Our systems of food production and distribution are fundamentally flawed, jeopardising both the planet and its inhabitants. But, as Meiny Prins, CEO of Priva argues, it doesn’t have to be that way. By reconnecting food production with metropolitan and urban areas and applying multiple new innovative technologies, intelligently and pragmatically, to tackle the problem, we can procure a brighter future for the generations to come.
It’s a great honour to meet you, Ms Prins. Thank you for your time. Could we begin with what drives you as a CEO?
What gets me up in the morning is my belief that we can still make a positive change to this world. I believe that this can be done with vision, collaboration and setting the right priorities at every level in society, and as individuals, communities, cities, industries and governments. In the end, I feel that it is optimism that makes the difference. The satisfaction and joy of being able to transform, together with my colleagues, customers and business partners, by planting the seeds of the new, and realise the resulting changes.
And, of course, this goes hand in hand with challenges and frustration. What also motivates me is the sheer frustration of seeing a huge problem that impacts all of us, knowing there are multiple alternatives that are being ignored by the majority of companies and governments worldwide. I mean the food industry specifically. The frustration is that governments are still subsidising this failed industry, system, process, supply chain – call it what you will – to the tune of trillions, yes, trillions, of dollars a year. And this has been going on for decades. How much longer do we need to see that it has failed? For example, we produce enough food to feed over 10 billion people but cannot manage to feed seven billion healthily. What more proof do we need that the current old system simply doesn’t work?
That is a simple question, but the answer addresses two of the most complex issues that we face today. That is, global warming combined with the catastrophic distribution and availability of food to billions of people; malnutrition, hunger and even starvation, in starker words. We don’t have full answers or solutions to either issue but we can take huge steps in eradicating them both – global warming with the technology we have available today, and global hunger if we change our food supply chain and misguided government subsidies. The problem is the totally chaotic agricultural and food distribution system that is literally having a killing effect on billions of people. Killing, as in death by starvation, but also through early death through debilitating diseases caused by bad diet and death through living in dangerous, even toxic, environments.
This is why, we, Priva have created climate controls and data-controlled solutions for energy savings in buildings and climate controls in horticultural environments like greenhouses and indoor farms, including an optimal use of energy and water and all that that entails.
OK, I can see that one of Priva’s main goals is to be part of the green energy transition and play a role in establishing global food security. What food policy changes at the federal level would have the most significant impact on food security and hunger?
First, let’s look at the scope of the problem. The world is moving to the cities, to the extent of 400,000 people per day. By 2050, 70 per cent of the world’s population will be urbanised, pushing green belts and agricultural areas further and further away from people, their markets. This results in supply chains stretched to thousands of miles, if not halfway around the world. In itself, this is a huge contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. And it is just not working. In the USA alone, 40 per cent of food is wasted, that is 130 billion meals and more than $408 billion in food thrown away each year. Globally, a third is wasted; that is crazy!
Also, food now needs to stay “fresh” over longer distances and this causes it to lose nutritional value. This is so basic; food is primarily about nutrition and not only about calories, appearance or presentation. How can we let people starve when there is an abundance of food, globally, that is thrown away, rather than rethink the way we produce and distribute food?
In addition, it is mainly the younger population that moves to cities, drawn by the perceived increased opportunities in urban areas. So these cities are increasingly being fed by ageing farmers and far distant industrial farms. This is not sustainable and is a threat to the stability of many cities.
Add to that the enormous negative environmental impact of agriculture: water wastage, air pollution, climate change, deforestation, biodiversity loss, genetic engineering, irrigation problems, pollutants, soil degradation, and waste.
All this as a by-product of a system that doesn’t work, doesn’t feed the citizens of this planet sustainably and healthily and is subsidised by nearly half a trillion dollars. Almost 90 per cent of the $540bn in global subsidies given to farmers every year is “harmful”, according to a startling UN report. For example, subsidised Brazilian soya beans are exported to Europe to feed cattle, while European farmers are paid to let their land lie fallow. Where is the sense in that? Add in the $5.3 trillion of subsidies paid to the fossil fuel industries – the list is endless.
Most types of stimulus, such as innovation subsidies, are focused on industry silos. You have a silo of water, and there is a water silo subsidy. Or you have a silo of energy, and an energy subsidy. If you figure out a way to create energy out of water, no one will help you. We need a new way to communicate with governments. Any major solution to global warming will be comprehensive, cross-sector and collaborative and involve many disciplines and ideas and innovation from many disparate areas. We need to be able to address these solutions on a national and EU level, without borders. Silos are dead.
That is the extent of the problem, but you asked what can be changed at the federal, national or international level? That would be a monumental task, taking on trillions of dollars of entrenched interests, and probably doomed to failure. Think of the effort that would be needed to fight this much money and power, this massive gravy train that permeates banking, industries and politics?
I know it is a far more productive use of resources to build an alternative system and that is what we are doing. Today’s unholy alliance of banks, enterprises, lobbyists and governments will disappear anyway. It makes no sense to invest energy, effort and time into trying to convince those that will not change that there is a better way, but probably less lucrative for them. And we don’t have to, because in the end they will wither away, disappear under their own globally damaging weight.
I am putting my energy and creative strengths into something that can make an immediate difference; Sustainable Urban Delta is my response to a wasteful system. We will not fight a losing battle with the cartels, but replace the current system with one that is sustainable and serves the needs of many more stakeholders.
You can see that there are projects in every corner of the world bringing fresh and healthy food farming into the centre of our cities, reducing waste dramatically and providing employment, regeneration and hope. Some city planners have seen the light and the need to secure their food supply and have started to design urban horticulture into their planning process in what is a rapidly expanding urban landscape.
It is showing by doing. Those that are open to change can see the benefits of urban agriculture and join this growing movement. It is a joy to see.
You started developing your ideas around sustainable urban deltas in 2007. You then launched Sustainable Urban Delta in 2014 and, since 2020, it has been a Foundation. Was climate change a factor in your decision to move forward with it? Do you see a future with every backyard having an indoor farm?
Yes, climate change was a major factor in Priva’s moving into energy-efficient building automation and in creating sustainable urban deltas, but not the only one.
The vision for Sustainable Urban Delta came from comparing the grey views of endless concrete I saw when flying over most cities to the green mosaic that is the Netherlands, with arguably one large city on its west coast. I realised that my home country is a living, breathing, functioning and successful example of a food-producing city.
In the Netherlands, the population density of above 500 people per square kilometre is nearly five times the EU average. In the west of the country, it is double that, but still a healthy mixture of urban development and farming. Food is either produced within the city boundaries or very close by in the east of the country, a few kilometres away, and is also exported to our neighbouring countries. Of course, we don’t grow oranges and pineapples – there are limits to what can be grown locally – but, despite this largely urban population, we export over €100 billion worth of food (imports are about €20 billion). The Netherlands is therefore a perfect example of a modern, single, self-sustaining city.
The wastage built into the current global food supply chain was also a major driver, together with the often total unavailability of fresh fruit and vegetables in inner city communities, known as food deserts, which mainly affect lower-income groups. This has a major impact on health, education and life expectancy. It is another example of how today’s food logistics industry is literally killing people.
The Netherlands model is the future of “urban farming” and it is so much more than just backyard farming, although that alone is a wonderful thing.
This model can be replicated by any city that includes inner city agriculture in its design criteria. Provide inner city employment, fresher food, reduced greenhouse gases, optimal use of water, eliminate pesticides, provide educational and recreational facilities for the young and old, sustainability and security for the city’s food supply, and the benefits are huge. And, yes, it can be an indoor farm, rooftop farm, open field, tabletops, greenhouses or a backyard as a vegetable garden. It can even be a sustainable chicken farm, fish farm, algae, or any business related to food. That is up to the entrepreneur and their ambitions and marketplace.
Unlike traditional farming, you leverage a lot through technology and innovation. To what extent do you use AI and robotics to help you in your growing process?
There is no doubt that future technologies are related to digital innovations. We need to successfully tackle global warming by streamlining the agricultural industry using digital technologies. Priva is at the forefront, the sweet spot for innovation. The most intense digital innovation is taking place at the intersection, the borders, of industries, companies, departments, of sectors and knowledge domains, and even countries. It is the friction of ideas meeting that is sparking the major developments that will help us return this planet to equilibrium. That is where we operate.
At Priva, we moved from heating glasshouses to automated urban agriculture environments (horticulture) to building automation and energy savings – digitising all the way, and using ideas from one sector to start innovation in another. This is innovation at its best, when disparate disciplines meet, collaborate and discover the new.
For example, digitalisation is fundamental to optimal usage of resources in glasshouse agriculture – optimal water usage (we can grow tomatoes with 10 per cent of the water used in open-field farms), optimal nutrient delivery, optimal temperature and light. Everything can be optimised. Our predictive technology even has the plants themselves communicating directly with our software, guiding the software, and not the other way around. Every plant has a biorhythm, waking up early in the morning, starting to evaporate, and starting to grow leaves or fruits. The software used to be designed to control the environment. Now you have a plant that is designing all these things, to indicate what they need for maximal health and growth at any particular time. Everything can be monitored remotely, too, and controlled from a smartphone.
Our latest innovation is a robot for pruning tomato plant leaves, an unpleasant and awkward task for a human but an extremely complex one for a robot, with each cut being unique. This is digital innovation at its finest, taking the drudgery out of work and freeing people for more creative activities.
Introducing digitalisation at Priva was one of the most difficult tasks I have undertaken. We all had to relinquish control to automation and, as I mentioned, even hand control over to the plants themselves. That was not just thinking out of the box but living, breathing and working out of the box. How refreshing it has been.
To young people and start-ups, it is a no-brainer, but to come from a product-oriented company, changing the focus to digital services is really tough, because it touches every department in the whole company. And it doesn’t start and end with technology; you need technology for innovation, but you also need to rethink economics, rethink the way you do processes, and rethink sustainability.
You also initially wanted to become a graphic designer and even began a design company. How has this influenced your leadership at Priva?
I am a creative person and graphic design allowed for self-expression and the discipline to bring that to fruition. I learned to rethink and rethink and rethink in the face of sometimes monumental obstacles.
This is how I came to the idea of building my own ecosystem to design and build my Sustainable Urban Delta vision and not waste a lifetime trying to convince those that will not listen or learn; they have too much invested in the status quo to change their ways. Much better, and more fulfilling, to just do it and show the results to those who are open to, and need, change and will follow a new path and further develop what we have accomplished.
There are many people out there, in cities all around the world, taking the urban agriculture idea and developing wonderful solutions to our supply chain, employment and health problems and it is a joy to work with them. A life of joy and accomplishment, instead of banging your head against a brick wall. That is creativity.
Since its foundation in 1959, Priva has worked tirelessly to create sustainable climate control solutions and services for a better quality of life. You’ve significantly reduced the use of fossil fuels and presented new models with less environmental impact. How does it feel not only to be part of, but also to lead, an amazing team?
It is now common parlance to say that every company must become a software company, and we have done that. As the CEO of our partner company, Max Viessmann, says, every company must also become a climate solutions company, and we have done that, too. They go hand in hand; one is the means to an end and the other is the end itself – survival.
When it comes to building automation, an average of 25 per cent, but even up to 40 per cent, reduction in energy consumption is reasonable. Using an algorithm we have developed, we can store and analyse energy usage data in the cloud, creating digital twins, connecting several buildings and building smart grids. And if we could do this for all large buildings in the Netherlands, we could save enough energy to close down the five remaining coal-fired power stations in the country. If we were really pragmatic about solving these issues, we could accomplish a lot very easily. These solutions are real.
Of course I realise we can’t move fast enough. As I said, we could close all the Netherlands’ dirtiest power stations easily if we could all approach the solution together, but to form that coalition would require years of lobbying, persuading and cajoling, likely without participation. The innovation is to stop banging, rethink and find your way to a new solution. There are always two sides to everything in life.
And to the future: what broader, realistic economic steps – such as creating jobs, raising wages, or making benefits more accessible – should be taken to improve the agriculture distribution system? How does this align with the company’s vision?
If we want to successfully bring food production back to the city, creating awareness at the municipality level is crucial. City planners need to provide both the space and infrastructure needed. In addition, they need to make local people enthusiastic about building businesses related to food. Bringing local food production back to the city has the power to transform whole neighbourhoods and communities. For example, when someone builds an indoor farm in a disadvantaged neighbourhood, it will start as a place that provides fresh food to the city, but it will grow and become a place that provides jobs. Then it will attract other entrepreneurs, who will produce products the farm needs. After a few years, the whole neighbourhood will be transformed because of this. House prices will go back up, people will decide to start a family in the area, and schools will be opened. But most importantly, people will be proud of their community again and can see a future for themselves in it.
But you do need entrepreneurs who will do that. Cities themselves can create space for entrepreneurs to build new ecosystems around food production. During my travels, I came across a lot of entrepreneurial spirit and enthusiasm. You see that it’s young people in particular who are starting businesses in cities. A new dynamic arises, and you start building communities around food production. If you have a piece of land where food is produced, then restaurants and market halls cluster around it, with food that is produced locally in a sustainable way.
I also think that having a viable business model is of the essence if you want to truly contribute to the transition that is so very necessary. There is simply no use in building farms that aren’t sustainable on an economic level. But what that means depends on the specific business case. For example, growing food in soil is less expensive than starting an indoor farm. So, depending on your product and the value of that product, you choose the form and technology that befits your particular enterprise.
I also see a crucial role in true cost pricing. If the price of intensive meat production reflected its true societal cost, there is no way you could buy a kilo of meat for a bargain price. By making sure the price of food reflects its true social and ecological cost, people are stimulated to buy healthy and local food.
Building partnerships, also from within your company, looking for connections with other sectors – all this makes it possible to make this mission a reality. We have the technology but, as a company, we need the people who believe in it, and the government who will facilitate it.
Do you see vertical farming existing alongside traditional farming?
As I mentioned earlier, it is up to the entrepreneur. They need to develop a business model that fits both the product and marketplace. I believe in a mixture of everything that will strengthen the ecosystem around food production.
Ms Prins, as the CEO of a high-technology company, you’re in a rare leadership position. What can you say to women who have been told that tech has no place for them?
The key to success in disrupting and setting the world on a better path comes from looking at problems or opportunities holistically, bringing ideas and talent from across all disciplines – technical, creative and business. To allow different perspectives of thinking in the organisation is crucial, because it boosts creativity, stimulates innovation and improves productivity. I find it important to recognise qualities and ambitions within my organisation and connect them. Stimulating cooperation based on mutual trust and a shared passion (or mission) is more important to me than describing my leadership as feminine.
I am proud, however, to see that at Priva more and more women are joining the traditionally male-dominated technical teams.
What’s next for Priva? What can we expect from your company joining forces with the Viessmann group?
Forces is the right word. Both companies are family owned, both are climate solution companies and both are investing heavily in digitalisation.
And, we are both purpose-driven companies, which represents an unprecedented opportunity for creating a climate for growth. Our purpose is to create sustainable, CO2-free and clean environments for living, working and recreation. Our partnership will enable both companies to substantially expand the breadth and variety of solutions we can offer and the clients that we can serve. These are significant enhancements with huge implications for our joint future success.
Viessmann and Priva share a vision of how our solutions can make a profound and pragmatic impact on the current climate crisis and change the world for the better.
We believe that partnerships, networks and smart ecosystems are crucial in providing the range and breadth of solutions needed to address the extremely complex issues of global warming, energy transition and food security.
Our combined climate and environmental solutions portfolio will enable fully sustainable living, working and horticulture environments. And we need to combine our forces to accelerate creating a sustainable world for generations to come.
Meiny Prins is CEO and co-owner of Priva. She is dedicated to promoting business sustainability and the international development of sustainable solutions in the horticultural and construction sectors. She is a recognized reference in this field. With her clear and inspiring message on sustainability, she is able to bridge the gap between businesses, governments and other sectors of society.
In 2014, Meiny Prins created the “Sustainable Urban Delta” initiative. This initiative is based on the intrinsic quality of people who know how to deal with problems in an integral way. By adopting an integral perspective, it is clear that the close relations between the city and the “green belt” will create new relations at a social, ecological and economic level. This will ensure social cohesion, an ecological environment, job opportunities and economic growth.