Stopping the rot: the fight to save fresh food | Environment
Ten years ago, James Rogers was driving through some of the most productive farmland on the planet, thinking about food. He had recently read an article detailing the challenges of feeding the world’s growing population, and as he gazed out over the fertile fields of the Salinas Valley outside Monterey, California, he thought: how is it possible that people go hungry, that people starve, when growing food seems so simple? “You just take these magic beans and…” Rogers, recalling the thought, casts his hand as if tossing seed on the ground. “I realise it’s a bit more complicated than that, but, still…”
Back then, Rogers was a PhD student in material sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). He wasn’t working in anything food-related at all. His PhD research involved creating a kind of paint that, when dried, turned into a solar panel. There was a lab up in Berkeley that had the equipment necessary for his studies, but between the lab and his home in Santa Barbara, he passed the farmland, and the food problem gnawed at him. He wondered if it wasn’t merely as simple as he supposed. He began taking classes in environmental economics and natural resources. He learned that, globally, we are indeed producing more than enough food. The problem isn’t production, it’s what happens next.
We waste an extraordinary amount of food. In America it’s about 40%; in the UK, nearly the same. Around the world, almost a third of all the food produced – approximately 1.3bn tonnes – is lost one way or another each year. Much of the time it’s not merely lost, but brought into our homes only to be chucked in the bin, and then transported to a landfill, where it slowly releases methane back into the atmosphere, actively warming the Earth. Worldwide, a staggering 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions are linked to food waste. The question for Rogers was: what exactly was driving so much waste?
One day, while researching, he came across another article. He can still recall its first line: “All fresh produce is seasonal as well as perishable.” That insight – so simple, so true – struck him like a lightning bolt. “The problem,” he recalls, “is you’re either in season and have more than you know what to do with, or you have nothing.” Plenty of animals have adapted to these natural cycles of boom and bust, fat times and lean: birds migrate, bears hibernate. Humans trade, converting this surplus into a non-perishable asset we call money. Some of the earliest forms of currency were, in fact, grains stored in clay pots. And clay pottery, Rogers is quick to point out, was one of material science’s very first breakthroughs. Clay pottery allowed us to continue eating long after the harvest. But clay pottery only got us so far. It was what material science might offer food today that interested him.
He decided, then, to switch tracks. No longer would he work on paint that dried into solar panels. He would instead begin to work on increasing the shelf life of fruit and vegetables. Eventually, he developed a substance that wasn’t entirely dissimilar from the solar paint. This substance, however, was made entirely out of plant lipids, or fatty acids. Spray it on to an avocado, say, and the substance dries into a sort of second skin, which increases the avocado’s shelf life by two to three times.
The company Rogers founded, Apeel Sciences, is currently growing by hundreds of employees a year, backed by tens of millions of dollars in venture capital, and is revolutionising entire food systems and economies. But back then, in 2010, driving past those fertile fields, it was still early days. Rogers remembers calling his mother and telling her the news about his insight – the big switch in his interests and research. “Sweetie,” she said to him. “That sounds really nice. But you don’t know anything about fruit and vegetables.”
Apeel Sciences is headquartered in Goleta, California, just north of UCSB and south of farmland that quickly gives way to the rural, rolling Central California coast. The company’s 100,000 sq ft building was formerly home to a medical-device maker and the labs and clean rooms easily swapped from their previous purpose – building prototypes for entry into the human body – to their current one: the study of the molecular structures of fruit’s skin.
“This room is part of our food-manufacturing practice,” says Molly Greathouse, who is giving me a tour. We peer in, but the lab is dark and empty and appears abandoned. “It’s still being set up,” she says. “We’re still putting wires into things.” Her colleague, Daniel Costanza, is my other guide. Both are recent hires, but recent is relative: Apeel’s employee count rose in the past six months from 130 to more than 200, so Greathouse, who has been here for nearly a year-and-a-half, counts as a seasoned veteran.
We pass another lab, a clean room that houses, among other bacteria, E coli and listeria. The lights are on, and along one wall is another big door topped by a glowing red light. Here, Greathouse says, is where Apeel’s scientists put fruit and vegetables through a battery of tests mimicking conditions they might face while in transit. What happens when refrigeration shuts down? What happens when a contaminated batch of food is nearby, hence the reason for the dangerous bacteria. There are cascading effects to prolonging the shelf life of produce.
Costanza describes how one of the suppliers they work with no longer uses plastic wrap on cucumbers now that Apeel’s spray is in the mix. It’s a seemingly small change that quickly adds up. In a single year, that one move will save enough plastic wrap to enfold the Empire State Building 11 times over. “Imagine adding that to each food category throughout the globe,” Costanza says. “That’s a huge paradigm shift away from single-use plastics. It’s pretty crazy.” Costanza drops his voice, getting serious. “This is the type of technology you look back on as revolutionary. I hold it up there with electricity or the internet. There are so many lives we can affect in a positive way. And we have such tight intellectual property no one’s really able to replicate it – we don’t really have competition.”
They do, really. There’s Hazel Technologies, which is based in Chicago and makes little packets that get stashed in produce boxes. The packets alter the atmosphere within the box, slowing the food’s response to ethylene, a chemical that fruit and vegetables emit as they age that causes a breakdown in colour and texture. A similar company in the UK, called It’s Fresh, makes ethylene filters, too, and recently received a $10m investment from AgroFresh, a company that sells a dozen or so products including fungicides and wax coatings, all of which aim to prolong produce shelf life and enhance their look.
There’s also Cambridge Crops, from Massachusetts, which makes a similar edible protective coating to Apeel, using silk proteins rather than plant lipids. Cambridge Crops received $4m in seed funding from the MIT venture fund last year, whereas Apeel recently landed $70m from the Silicon Valley fund Andreessen Horowitz, which has famously backed Facebook, Twitter, Airbnb and Soylent, the meal-replacement drink company.
All of these companies and investors are making a play for a market worth at least $218bn in the US, and several times that worldwide. That number – $218bn – is about how much grocery stores, restaurants and people at home spend on food that simply gets thrown away per year, according to ReFed, a food waste-reduction nonprofit based in Berkeley, California. ReFed also estimates that, last year, venture capitalists invested about $185m in technologies to combat food waste.
People have been trying to preserve fruit and vegetables for at least as long as they’ve been putting grains in clay pots. We dry it in the sun (12,000 BC) or jam it (600 AD) or cure it (1400 AD), or cool it or can it, pasteurise it or vacuum seal it. The practice of coating a fruit in wax to seal its freshness and enhance its appearance is at least several centuries old, and today you’d be hard pressed to find a supermarket apple without it. Today, wax seals also contain antifungal properties, which are perfectly safe, and are applied in so thin a layer as to be pretty much insignificant.
What sets Apeel apart is its specific coating technology – the fact that it works more effectively than a wax and is an organic additive made from plant parts. That, and the company’s comparatively huge cash influx from Silicon Valley, and its truly global reach. Apeel is already well on its way to spanning the globe. It has satellite offices in Mexico, Peru, the Netherlands and New Jersey, and it works with five different suppliers of avocados, including Del Monte and Del Rey, which are two of the largest. It also works with Sage Fruit, one of Washington state’s largest organic apple growers.
Greathouse and Costanza shepherd me past the analytical sciences lab, where the fruit is run through a series of taste and smell tests to make sure that the Apeel spray essentially disappears as soon as it’s applied. This is a complex task. The spray can be made of the lipids from any plant – much of the source crop for their ingredients changes throughout the year, and is simply the excess or discarded produce from farms and vineyards – but it has to be molecularly reconstituted to act more or less exactly like the specific fruit on which it is sprayed.
We arrive at yet another lab, this one home to the material sciences team – the beating heart of the Apeel operation. Here, they use liquid gases to separate specific molecules from the lipid slurry, then reconfigure those molecules into a variety of combinations, essentially highly educated hunches as to what a specific fruit or vegetable’s skin might be like. If this seems like a lot of tedious guesswork, it is. The research and development for Apeel’s first product, a coating for avocados, took eight years.
Now we’re in a bright room lined with racks of mouldering strawberries and bananas. Well, some are mouldering, some are not. Each rack has a camera mounted and set to a timer, to scan the fruit and track its breakdown. Some of the fruit has been sprayed with the Apeel spray, some has not. Tim, an engineer and overseer of the rotting fruit, apologises for the fruit fly situation in the room.
Finally, our tour ends in a warehouse at the back of the building. The space is dominated by huge produce sorting and cleaning machines, rigged with a custom-made Apeel spray device that treats the fruit or vegetables at the very last step of the process.
“It feels like moisturiser,” Greathouse says, describing the spray. It is odourless and tasteless, too. Once, when Greathouse tried some of it on her hand, she thought, “Maybe I can shave with this.” In fact, she adds, “The reason we wrinkle is oxidation and moisture loss – same as fruit. I want to do an experiment with one half of my face on Apeel, one half not, and then see what happens.”
James Rogers, the CEO, has an office filled with avocados. Some are pillows, some figurines, some are squishy stress balls shaped like avocados, some are the genuine article. Rogers loves avos. “The joke with the av is: not now, not now, not now. Now? Too late,” he says. But: “When you get an Apeel avocado the joke no longer makes sense,” because the fruit stays ripe for so long. The window to enjoy it, previously so fleeting, has been stretched by weeks. The one fruit he loves even more, though, is the strawberry. “I know it’s not sexy, but it’s just my favourite,” he says. “And they go bad so quickly.” The company is a few years into R&D on that one. “When I can go pick up local Apeel strawberries in the summer and have them last until winter in my fridge, that’s when I know we’ll have made it.”
These days, Rogers spends less time in material science and more on distribution chains. It turns out, when you create a new technology that extends the shelf life of produce, it creates another problem central to the whole business: who, exactly, does this create value for? The perishability of a fruit or veg dictates everything about its supply chain. Everything from when you pick it, right down to the season and the time of the day, to where it’s packed, in the field or a packing shed. Is it then force air-cooled, or hydro-cooled? Does it travel down a flume or a conveyor belt? Does it go in a bag? Or does it get boxed? Does it go in a box with big holes or small holes? Does it go into a shipping container? Does it go into an aeroplane? Does it go into a display in the grocery store? When it goes home with you, does it go in the fridge? Or does it go on your counter?
Within every supply chain for every different fruit or vegetable lies economic opportunity. The goal for each of Apeel’s produce lines, Rogers says, is that the savings accrued by the growers or grocers are so great that you and I are actually paying less for their fruit and vegetables in the market. This is crucial, because – yes – while it’s good for the environment and will cut down on waste, feeling good about what you buy can only rope in so many consumers; the rest, the real revolution, lies in sheer economic price cutting. A cheaper piece of fruit that will last four times as long? No one will pass that bargain up.
Where things start to get truly interesting, from a market perspective, is how this opens up whole new avenues of produce to put in front of people. Just as perishability dictates everything about its supply chain, how well a fruit or vegetable travels is the most important characteristic of any mass-produced produce. The best example of this is the banana. Nearly every banana sold in supermarkets is a variety called the Cavendish. The Cavendish isn’t particularly tasty, as banana varieties go. Nor is it especially packed with nutrients. There are far better bananas out there. But none travel – stay firm and unripe quite as long – like the Cavendish. Only, the Cavendish is falling victim to its own success, and a fungus is rampaging through this particular variety. So diversity in our produce isn’t just a nice thing for us as eaters, it’s essential for our future food security.
Just up the road from Apeel’s headquarters is a farm growing a strange kind of finger-shaped lime. When cut open, the flesh appears pearled, like caviar, which is why it’s known as a caviar lime. The farm’s caviar limes are a speciality item, trucked to high-end restaurants in LA and flown to New York for the same purpose. The limes last for 7-10 days after they’ve been picked. But Apeel started working with the farm a few years ago, and was able to develop a spray that worked. A fruit with a shorter window of ripeness actually speeds up the development process, because you are able to quickly see what’s working, and what’s not. Now this fruit that was so highly specialised, appearing for just one weekend in a farmer’s market, and in a few dishes in fancy restaurants, can be sold in supermarkets.
The caviar limes weren’t Rogers’ idea. Some of his scientists became infatuated with the problem and went to work on it. But now, he sees how this might be the future: new fruit and heirloom vegetables: the weirder, more specialised, small-batch stuff, brought to the masses. The weird limes were actually the very first product Apeel brought to the market. “Thank God no one listened to me on that one,” he says, smiling, thinking back on it. It taught him another important lesson, one he carries forward now. “The shorter the shelf life, the bigger the opportunity.”
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