing agency Pasona Group Inc. The farm carefully adjusts temperatures, humidity and lighting so vegetables can grow under the ground.

Kitazawa grows a few different types of lettuce in one of the six "farms," which look somewhat like space laboratories divided by glass doors that slide open and shut automatically.

The other farming rooms grow rice, roses and vegetables such as tomatoes and pumpkins.

"We want to activate Japan's agricultural sector by dispatching enthusiastic young people," said Sayaka Itami, leader of Pasona's new business development division.

"By creating this new style of farm, which is bright and clean, in the middle of Tokyo, we want to draw young people's interest into farming," she said.

She said that urban farming helped her company by creating a new source of jobs.

City farming also offers a solution for another problem in Tokyo and other major cities -- the so-called urban heat-island effect.

Cities' temperatures rise in the summer due to the urban environment of heat-absorbing concrete buildings and pavement. In a vicious cycle, the heat boosts the use of air conditioning, raising carbon emissions blamed for global warming.

Encouraged by environment-conscious Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, a number of building owners in the capital have introduced roof-top gardening as a way to prevent overheating.

In the "Green Potato" project launched by two subsidiaries of Japanese telecommunications giant NTT Corp., city farmers not only help cool down Tokyo but also harvest sweet potatoes in autumn.

"Sweet potatoes grow strongly in the tough roof-top environment of harsh sun and strong wind," said Masahiro Nagata, a staff member of NTT Facilities Inc.'s environment business department.

The plants are particularly good for roof-tops because their wide leaves can cover the whole surface and are efficient at transpiration -- evaporating water -- which has a cooling effect.

The temperature of a roof area not covered by potato leaves was as much as 27 degrees Celsius (48.6 degrees Fahrenheit) hotter than an area covered by the leaves, according to a survey taken on top of the NTT Facilities building.

The vegetables are consumed locally, helping ease another growing worry in Japan -- the safety of its food.

Japan, which has limited natural resources, imports around 60 percent of the food it consumes -- a higher rate than any other rich country.

Public concerns have mounted about tainted food, particularly produce imported from China. In the past year, Japanese people have fallen ill from eating Chinese frozen dumplings and green beans laced with pesticides.

NTT Facilities is targeting not only big office buildings in Tokyo but also schools, hoping to market "Green Potato" nationwide.

Nagata said he hoped more children in urban areas would learn about the environment and the fun of growing food with their own hands.

The excitement is already felt among office workers in Ginza, the glitzy Tokyo shopping district where real estate is the priciest in Japan.

Yukio Oki, a spokesman for the Matsuya department store, was delighted with the basket-full of vegetables -- tomatoes, eggplants, cucumbers, pumpkins and watermelons -- he harvested on the rooftop.

"We harvested lots of vegetables and enjoyed a savoury vegetable curry," Oki said.

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