By 2050 earth will be home to 9.7 billion people, all of whom must be fed using less land and fewer resources. And it will have to be done as climate change wreaks havoc on farmers.
“We need to build a system that allows us to feed the population in a much more efficient manner,” says James Rogers, CEO of Apeel Sciences.
But to Rogers, efficiency isn’t about growing more food. It’s about better utilizing the food that we already grow—a tremendous amount of which ends up spoiling before it ever reaches consumers. The U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organizations estimates that the global cost of food waste is a whopping $2.6 trillion per year.
Rogers’ startup is attempting to solve the waste problem by prolonging the shelf life of produce—about a third of which ends up in landfills in the U.S. (In developing nations, that rate is even higher because of a lack of access to refrigeration technology.) To do it, he’s tackling the leading cause of spoilage in fruits and vegetables—water getting out and oxygen getting in.
Five-year-old Apeel makes an edible substance that can be applied to the outside of produce, creating an invisible barrier that Rogers says can double to quadruple shelf life. That's key for growers in developing economies who want to access faraway markets where their produce commands a premium.
Take Peruvian avocados. It takes about 30 days to get them to China, where avocado consumption is exploding, Rogers says. But even with cold storage, the avocado has a shelf life of about 30 days—meaning they are essential spoiled just as they arrive. His product, he claims, can extend that shelf life to 50 days.
Here’s how the product works: The company takes uneaten plant material like banana leaves and peels—whatever is left behind on the farm—blends them up, and extracts certain lipid molecules. It ships the resulting product in powder form, which is reconstituted into a liquid before it’s sprayed onto produce, or produce is dipped into the solution.
The resulting barrier acts as a physical impediment to water evaporating, keeping the moisture inside. “We’re very simply augmenting what nature has already designed,” he says.
The barrier also controls for the rate at which the produce breathes, called respiring. All produce has a certain number of "breaths" it takes in its lifetime, a process which has traditionally been slowed by cooling fruits and vegetables as soon as they are picked (cooling by 10 degrees Celsius cuts the rate in half). Apeel’s barrier, however, can also slow that rate down, doubling the shelf life without any form of refrigeration. Every fruit has a different rate of breathing, so Apeel creates a custom formulation that matches the breathing rate of each type.
Apeel’s product have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and has already been used by some farmers in Santa Barbara. Yesterday Apeel received its organic certification, which means the product is now cleared for use on USDA organic produce.
Rogers says he expects the product to be used at a very large commercial scale in the second and third quarters and be in large grocers later this year. Apeel has raised $40 million in funding from backers including Andreessen Horowitz, Upfront Ventures, DBL Partners, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation.
Rogers says that while the company’s core focus today is developing a commercially viable business in the U.S., he’s committed to introducing the product in developing markets. The company has already been working with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Kenya and Nigeria.
Rogers came up with the idea when he was doing work at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Berkeley. During the nearly six-hour drive between the two campuses he would pass California's lush green fields, ready for harvest, and wonder, “How is it possible that we’re screwing this up so bad that there are people who are still hungry?”
There is perhaps no one better suited to take on this task than Rogers, who has a background in material engineering. As an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon, Rogers studied steel—a combination of iron and carbon atoms. Rust limits steel’s application, but Rogers had learned that if you incorporate sacrificial atoms like nickel into the iron, these atoms will react with the oxygen in the atmosphere and form a barrier that covers the outside of the steel.
Rogers realized that if fresh produce is afflicted by the same elements as steel—water and oxygen—maybe he could use the same approach to prolong their shelf life.
At the time he was studying flexible solar panels, which led him to solar paint. “I spent six and a half years of my life watching paint dry,” he quips. He discovered that if you dried the paint slower, you would get solar cells that were two times as efficient as the ones that dried faster. It applied directly to the work he wanted to do with produce—studying how a barrier dries to get just the right type of properties.
Rogers got pushback when he first started telling friends about his idea. "They said, 'Sounds like a great idea but no one wants to eat chemicals,'" he explains. "That's such a naive thing to say. Food is a chemical." But he realized that he would need to find a material present in the crops already if consumers were going to feel comfortable with the idea.
"What we’re doing is using food to preserve food," he says. "There’s no magic."