TACOMA, Washington — Based in the Sunshine State of California, where nearly half of America’s fruits, vegetables and nuts are grown, Apeel Sciences has developed a formula for edible, plant-derived coatings that preserve produce twice as long as the wax on most supermarket foods.
While Apeel-coated produce is currently only available in stores in the U.S. and Europe, the start-up company has raised an additional $30 million in funding for programs targeting smallholder farmers in regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. Not only is Apeel’s innovative technology geared toward reducing food waste and increasing sustainability in wealthy countries, the organization is also extending the lifespan of crops grown in developing countries. Apeel also aims to reduce post-harvest losses, establish new supply chains and provide smallholder farmers with access to consumer markets that were previously unavailable to them.
World Hunger: A Complex Problem
It is no secret that the world’s food systems do, in fact, produce enough to feed its entire population. Yet, the U.N. estimates that two billion men, women and children still lack access to sufficient amounts of safe and healthy food. Hunger and malnutrition continue to pose the most significant threats to global health. In 2018, 821 million people were undernourished, up from 786 million in 2015.
One of the issues affecting global hunger is post-harvest crop loss (PHL), which is often due to limitations on the harvesting, storage and transportation of crops. According to the U.N.’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), PHL can impose an enormous burden on smallholder farmers in developing regions. For instance, in Sub-Saharan Africa, the FAO’s estimates place the upper range of PHL at 20% for grains and 40% for vegetables and fruits. In 2011 alone, PHL cost Sub-Saharan Africa $4 billion, more than all of the funding it received in food assistance during the same timeframe.
Although the scale of crop loss has been contested—the World Bank argues that PHL is actually much less widespread in Sub-Saharan Africa than the FAO posits—even skeptics can emphasize the importance of improving farmers’ market access to ensure that crops do not spoil (or get eaten by pests) before they reach the end of the supply chain. Furthermore, having stated in its analysis of the 2008 food crisis in Tanzania that environmental conditions like heat and humidity tend to significantly increase PHL, the World Bank also underscores the need to mitigate the effects of these conditions in regions worldwide with warm climates and little or no refrigeration infrastructure.
Another, perhaps even more significant obstacle to ending world hunger is food waste. The World Food Program estimates that every year one-third of all food is wasted, amounting to a loss of $1 trillion. Much of this occurs in wealthy countries. For example, in the U.S., only 60-70% of food is actually consumed, the rest is simply thrown away. Moreover, the amount of food produced in Sub-Saharan Africa each year, consumers in more affluent parts of the world waste nearly as much within the exact same time period.
The paradox highlighted above, wherein the world produces enough food but millions go to bed hungry, is one that likewise puzzled James Rogers, who founded Apeel Sciences in 2012 with a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Rogers’s solution? A new formula for food coatings that postpones spoilage by preventing water loss and reducing oxidation. And while the idea of “coatings” might at first raise a few eyebrows, consumers have nothing to fear. Not only are these completely edible, but they use the same materials (lipids and glycerolipids) that are already present in all fruits and vegetables.
Apeel offers a way to decrease food waste in Western countries where its products are currently sold. The organization also has the means to reduce the environmental impacts of growing, transporting and packaging food. Besides this, the $30 million funding it has recently raised from investors like the International Finance Corporation (IFC), Apeel will help grow supply chains in Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, Mexico and Central and South America. Programs with smallholder farmers in these regions will extend the shelf life of their crops even if they lack refrigeration, reducing PHL and enabling producers to reach wider markets.
Solving World Hunger One Fruit at a Time
Through these initiatives, Apeel is working to provide a significant economic benefit to smallholder farmers, whose supply of food typically outpaces demand at their local markets. According to Rogers, once these farmers’ produce is made available to consumers at more domestic markets and at the international stores where Apeel products are currently sold, demand should increase and drive supply needs. With two-thirds of the world’s poor employed in agriculture, these programs would become a real gain for small producers.
World hunger is a complex problem. Tackling it means tackling, among other things, food waste, crop loss, sustainability and poverty. Lucky for us, Apeel Sciences is working to do just that, one piece of fruit at a time.
– Angie Grigsby