Our food production and distribution systems are fundamentally flawed. This puts at risk both the planet’s inhabitants and our environment. Meiny Prins, CEO at Priva, argues that it doesn’t need to be this way. We can create a brighter future by connecting food production to urban and metropolitan areas and using multiple innovative technologies intelligently and pragmatically to address the problem.
Ms. Prins, it’s an honor to have you as my guest. Thank you for your time. Let’s start with your motivations as a CEO.
My belief that there is still positive change in this world keeps me awake at night. Vision, collaboration, and setting the right priorities at all levels of society are key to making this happen. This includes individuals, communities, and cities as well as governments. I believe that optimism is what makes the difference. It is the satisfaction and joy that I can transform with my customers, colleagues, and business partners by planting seeds for the new and realizing the results.
This is not without its challenges and frustrations. It is also frustrating to see a large problem that affects everyone and know that many solutions can be found. The food industry is the focus of my frustration. It is frustrating that governments continue to subsidize this failing industry, system, process, and supply chain – whatever you want to call it – to the tune of trillions of dollars per year. This has been going on for many decades. We need to stop denying that the system is failing. We produce enough food to feed more than 10 billion people, but we cannot feed seven billion healthy. We need more evidence that the current system is broken.
Although it is a simple question to answer, the answer addresses two of our most pressing issues. This is global warming and the disastrous distribution and availability of food to billions of people. Malnutrition, hunger, and even starvation are all examples. While we don’t know the answers to both issues, we can make huge strides in eliminating them both. We can stop global warming using the technology available to us today and end global hunger by changing our food supply chains and misdirecting government subsidies. The problem is the chaotic and inefficient agricultural and food distribution systems that are causing death to billions. Death, such as starvation or death, as well as an early death from debilitating diseases and poor diet.
Priva has created climate controls and data-controlled solutions for energy savings in buildings, and climate controls for horticultural environments such as greenhouses and indoor farm climate controls, which include optimal energy use and water consumption.
Okay, I see that Priva wants to participate in the green energy transition as well as play a part in establishing global food safety. What federal food policy changes would have the greatest impact on food security or hunger?
Let’s first look at the extent of the problem. Every day, 400,000 people move to cities around the world. 70% of the world’s population is expected to be urbanized by 2050. This will push green belts, and agricultural areas farther away from people and their markets. These results are supply chains that stretch thousands of miles around the globe if it is not halfway. This is an enormous contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. It is not working. 40% of all food in the USA is wasted each year. That’s 130 billion meals and $408 billion worth of food. A third of all food is lost globally. That is insane!
Food must be kept fresh for longer periods, which can lead to a loss in nutritional value. This is fundamental. Food is not about appearance, calories, or presentation. We cannot let people starve when there’s so much food available.
It is also the younger population who moves to cities due to the increased opportunities available in urban areas. These cities are being supported by far-flung industrial farms and elderly farmers. This is not sustainable and poses a threat to stability in many cities.
You can also add to this the hugely negative environmental impact agriculture has on the environment: water wastage and air pollution, climate changes, deforestation of biodiversity, loss of biodiversity, genetic engineering, irrigation issues, pollutant, soil degradation, and waste.
This is a side effect of a system that doesn’t work, doesn’t feed the planet’s citizens sustainably and healthily, and is subventioned by almost half a billion dollars. UN research shows that nearly 90 percent of $540 billion in global subsidies given annually to farmers is considered “harmful”. Subventioned Brazilian soybean beans are sent to Europe to be fed to cattle while European farmers are paid to leave their fields untouched. Is that the right way to do things? Add to that the $5.3 trillion in subsidies for fossil fuel industries, and the list is endless.
Many types of stimuli, like innovation subsidies, focus on silos within an industry. A silo of water is available, and the subsidy for water silo subsidies is available. You may also have an energy subsidy and a silo full of water. No one will help you if you can create energy from water. We need a better way to communicate with the government. Global warming solutions must be multi-sectoral, collaborative, and comprehensive. They will require the integration of many disciplines, ideas, and innovations from many different areas. These solutions must be addressed at both the national and EU levels, without borders. Silos are dead.
This is the issue. But you want to know what can be done at the federal, international, and national levels. It would be a huge task that would involve trillions of dollars in entrenched interests and is likely doomed to fail. Imagine the effort required to combat this amount of money and power that permeates politics, banking, and industries?
Many projects around the globe bring fresh, healthy food farming to the heart of cities. This reduces waste and creates jobs, hope, and employment.
It is far more productive to create an alternative system, and I am aware of this. The unholy alliance today of lobbyists, banks, businesses, and governments will soon disappear. It is absurd to spend energy, effort, and time trying to convince people who won’t change that there is another way. However, it may be less profitable for them. We don’t need to convince them, as they will eventually wither away and disappear under their global damaging weight.
Sustainable Urban Delta is where I put my creative energy and creativity into a project that will make a difference. It’s my solution to a system that is inefficient. We won’t lose the battle against the cartels; we will replace the existing system with one that is more sustainable and meets the needs of many other stakeholders.
Many projects around the globe bring fresh, healthy food farming to the heart of cities. This reduces waste and provides employment, hope, and regeneration. Some city planners realized the importance of ensuring their food supply and began to incorporate urban horticulture in their planning process for this rapidly growing urban landscape.
It’s showing by doing. Urban agriculture is a way for people to see the benefits and become part of a growing movement. It’s a joy to be there.
In 2007, you began to develop your ideas about sustainable urban deltas. In 2014, you launched Sustainable Urban Delta. Since 2020, it has been an organization called the Foundation. Did climate change influence your decision to take the initiative? Is there a future where every backyard has an indoor farm?
Climate change was certainly a factor in Priva’s move to energy-efficient building automation, and the creation of sustainable urban deltas. But it wasn’t the only one.
Sustainable Urban Delta was born out of comparing the grey concrete views I saw while flying over many cities to the green mosaic of the Netherlands. It has arguably one city on its west coast. This is how the vision for Sustainable Urban Delta emerged. My home country is a functioning, living, and productive example of a food-producing nation.
The Netherlands has a population density exceeding 500 people per square kilometer, which is almost five times that of the EU average. It is nearly twice as high in the west, where there is a healthy mix of urban development, farming, and rural development. The majority of food is produced in the city limits or within a few kilometers from the east. It is then exported to neighboring countries. We don’t grow pineapples or oranges, as there are limitations to what can be grown locally. However, despite our large urban population, we export more than EUR100 billion worth of food. Imports are around EUR20 billion. The Netherlands is a great example of a single modern city that can sustain itself.
This was due to the wastage in the current global food supply chain. It was also a significant driver. This has a significant impact on life expectancy, education, and health. This is yet another example of the way that today’s food logistics industry is putting people to death.
The Netherlands model is the future for “urban farming”, and it’s so much more than backyard farming.
Any city with inner-city agriculture can replicate this model. The benefits of this model are enormous: they provide inner-city employment, fresher foods, fewer greenhouse gases, optimal water use, pesticide elimination, educational and recreational facilities, sustainability, and security for the city’s food supply. It can be an indoor, rooftop, or open-air farm. You can also make it a sustainable chicken farm or fish farm. It is entirely up to the entrepreneur, their market, and their ambitions.
You can leverage technology and innovation to do more than traditional farming. How much do you use AI/robotics to aid you in your growth?
Digital innovations are the future of technology, and there is no doubt about that. Digital technologies are essential to combat global warming. We must streamline the agricultural sector using digital technology. Priva is the center of innovation. Digital innovation at its most intense is occurring at the intersection of companies, industries, departments, knowledge domains, and countries. The friction between ideas and reality is what is generating the most important developments that will bring this planet back to equilibrium. This is how we work.
Priva has moved from heating glasshouses and automated urban agriculture environments (horticulture) to building automation, energy savings, and digitizing every step of the way. We also use ideas from different sectors to invent new products and services. Innovation at its best is when diverse disciplines come together and collaborate to discover new ideas.
Digitalization is crucial for optimal glasshouse agriculture resource usage. This includes optimal water usage (10% less water than open-field farms), optimal nutrients delivery, optimal light, and optimal temperature. All can be optimized. The predictive technology allows plants to communicate directly with the software and guide it, not the other direction. Each plant has a biorhythm. It wakes up at a certain time each day, starts to evaporate, and begins to produce leaves or fruit. The software was originally designed to control the environment. You now have a plant that designs all of these things to ensure maximum health and growth. You can also monitor everything remotely and control it from your smartphone.
Our most recent innovation is a robot to prune tomato plant leaves. This is an awkward and difficult task for humans, but a complex task for robots. Each cut is unique. This is digital innovation at its best, taking the tedious work out of work and allowing people to be more creative.
One of the most challenging tasks I’ve ever had to do was to introduce digitalization at Priva. As I said, we all had to surrender control to automation and even hand control to the plants. This was more than just thinking outside the box, it was living, breathing, and working outside the box. It was so refreshing.
It is obvious to young people and start-ups. But, if you are a product-oriented company, shifting your focus to digital services can be difficult as it affects every department of the company. It doesn’t end with technology. Technology is essential for innovation. However, you must also rethink your economics and how you conduct processes and consider sustainability.
In your initial desire to be a graphic designer, you even started a design business. What has your experience with this influenced the way you lead Priva?
Graphic design allowed me to express myself and to have the discipline to make it happen. In the face of daunting obstacles, I learned how to rethink, rethink, and rethink.
One of the most challenging tasks I’ve ever had to do was to introduce digitalization at Priva. As I said, we all had to surrender control to automation and even hand control over the plants.
I was inspired to create my ecosystem to design and build my Sustainable Urban Delta vision. I didn’t waste my time trying to convince people that they won’t listen or learn. They are too invested in the status quo to change. It is much more satisfying and better to do the work and then show the results to others who are willing to change.
Many people are taking urban agriculture to the next level and creating amazing solutions for our supply chain, jobs, and health problems. It is a pleasure to work with them. Instead of banging your head on a brick wall, live a life filled with joy and accomplishment. This is creativity.
Priva was founded in 1959 and has been working tirelessly to develop sustainable climate control solutions for a better quality of living. Priva has significantly reduced fossil fuel use and created new models that have a lower environmental impact. What does it feel to not only be part of but to also lead an incredible team?
Now, it is common to say that every company should become a software company. We have done that. Max Viessmann (CEO of our partner company), stated that every company should also become a climate solutions company. We have done that too. Both are interdependent. One is the means to an end, the other is the end in itself – survival.
Building automation can reduce energy consumption by an average of 25%, or even as high as 40%. We have created an algorithm that allows us to store and analyze data on energy usage in the cloud. This creates digital twins and connects multiple buildings. If we could do the same for all the large Dutch buildings, we could save enough electricity to shut down five of the remaining coal-fired power plants in the country. These issues could be solved if we were pragmatic. These solutions work.
I know we can’t do it fast enough, but that is not what I meant. We could easily close the Netherlands’ most dangerous power stations if we all came together to find a solution. However, it would take years of lobbying, persuading, and cajoling. Most likely, without participating. Innovation is to stop banging and rethink your approach to finding a solution. There are always two sides to every situation.
To the future: What broad, realistic economic measures – such as increasing wages or creating jobs – should we take to improve the agricultural distribution system? What does this mean for the company’s vision and mission?
It is essential to raise awareness at the municipal level if we are to bring back food production. The infrastructure and space must be provided by city planners. They must also encourage residents to start food-related businesses. Local food production can transform entire communities and neighborhoods. An indoor farm built in a poor neighborhood will provide fresh food for the community, but will eventually grow to become a job-generating place. It will then attract other entrepreneurs who will produce the products that the farm requires. This will transform the entire neighborhood over the next few years. The area will see an increase in house prices, more people will choose to build families there, and new schools will open. People will feel proud of their community and see a bright future.
Entrepreneurs are needed to do this. Entrepreneurs can build new food production ecosystems in cities. During my travels, I encountered a lot of entrepreneurial spirit and enthusiasm. It’s not only young people who start businesses in cities, but also older people. This creates a new dynamic, where you can build communities around food production. A piece of land that can be used for food production will attract restaurants and markets to it.
A viable business model is also essential if you are to make a real contribution to the necessary transition. It is not worth building farms that can’t be sustained on an economic basis. However, it depends on what the business case is. Growing food in the soil can be cheaper than setting up an indoor farm. Depending on the product you are selling and its value, the technology, and form that is best suited for your enterprise will be chosen.
True cost pricing is also something I see as a key role. A kilo would not be cheap if the cost of intensive meat production was true to its societal cost. People are encouraged to buy local and healthy food by ensuring that the food’s price reflects its true ecological and social cost.
It is possible to achieve this mission by building partnerships within your company and connecting with other sectors. Although we have the technology, we still need people to believe in it and the government to facilitate it.
Do vertical farms exist alongside traditional agriculture?
It is up to the entrepreneur, as I said earlier. They must develop a business plan that is compatible with both the product and the market. A mixture of all things is what I believe will help strengthen the food production ecosystem.
As the CEO of a high technology company, Ms. Prins is in a unique leadership role. What advice can you give women who were told tech is not for them?
Success in disrupting the world and setting it on a better course is achieved by looking at problems and opportunities holistically and bringing together ideas and talent from all areas of business, technical, creative, and business. It is important to allow people from different backgrounds to think in an organization. This increases creativity, stimulates innovation, and improves productivity. I need to recognize the qualities and ambitions of my organization and connect them. I believe that building trust and mutual respect is the best way to encourage cooperation.
Priva is seeing more women join traditionally male-dominated technical teams. This makes me proud.
What’s next at Priva? What are the prospects for your company joining hands with the Viessmann Group?
Forces are the correct word. Both are family-owned companies, both are climate solutions companies, and both invest heavily in digitalization.
We are both purpose-driven businesses, which gives us unprecedented opportunities to create a growth climate. Our goal is to create clean, sustainable, and CO 2-free environments for living, working, and recreation. Both companies will be able to significantly expand the range and number of solutions they offer, as well as the clients we can serve. These are important enhancements that will have huge consequences for our future success.
Priva and Viessmann share a vision for how our solutions can have a profound, practical impact on the climate crisis of the present and make the world a better place.
We believe partnerships, networks, and smart ecosystems are essential in providing the breadth and depth of solutions required to address the complex issues of global warming, energy transition, and food security.
The combined climate and environment solutions portfolio will allow for fully sustainable living, working, and horticulture. We must work together to create a sustainable future for all generations.