Our food production and distribution systems are fundamentally flawed, with consequences for both the planet and its inhabitants. Meiny Prins, CEO of Priva, argues for a hopeful future food system where people, planet, and business thrive. The Sustainable Urban Deltas concept reconnects food production with metropolitan areas and applies innovative technologies in order to procure a brighter future for the generations to come.
What makes Meiny Prins get up in the morning is the belief that she can play a part in creating a positive change in the world. And from someone working with food production and distribution, quite a lot of change is needed. As Prins highlights, the global set-up of food production and distribution has many flaws with serious consequences. That’s underlined by the fact that, globally, we produce enough food to provide for 10 billion people but still cannot manage to feed seven billion. In the USA alone, Prins says, 40 per cent of food is wasted, adding up to a situation where 130 billion meals and more than $408 billion in food are thrown away yearly.
Globally, a third of all food is wasted.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has tragically emphasised the fragility of food supply chains. As the distribution of Ukraine’s wheat production has been halted, the big importers of Ukrainian wheat – Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, and others – are suffering.
And distribution is predicted to get even more complex. By 2050 it is expected that 70 per cent of the world’s population will live in cities. As that population urbanises, the expansion of cities means that green belts and agriculture are pushed further away from people and markets. Supply chains are getting longer and more complex; sometimes, in search of the cheapest way to produce, they can stretch halfway around the world, with dire consequences for the climate.
So how can we work around the multifaceted problems in the global food market? Prins seems inspired by a famous Buckminster Fuller quote: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” Prins says that, rather than fight the power and money that lies in the existing global food system, she knows it is “a far more productive use of resources to build an alternative system, and that is what we are doing”.
Meiny Prins’s alternative food system is Sustainable Urban Delta, which she calls a “response to a wasteful system”. Sustainable Urban Deltas are about localising production by finding innovative ways to grow food closer to people. And, as Prins explains, this form of production has a range of advantages, such as inner city employment, fresher food, reduced greenhouse gases, optimal use of water, eliminating pesticides, provide educational and recreational facilities and, of course, sustainability and security for the city’s food supply.
Prins says that a variety of food production facilities can be a part of creating a sustainable Urban Delta: indoor farms, rooftops farm or open fields, but also less demanding set-ups, such as table-top farming, greenhouses, or a backyard vegetable garden. Prins is the CEO of Priva, a company that innovates in various areas related to those ways of producing, from heating glasshouses to automating urban agriculture environments to building automation and energy savings.
In Prins’s view, every technology related to farming practices is optimisable. This perspective has taken Priva far in innovating for a radically different future: “Our predictive technology 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.” Another innovative contribution is a robot designed to pick tomatoes, which is a strenuous task for humans, so that its automation can give more space for creativity and fun tasks.
Prins got the idea for the Sustainable Urban Delta from flying over the Netherlands, of which she’s a native: “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.”
That the Netherlands has been able to fit in urban farming is quite impressive when looking at the country’s density. As Prins tells us, in the Netherlands, the population density is above 500 people per square kilometre – nearly five times more than the EU average. In the west of the country, it’s double that. Still, there’s a mixture of urban development and farming. Food
is often produced inside the city boundaries or close by in the less populated east of the country. Despite the high density, the Netherlands even sells food to neighbouring countries, exporting around €100 billion and importing just €20 billion.
According to Prins, Sustainable Urban Deltas can be reproduced in cities globally. The most critical resource is engaged locals, urban planners, and entrepreneurs. Prins says: “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.”
As that happens, entrepreneurs participate in sustainable development while they start to produce the products that farms need. As Prins sees it, cities and urban planners can create space for entrepreneurs to build new ecosystems around food production. That includes nice amenities like restaurants and market halls, but also digital innovation.
As local circuits of food and innovation, reducing carbon footprints, and increasing health and quality of life, in times of volatility the Sustainable Urban Delta shows that we can move forward without compromising on profit, people, or planet.