Growers United towards 100% sustainability

Good food in good hands. Growers United is a cooperative of more than 40 growers of tomatoes, sweet peppers, cucumbers and aubergines. Family businesses with years of experience, expertise of growing and a firm focus on the future. And that future is sustainable. If the shape of the future is in the hands of Growers United, in 2040 they will be using completely circular, fair and healthy cultivation systems.

“Sustainability is part of our DNA at Growers United” says Jan Opschoor, managing director of Growers United. In its role as a growers’ cooperative, one of the tasks of Growers United is marketing the greenhouse vegetables produced by its members. Working together, with openness and transparency, towards the same goal: supplying consumers with the most delicious and healthiest vegetables grown as sustainably as possible.

“Society in general and our customers are placing sustainability higher on their list of priorities. Some 20 years ago the question was: ‘Which measures do you take to safeguard quality and food safety?’ Now these are standard elements of production, the focus has shifted to the sustainability credentials of our production methods”, says Jan.

Growers United focuses on three principles to increase its sustainability: Less impact – by minimising its consumption of energy, water and crop protection products. Reduce waste – by finding new uses for waste streams. And healthy people – by promoting the health of employees and consumers.

Less impact
Growers United wants to minimise the impact its crops have on the environment. The high-tech greenhouses used for vegetable cultivation in the Netherlands are ideal for sustainable cultivation and rank among the most sustainable in Europe. The closed loop irrigation systems used in these greenhouses enable recirculation, so no valuable water is wasted. This offers the added advantage that any nutrients not absorbed by the plants can also be reused.

Opschoor: “Energy saving measures in greenhouse horticulture started back in the 1990s. We are now transitioning to renewable energy sources such as geothermal heat and residual heat from industrial applications. At present 50% of our growers are already connected to a sustainable energy source and a further 30% are actively planning to do the same.”

When it comes to using crop protection products, our ambition is to deploy natural predators and green products only to control pests and diseases. As part of the cooperative there is a quality team that supports growers in their sustainable initiatives.   

Reduce waste
Growers United has also made huge progress in reducing waste. It is still necessary to use some packaging material to protect the vegetables. Wrapping cucumbers in plastic increases the shelf life by 50% and prevents waste. “Over the past few years we have continued to reduce the thickness of our plastic and cardboard packaging. We are continuing to increase the volume of recycled raw materials we use and 100% of our plastic packaging material can already be recycled in the chain.” And the growers are also well on their way towards circular horticulture. Green waste is processed to create compost and the stone wool substrates used to grow the crops are repurposed into bricks after the cultivation cycle.

Healthy people
A healthy production method leads to a healthy product. This is embodied by the third pillar of sustainability at Growers United. The cooperative wants to be a good employer for its own employees and flexible workers in the sector. Growers United also takes its responsibility towards consumers seriously: “We want to promote a healthy diet. In cooperation with the retail sector, we are examining ways of stimulating shoppers to eat more vegetables, so that our products can have a positive impact on the health of society in general. One way is by developing delicious recipes to inspire them to indulge in healthy eating moments more often each day.”

Sustainability goals
These are the steps Growers United is taking on its journey towards 100% circular, fair and healthy in 2040. The cooperative plays a coordinating role in this respect. Individual growers also see increased sustainability as a positive initiative: “Creating a future-proof company involves taking responsibility for the environment and investing in sustainability. However, the investments must also be economically attractive. More efficient use of raw materials certainly offers financial benefits, but switching to geothermal energy involves an element of risk. These investments have to be recouped from the market or subsidies are necessary to make the investments profitable.” So achieving the sustainability goals is not the responsibility of the growers alone. “Increasing sustainability is a project with multiple stakeholders,” Opschoor stresses. “The government has a task in facilitating sustainability and consumers also have a role. After all, they must be willing to pay higher prices for sustainably grown vegetables.”