Stopping the rot: the fight to save fresh food
Away from the doom and gloom of Covid-19, some good news from the world of material sciences – a technology to reduce or even eliminate food wastage. Reducing wastage of food not only helps more efficient utilisation of scarce resources across the global population but also helps in addressing climate change.
“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 article talks about a company called Apeel Sciences, founded by James Rogers, a Phd in material sciences who got intrigued by the problem of food wastage and took a shot at using his education to solve one of the biggest problems the world is facing.
“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.
… 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.
..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.”