How to Fight Food Waste With Food Waste

Apeel Sciences uses what might otherwise be trash to make a second skin for fragile fruit and vegetable products.
(Photo: Getty Images)
Dec 14, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

As much of the country remains in the grip of a wicked spell of early winter courtesy of a polar vortex, the bounty of farmers market season sure can feel a long way off right about now. But thanks to one emerging food-tech start-up, we may one day soon be enjoying far fresher produce year-round—and the solution is all-natural.

For much of the last half century, the relationship between technology and food production has been one of decidedly mixed blessings—just think of all those chemical pesticides or the revolution of GMO crops. Yet today, a new generation of start-ups is trying to make a happier marriage between science and food. You’ve likely heard of (and probably tasted) the efforts of companies like Hampton Creek to replace eggs with plant-based ingredients in a host of products, such as mayonnaise. Now Apeel Sciences, based in Santa Barbara, California, is looking to bring a similar spirit of Silicon Valley–style disruption to the whole business of produce.

Despite the loads of health benefits associated with consuming fresh produce and the relentless encouragement from health experts that we eat more fruits and veggies, getting said produce to market is enormously expensive and wasteful. An estimated 40 percent of all fruits and vegetables grown in the U.S. ends up in the trash. Too much of what makes it to your local grocery store is often coated in layers of wax to keep it as fresh—or, rather, fresh looking—as possible.

Apeel has developed what appears to be a revolutionary solution to this conundrum: By taking plant material that would ordinarily be wasted (grape skins from wine production, for example, or broccoli stems) and engineering a micro-thin, invisible, tasteless “barrier” that can be applied to produce, the company hopes to dramatically extend the shelf life of everything from strawberries and bananas to green beans. That not only would cut down on the amount of produce wasted but could allow growers to harvest produce at its peak ripeness—and maybe we’d no longer have to settle for those hard, tasteless red things that pass for fresh strawberries.

What’s even more inspiring about Apeel is where it has been testing its products. As The New York Times reported, founder James Rogers and fellow University of California, Santa Barbara, grad student Jenny Du began developing the Apeel protective produce barriers in a garage (just like all the best Silicon Valley entrepreneurs) and, in 2012, received a $100,000 award from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The foundation was interested in the potential of Rogers’ work to help small-scale farmers in Africa bring their cassava root to market. A major staple of the African diet, cassava root degrades quickly after harvest. “If not consumed or processed in 24 to 48 hours, you lose significant amounts,” Rob Horsch of the foundation told the Times. “That makes it hard to generate any income from what’s produced, and a lot of it goes to waste.” Yet by using one of Rogers’ protective barriers, farmers were able to double the shelf life of cassava—a development that’s expected to create a $1 billion market for cassava in Nigeria alone, the Times reported.

So far here in the states, Apeel has raised $40 million in venture capital funding, and the company says it is in negotiations with a number of produce companies to begin selling its products at commercial scale. Ten-day-old organic bananas that stay yellow instead of turning brown-black? That day couldn’t come soon enough.