Up to 40 percent of food is wasted on its way from the farm to your mouth. These companies are trying to change that.
By Michael Blanding for The Engine
Illustrations by Andrés Rodríguez
Cambridge Crops CEO Adam Behrens unzips a blue cloth and pulls it away from a rack of shelves. Sitting neatly in rows are a dozen or so avocados, with small Post-It Notes indicating the date that they were placed there. The gnarled fruits look almost identical, aside from a slight sheen on some of their peels — but that nearly imperceptible difference has a huge impact on how long they can last before spoiling. “We are seeing a two to three times increase in shelf life,” says Behrens, who wears glasses and a grey MIT sweatshirt.
The company’s secret lies in a cardboard box that Behrens now pulls down from the shelf. Inside are what looks like hundreds of hollow, Styrofoam packing peanuts. In actuality, they are silkworm cocoons — the same material used by the garment industry to make a silk shirt or dress. He and his colleagues at the company Cambridge Crops take these cocoons, boil them, and then hit them with salt to free silk fibroin, a naturally occurring, non-toxic, and biocompatible protein. They then dissolve it in water, so it can be spread over the surface of a food. Once dry, the solution reforms into something very much resembling the original cocoon that protected the silkworm during its metamorphosis.
“These cocoons evolved to protect a super delicate biological transformation with specific gas diffusion and anti-microbial properties,” Behrens says. “We can lend those properties to a food item in an unperceivable film.” Avocados are just the beginning for Cambridge Crops, which is experimenting with applying its protective coating to food items including apples, fish, poultry, and beef. The company is part of a technological revolution to extend the life of our foods on their journey through the food supply chain, including production, packaging, distribution, consumption, and disposal.
Depending on the estimate, between 30 and 40 percent of the food in the U.S. never makes it from the field to our stomachs — that’s 63 million tons annually, or more than a pound of food per person each day. It rots in the fields, spoils in trucks, wilts on supermarket shelves, or gets scraped from our plates into the trash. As much as all that decay is a tragedy, it is also an opportunity, says Chris Cochran, director of ReFED, a nonprofit dedicated to reducing food waste. “I come at it from the angle of ‘How do we feed 10 billion people by 2050, when we don’t have the land or additional natural resources to put to food production?’” he says. “One of the most natural places to start is to look at waste in the food system.”
Cutting down waste could have a dramatic environmental impact, as well. The majority of natural resources in the U.S. are used for agriculture and food production, Cochran continues, and waste alone accounts for some 20 percent of water usage, and 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. “It’s production of fertilizer used on farms, it’s fuel for the farm implements, it’s fuel for transporting food thousands of miles by airplane or truck — often in refrigerated conditions — and it’s methane released from unconsumed food in landfills,” Cochran says.
In fact, tackling food waste is one of those rare enterprises that is a true win-win-win, increasing the supply of food, improving the environment, and potentially saving companies money by increasing efficiency in the system. Perhaps that is why two-thirds of food companies have endorsed the United Nation’s ambitious goal of cutting food waste in half by 2030. “The food industry is a low-margin business, and it is becoming increasingly competitive,” Cochran says. Entry of companies like Amazon and Wal-Mart into the grocery market, along with an explosion of online delivery options has created incredible price competition in the industry. While food companies have once seen waste as a cost of doing business, now many are aggressively pushing to discover previously unexamined ways to reduce spoilage.
ReFED tallied some $125 million invested in the first 10 months of last year. It is now tracking 500 startups in the space, half of which have emerged in the past five years. Unlike some other startup industries, their business model is often clear — capturing some of the value of waste for companies growing and transporting food, while pocketing a percentage of it themselves. “Step one is to charge the customer for the product or service you are providing,” says Niko Hrdy, president of Valley Oak Investments, an investor in food waste companies such as Spoiler Alert and Hazel Technologies. “You say, if you use this product, you will make an extra 20 dollars, and you only have to pay me 5.”
Some big companies are getting involved in the space directly. Shipping giant Maersk transports 30 percent of all refrigerated food containers in the world. Two years ago, it launched Maersk Growth, a venture arm that has so far invested in 10 companies, half of which are tackling the problem of food waste. Last year, it launched FoodTrack, a month-long incubator program at its company headquarters in Copenhagen to provide support for early-stage companies, ending in a demo day in which they can pitch for funding. Maersk Growth venture partner Peter Jorgensen sees technology as key to overcoming waste in food distribution — which can total a $1 trillion loss worldwide each year. “There is a lack of visibility and data in the industry that runs much more analog than digital,” he says. “We need to drive a substantial change in digitization and through that create more visibility and more effective supply chains.”
That supply chain starts with production at the farms and slaughterhouses that produce the vegetables and proteins that eventually make it into our dinner. Farms have long been experimenting with technologies to improve efficiency and help them deal with all of the unpredictability of drought, blights, pests, and labor shortages. For years, farmers have had to rely on manual inspection to determine how to tend and pick their crops; now a host of new surveillance technologies are doing the job for them. Companies including Boston-based GreenSight and North Carolina’s PrecisionHawk are using autonomous drones to give farmers bird’s-eye view of their fields. Other companies are using satellites to take high-resolution images of their fields using techniques like hyperspectral imaging to determine soil and crop health. There are also more options for these companies to get this high-fidelity data to the ground, including Boston-based Analytical Space. “Now a farmer can really do targeted pesticide use or optimize water use, which can have a huge impact on crop yield,” says Orin Hoffman, a venture partner at The Engine and former executive at iRobot and Endeavor Robotics. “As that data becomes collected and combined with improved weather models, it can help to track blights and droughts nationwide.”
While at iRobot 15 years ago, Hoffman worked with John Deere to implement robotics into harvesting as well. “At that time the Holy Grail was to have the treads of a tractor fall within one inch of where the treads had gone before,” he says — a goal that could lead to massive efficiencies across millions of acres of cropland. Now industrial farmers are using a wide array of robotics and GPS systems to better harvest broad-acre crops such as wheat and other grains; the next challenge is to apply the same technology to better harvest more delicate crops such as citrus or strawberries. Strawberry company Driscoll, for example, has been working with Spanish company Agrorobot to develop a robot with 24 mechanical arms that can endure the rugged conditions of the field in order to effectively pick fruit. “Robotization of farms is really hitting an inflection point right now,” Hoffman says. “Advances in industrial manipulation as well as abilities to operate equipment outside has collided to create incredible new capabilities in farming equipment.”
San Francisco–based company Iron Ox has pursued a different approach: instead of bringing robots outside, it is bringing the plants indoors. CEO Brandon Alexander grew up on a farm in Texas that raised broad-acre crops like alfalfa and cotton, seeing new technologies aid in harvesting those crops firsthand. “That’s great for crops that are going to be converted into another product,” he says. “It’s okay to damage wheat because it’s going to be converted into flour.” With more delicate items, such as strawberries, tomatoes, and lettuce, however, margin for error is much smaller. “Each crop you grow, every varietal of lettuce or strawberry is slightly unique so you can’t apply mass industrial automation techniques to it.”
Alexander worked at Google[x] as an engineer on its drone program, but in 2015, he left to found Iron Ox, focused on automating farming for those more delicate crops. Last October, the company opened its first fully autonomous farm, which uses indoor hydroponics to ensure uniformity of growth and increase yields, and robot pickers to harvest them. “We can grow year-round in a climate-controlled environment, and don’t have to worry about rain or nutrients.” By controlling the nutrient mix the plants get through hydroponics, the company can dramatically increase yields — growing 26,000 crops in 8,000 square feet — 30 times the yield of a traditional farm.
Harvesting is done by two robots, a larger mobile one named Angus that moves pallets of plants to the processing area, and then a precise, seven-jointed robot arm that picks the crops. “You can almost think of it like a surgeon,” says Alexander. The arm comes equipped with two cameras similar to human eyes, so it can see in 3-D and calculate on the fly the right trajectory to come at each plant with the right delicacy.
Alexander envisions these micro-farms located across the country, serving local food markets. The average produce travels 2,000 miles from farm to consumer, and could be a week old by the time it gets to supermarket shelves. Iron Ox’s goal is to cut that distance down to 20 miles, so restaurants and supermarkets can literally stock produce in the afternoon that was on the plant that morning. “A lot of varietals that are selected today are selected based on their shelf life rather than taste or nutrients,” says Alexander. “It’s not like anyone has ever said, ‘I love iceberg lettuce.’” Right now, the company is working on bringing down costs, switching from LED growing lights to greenhouses to utilize sunlight instead of electricity and increase environmental sustainability as well.
Other companies are using similar technology to hydroponic technology to grow food more efficiently. San Francisco’s Plenty grows kale and other greens with vertical farming technology in a 200,000 square-foot warehouse, using strings of LED lights facing walls of plants growing horizontally, a technique the company says uses less energy. The company, which includes veterans of Twitter and Tesla is backed by the likes of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, and has begun selling its produce in the Bay Area. Boston-based Freight Farms, meanwhile, is pursuing a less-is-more strategy, pioneering self-contained farms inside 40-foot shipping containers. In the past decade, the company has sold more than 250 container farms to corporations, colleges, and other organizations. Its latest next-generation farm sells for $104,000, and features moveable panels that can grow everything from herbs to tomatoes to some root vegetables. Not only do the container farms grow crops more efficiently, but they also reduce spoilage by cutting the distribution distance to zero.
While it’s important for fresh produce to be used right away, other crops such as wheat and other grains are often stored for months on end until they are needed. That storage comes fraught with risk, however — damp, insects, and fire — that can wipe out whole silos of grain before it can come to market. Serial entrepreneur Naeem Zafar was looking for new applications for the “internet of things,” machines talking with other machines, when he stumbled on the problem of post-har-vest grain storage. “It’s a very large but somewhat obscure market,” Zafar says. “But it turns out that some $14 billion of waste happens every year.”
The solutions farmers and distribution companies have come up with to prevent that waste are often inadequate, hanging cables from the ceiling to detect changes in temperature or moisture. “The rest is prayer and intuition, and someone opening the bin and sniffing it and saying something is wrong,” Zafar says. Starting in 2014, he began raising funds for a new startup, TeleSense, to produce a grape-fruit-sized plastic ball equipped with sensors that could be thrown directly into grain and wake up every few hours to transmit data about conditions inside the pile. Zafar worked with this co-founder, chief engineer Nick Garner, to develop a product that could transmit through grain, and have long enough battery life to be useful.
The sensors, which the company rents for $30–40 a month per unit, could be placed every few meters with a grain elevator to provide a comprehensive view of a grain elevator operation. “You should be able to start monitoring your whole facility for anywhere between $2,000 to $5,000” a month, Zafar says. Because the balls are all connected, however, they allow a farmer or grain elevator company to detect patterns over time, using machine learning to monitor differences by season, or even by hour to make changes in their facility to improve storage. “You might see you get your hottest sun between 10 and 11am, and storage unit #2 doesn’t have as large a shadow as unit #3,” says Zafar, “and you are able to take action.”
So far, the company has introduced the technology in the Midwest and California, as well as Australia, where one large company used it to save $3 million worth of canola by prevent-ing hotspots within the grain. “They would not have noticed it if it weren’t for continuous monitoring,” Zafar says. “They used to send someone to check every few hours. This saves labor costs and improves inventory.” Last year, the company closed a Series-A round of funding, raising $6.5 million led by Maersk Growth. It hopes to expand into Eastern Europe and Latin America, as well as develop new products that can monitor grain within shipping containers around the world.
From Field to Fork
In addition to food that is unintentionally wasted during harvesting and storage, some food is wasted on purpose during processing. When Kaitlin Montegale moved to Los Angeles for a program in environmental studies at the University of Southern California (USC), she was struck by the presence of so many juice bars, which seemed to be on every corner. Watching a friend juice a carrot one day, she saw just how much little juice came from the vegetable compared to the pulp still in the juicer. “She had all this waste left behind,” Montegale says. “At the same time I was keenly aware there are so many people around the world who don’t have access to fresh foods.”
Through a business incubator at USC, she began collecting pulp from the many juiceries on campus, and experimenting with recipes to turn it into an appealing snack. “I became passionate about using pulp as a means to achieve that and get more fruits and vegetables into people’s diet,” says Montegale, who founded a company Pulp Pantry in 2015. She bootstrapped the startup with grants from entrepreneurship programs such as Burt’s Bees Natural Launch Pad, which focuses on women entrepreneurs. Now, four years later, she is selling a line of plant-based “granola bites” in flavors such as cinnamon toast and vanilla sea salt. “For me, it was about taking this fruit and vegetable byproduct that was super unappetizing, and disguising it in a way that would be both highly marketable, and delicious.”
Montegale downplays the food waste aspect in promoting the product, focusing on the taste and health benefits. Once consumers are hooked, however, the sustainability piece is a bonus. “The story of food waste is not the number one issue on people’s minds, but it’s definitely something that keeps people engaged,” she says. “A lot of people are excited about sustainability and that resonates with them.” While Pulp Panty started with small juicers and an LA-based farmer’s co-op, “that’s not a super-scalable model,” Montegale says. The company is now working with commercial juicers, which produce millions of pounds of pulp every year, and also experimenting with new products such as a veggie chip.
However food is harvested, it must eventually make its way to restaurants or consumer’s kitchens, often traveling in refrigerated containers in a race against spoilage. Various companies have been taking on the challenge of improving the stability of food on that journey. San Francisco–based Ripe, for example, has applied blockchain technology to track individual packages and identify bottlenecks and delays along the way that can cause spoilage. “A consumer-facing business can purchase food and have the assurance that it has been maintained in good conditions and winter tomatoes didn’t get stopped in the heat for 12 hours,” Cochran says.
One of Valley Oak’s investments, Chicago’s Hazel Technologies is using a technology developed at Northwestern to promote small satchels packaged with fruit that emits a chemical, 1-Methylcyclopropene, that slows ripening and maintains freshness. San Francisco-based Purfresh uses ozone technology to replace the atmosphere in shipping containers to delay ripening of produce, and reduce spoilage from harmful bacteria. Global food company Wheatsheaf recently acquired a 90 percent stake in the company. Santa Barbara–based Apeel Sciences recently raised $70 million from the likes of Viking Global Investors for a plant-based protective coating that can be sprayed onto fresh produce such as bananas, oranges, and strawberries to extend their shelf life and cut down on the need for refrigeration.
Cambridge Crops has taken a different route with its silk-based technology, applying it not only to fruits and vegetables, but also to meat, fish, and poultry. CEO Adam Berhens got his start at The Langer Lab at MIT, where he was researching ways to keep vaccines and vitamins stable for long times in non-refrigerated environments. From there, he pivoted to looking at the problem of food more generally, partnering with Sezin Yigit, who had done doctoral work at Tufts University, which has pioneered new uses for silk as a wonder material for everything from artificial organs to nano-optics. There, postdoc Benedetto Marelli was experimenting with a new water-based silk solution that could be applied to foods without affecting their taste, color, or cooking properties.
“Typically, a membrane is either a good barrier for oxygen, or a good barrier for water. Given the structure of polymers, there is a mutual exclusivity between the two,” says Marelli, now Paul M. Cook Career Development Assistant Professor at MIT. “Silk somehow has both qualities.” The barrier prevents both dehydration, which can cause food to dry out and lose shape, and oxidation, which can change color and flavor. In addition, silk provides a natural barrier to microbes, which can cause food to spoil. Marelli first started experimenting with silk for biomedical applications as an undergrad at the Polytechnic Institute of Milan. While at Tufts, he coated some strawberries in silk as part of a lab cooking competition, and serendipitously discovered its unique properties. “I left them on the bench — when I came back four or five days later, the ones there were not coated spoiled, while the other ones did not.”
Cambridge Crops received an investment from The Engine in January 2019, and received funding from the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (Mass-CEC), a quasi-government agency focused on reducing climate emissions, the following month. It is currently based at Greentown Labs, a clean-tech incubator in Somerville, Massachusetts with 100,000 square feet of co-working space for environmentally minded firms. “We have a unique need for square footage, but also biological and chemistry equipment,” says Behrens, surrounded by high-tech chemistry instruments to measure attributes such as crystallinity and gas diffusion. “A traditional lab wouldn’t allow us to have a bunch of food lying around.”
The company is now midway through its safety review with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA); once it receives a stamp of approval, it will begin to commercialize its technology, Behrens hopes, by the end of this year or early next. Cambridge Crops is focusing on higher-value food products such as meat, fish and pre-cut produce, where an extra few cents would become economically justified in increased sales. “Because of the way the economics works out in the meat industry, if you can increase the shelf life and reduce waste, then it does filter up to produce fewer cows, as well as reducing the overall emissions associated with the industry, without reducing economic activity,” says Ariel Horowitz, Director of Technology Development at MassCEC.
As Behrens envisions it, the silk-based solution would be incorporated directly into the workflow at the producer, used in place of water to wash produce before shipping, or applied to large cuts of meat before heading to processors that will cut them down into retail cuts. The incentive on the other hand, will be with retailers and restaurants, who will reap the benefits of having a longer shelf life, allowing them to waste less food and sell more to customers. “We need big retail to ultimately pressure their supply chain to spec out foods that have a longer shelf life,” he says. That could be done by specifying products such as Cambridge Crops, or more likely, by setting minimum standards for producers and leaving it to them how they will achieve it. “They could just say, we want a salad mix that lasts 14 days instead of 7.”
The best technology won’t prevent spoilage of food; it will only limit it. Once food products are on the shelves of distribution companies and supermarkets they are in a race against time to prevent waste. And no matter how efficient the system is, companies need to stock excess inventory to prepare for the unexpected — a snowstorm, a sports championship — that could lead to a run on their shelves. Helping deal with those realities is Spoiler Alert, a Boston-based firm that has created enterprise software to help distributors better manage food that otherwise may lose its battle with the clock. “There is a disconnect in our food system between the major hubs of our system that allows a lot of very good food to go to waste,” says Spoiler Alert’s CEO Ricky Ashenfelter, sitting in a plant-filled office in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood. “One of the enablers of that is a lack of information sharing.”
The company grew out of MIT’s Sloan School of Business, where Ashenfelter met co-founder Emily Malina. “Night and weekends working on the project ended up giving me an MBA in food waste,” says Ashenfelter, who had a background in climate change and sustainability. Wanting to do something to focus on the huge amounts of waste in the food supply chain, the pair focused in on large distribution centers as the crucial hub between farmers and producers on the one hand, and supermarkets and restaurants on the other. With all of the other logistics they are managing on a day-to-day basis, saving food from spoiling is never their highest priority. “It’s never anyone’s one, two, or three job, but it is often their number one or two painpoint, and the thing that takes up their time,” Ashenfelter says.
Hooking into those companies’ inventory systems, Spoiler Alert’s software takes that hassle of their hands by helping to identify “distressed inventory” — products at risk of going bad from expiration, spoilage, or damage — and figuring out how to repurpose that food before it goes bad. Oftentimes that means either selling to discount retailers such as Big Lot, or donating to hunger relief organizations for a tax benefit. The company launched in 2015, and has since raised $5 million from funders including Valley Oak and Maersk Growth, which is helping the company expand beyond distribution centers to other points in the transportation and supply chain.
For Ashenfelter, the payoff from tackling food waste is its broader effect on the environment, including reduction of greenhouse gases that cause climate change from producing or transporting food that isn’t used. If all of the emissions from food waste were tallied, Ashenfelter says, it would place third behind the US and China in the largest contributor to climate change. Unlike some environmental issues such as water scarcity, however, it’s an issue that every consumer can feel each time they scrape uneaten food into the trash, or throw away spoiled meat in their fridge. “With other issues you struggle to that kind of recognition,” Ashenfelter says. “Food is so tangible, it makes it easier to talk with consumers and see the effect of the issue on their lives.” All of these technologies and companies are working towards the same purpose, whether they are coming at it from the angle of saving the environment, or just saving money. After all, as ReFED’s Cochran says, “It will never make sense to turn food into compost.”