Robot Farmers of the Future Might Grow 10 Million Heads of Lettuce a Year

Just think—one day Skynet could oversee the production of leafy greens.

(Photo: Ariel Skelley/Getty Images)

Oct 9, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

From the army of machines that work in Amazon warehouses to automatons that milk cows, the job-taking robots of the future are among us. Now the lettuce in your salad of the future might be grown by robots too. Oh, by “future,” we mean 2017.

That’s the hope of Spread, a company in Kyoto, Japan, that plans to begin constructing the world’s first large-scale lettuce factory next spring. Once it’s fully operational, the entire process of growing a head of lettuce—from seeding to harvest—will be automated and run by robots. The efficiency of machines will enable the factory to produce 80,000 heads of lettuce per day, or 10 million per year, according to a release from to the company.

RELATED: It Takes a Shipping Container to Feed a Campus

That sounds ambitious enough, but Spread plans to “expand the scale of production to 500,000 heads of lettuce per day in five years” and hopes to move its distribution to international markets.

Spread also seems to have the farming challenges presented by climate change in mind. Indoor farming can help address “water and food shortages due to extreme weather events accompanied by the increasing global population,” according to the company. Bonus: The new factory will recycle 98 percent of the water it uses.

The company, which launched in 2006, is already in the indoor farmed, mass-produced lettuce business. It grows 21,000 heads of four varieties of lettuce per day using hydroponic technology, which incorporates some computerization to manage the artificial lighting and humidity levels inside the farm. That output is bagged and sold in 2,000 stores in Tokyo and a few other locations in Japan.

Figuring out how to grow huge quantities of food at a low cost is in Japan’s best interest. The island nation imports roughly 60 percent of the food its residents eat. And with worries about post-Fukushima soil quality, figuring out how to grow produce without planting seeds in the radiation-contaminated ground is a priority for many scientists and technologists.

Last year, Shigeharu Shimamura, a Japanese plant physiologist, announced that he was heading up an effort to turn an old Sony plant into an indoor farm that could grow 10,000 heads of lettuce per day. But that lettuce, as well as Spread’s current output, is grown with the aid of human workers.

Spread hopes a shift to robotic farmers will help it reach its 80,000-head goal while enabling it to cut labor costs and pass the savings on to healthy-minded consumers. (Whether the lettuce will be cheap enough for the laid-off workers to afford is unclear.)

Inexpensive lettuce is not the only upside to using robots to grow crops, according to the company. “Full automation also reduces the crops’ exposure to human contact during cultivation, further reducing the risk of contamination, and increasing the hygienic levels in the area,” Kiyoka Morita, a spokesperson from Spread, told Fast Company.

There’s one small hiccup in these grand plans for a lettuce-by-robot future: Spread hasn’t yet found a machine that can effectively manage seed-to-harvest production. Once it does, perhaps we’ll all be eating robot-grown salads when Skynet takes over.