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Blog : From the private sector to the United Nations

Our journey creating cross-sectoral awareness on the role that high-tech greenhouses can play in circular economies 

By Jessie-Lynn van Egmond | Circular Development Manager | Van der Hoeven

When I started working in the horticultural industry, almost four years ago, I was mesmerized by the high levels of technology and possibilities when it came to growing crops. As an engineer, I had a technical background, but I was not prepared seeing lettuce in fully automated systems extending over hectares of “untouched” baby leaves, or tomatoes and bell peppers that can be grown in the world’s coldest regions, but also in the world’s harshest deserts. Rapid innovation became the backbone of my daily work.

When Covid hit, I also witnessed the global shift that happened where the world got more interested in food security and self-sufficiency, moving away from import dependence using high-tech greenhouses, propelling our R&D department further. 

At first, I focused my efforts on optimizing recycling practices inside the greenhouses: “How can we integrate new technologies in our existing greenhouse to help recover resources? How can we use even less water than we already do?” But it was not long before I got swept away by a different topic: the role that high-tech greenhouses can play in enhancing cross-sectoral collaboration and circular economies. 

"I was not prepared seeing lettuce in fully automated systems extending over hectares of 'untouched' baby leaves" Photo: SARA Farm Japan

From linear to circular economies with high-tech greenhouses 

When you do not just see a high-tech greenhouse as a ‘black box’ where resources go in, and fruits and vegetables come out, there is a world of circularity and collaboration that opens. High-tech greenhouses can be positioned in a way where they are an essential link in creating circular ecosystems, key in building a holistic bridge across the water-energy-food nexus and waste sector. I was slightly amazed with how little awareness there was for this form of implementing greenhouses, outside of our own horticultural industry. 

"Why are these types of projects not implemented more, and to a broader extent?" 

In essence, everything that a high-tech greenhouse needs to grow crops are four key input streams: water, energy, nutrients and CO₂, which can all be obtained from urban, agricultural or industrial waste streams. The beauty herein lies that greenhouse projects using individual waste streams already exist. They are concrete examples of what can happen when the water, energy, food and waste sectors come together to join hands. So this brought with it the following questions: “Why are these types of projects not implemented more, and to a broader extent? And why don't high-tech greenhouses, as a standard, use multiple waste streams if the technologies to do this are already proven?” 

To better understand this, a small team from Van der Hoeven ventured out, not just beyond the walls of our headquarters, but beyond the confines of our own sector, embarking on a journey far beyond our customary international food and greenhouse network.  

UN Water Conference in New York. The initial Circular City Team ventured out to unexplored conferences and events to advocate for the message of cross-sectoral collaboration and speak to policymakers and other stakeholders on integrating the water, energy and food sector by using high-tech greenhouses.

As we continued, my colleagues and I were now adopted as the ‘Circular City Team’. And as our team grew, so did the enthusiasm in and outside the company. We continued on our quest, broadening the scope of who we wanted to reach out to, extending ourselves to policy makers outside of our own sector, which also brought us to the United Nations Water Conference in New York in March 2023.  

The United Nations Water Conference in New York 

Marc MiddeldorpTim Tijsma and I made our way across the Atlantic, finding ourselves at the headquarters of the United Nations, at the first Water Conference in almost 50 years. There, we noticed that many people were speaking about the need for cross-sectoral collaboration and the necessity of looking beyond their own water, food, energy and waste silo, but little was still done. There was a challenge in finding concrete solutions and projects where crossovers between industries were already successfully implemented. And even though people did address the need for it, only two (!) of the side events at the Water Conference were related to food. This is especially shocking when you realize that over 70% of global freshwater withdrawals go to agriculture, and wastewater is such a resource for both open field agriculture and greenhouses. 

The UN water conference was co-hosted by the the Governments of Tajikistan and the Netherlands and the first United Nations Water Conferences in a generation.

At the UN we participated in the side event of the Global Water & Food Working Group, and we pitched our ideas at the Innovation Platform in the famous basement of the UN building, where there was a lot of positive attention. Not just for the reduction in water demand that can be achieved when growing crops in high-tech greenhouses, but also for the role that high-tech greenhouses can play in creating circular economies, self-sufficiency and food security. We closed off by submitting our Water Commitments to the United Nations Water Action Agenda. And although the conference confirmed there is still much work to do, it also allowed us to continue on our journey with fresh energy and lifted spirits. 

Side event at United Nations Water Conference with Global Working Group on Water & Food: “Make Water Pivotal in Food Systems”. A Working Group where Wageningen University is in the lead, advocating for the cross-over between the two sectors, and joining in stakeholders from many different backgrounds.

The United Nations Climate Conference 

This is also when we set our intentions and ambitions even higher, and decided we would focus our efforts on the United Nations Climate Conference, the biggest global gathering on climate and sustainability; this year running as COP28 from November 30 – December 11, 2023, in Dubai.  

Now, as COP28 is kicking off, our Team’s message is crystal clear: “When it comes to creating circular economies and integrating different sectors, technology is not the limiting factor, awareness and collaboration is”. 

Between New York and Dubai, we made a few extra stops participating in several events, from the FAO Rome Water Dialogue to the Amsterdam International Water Week (AIWW).
AIWW - “Raise your hand if you are from the Food Sector”

As COP28 has officially started today, our team is getting ready to share the our message with the world, and with global high-level policy makers. Now getting ready to leave for Dubai, I want to give a special shout out to Van der Hoeven's wonderful Circular City Team - who have proven to be as resilient and self-sufficient as our greenhouses. 

Although there were several times where the work seemed too overplenty, we managed to pull through. And even though, as a private sector party and team, we are aware we are not yet fully sustainable, we are proud to say that we are actively in transition, willing to take a stand, willing to put ourselves out there, willing to grow, willing to inspire, willing to be inspired and most of all: willing to share, learn and join hands. Only then can we work on the road towards more integrated and future-proof regions, tackling several issues at once, proactively building on knowledge and connection, between sectors and above all, between people. 

Are you participating in COP28 and want to have a coffee with me or the Circular City Team to learn more about our circular solutions? Are you from the water, energy or waste sector interested in knowing more about our greenhouses? Or are you from any other realm wanting to build a bridge with horticulture or the food sector? Reach out t

Follow us to see what can happen when the water, energy and waste sector join hands with the greenhouse industry to create industrial symbiosis and circular systems!