A Spray-On, Food-Saving Film Could Help Prevent the Next Pandemic Food Crisis

Mountains of produce could be saved from the trash

Photo: Westend61/Getty Images

The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted food systems across the world. Travel restrictions have left bountiful harvests to rot unpicked as seasonal workers are unable to cross borders. Colorful mountains of produce are destined to decompose because interruptions in the supply chain have left them to lie in the sun. In June, the United Nations warned that the world was on the brink of the worst food crisis in 50 years: Millions of vulnerable people could soon face food insecurity, putting them at risk of malnutrition, further increasing their chances of catching the coronavirus.

Future waves of Covid-19 seem likely, and one way to prepare for their impact on our food supply is to prevent food waste. “Maintaining a low temperature is the absolute best thing you can do to preserve produce postharvest,” Eelke Westra, the program manager for postharvest quality at Wageningen University and Research, tells OneZero. Keeping food cool, however, isn’t always possible.

Although food waste is a complicated issue, it is exacerbated by a lack of sufficient refrigeration: Only 35% of total food produced in developed countries feels the cold touch of a refrigerator, according to the International Institute for Refrigeration. In developing nations, only 7% makes it. Since refrigeration is both economically and environmentally costly, some startups are now devising ways to bypass it altogether.

A Lebanese American company called Startchy has developed an odorless, tasteless, edible yet easily washable film that, when applied to fresh produce, significantly slows the rotting process. “From our tests in the lab, we’ve found that we could improve the shelf life of apples by a factor of 2.5,” CTO Seth Shumate tells OneZero. This means that an apple that typically lasts three weeks can actually last 7.5 weeks.

When fruits or vegetables are plucked, they continue to take in oxygen and expel carbon dioxide in a process known as respiration. This process is fueled by sugars inside the fruit, but when these run out, rotting begins. Slowing down respiration helps fresh produce to live longer, extending the timeframe in which it can be transported, sold, and consumed. Both refrigeration and Startchy’s film are effective methods to do so. The film, however, doesn’t protect against the other food spoilage mechanisms that refrigeration prevents, like microbe growth, moisture loss, or sensitivity to ethylene, a hormone responsible for ripening.

Notably, the film is significantly different from wax. Wax is often applied to apples and citruses to replace the natural coating that is removed when they are cleaned after harvesting. “The wax layer mainly acts as a moisture barrier, and to give the products a sheen which makes them more attractive to customers,” Westra explains. In other words, wax improves the aesthetics of the produce, whereas Startchy’s film is supposed to keep it fresh for as long as possible.

Startchy is only one of many companies fighting against nature to halt the rotting process. California-based Apeel Sciences has a similar product that has already been deployed on produce in different parts of the world, including the United States and Germany. Bio Natural Solutions, based in Lima, Peru, has also developed a comparable technology. A Cambridge, Massachusetts-based company called Mori, hoping to offer an alternative way to preserve meats, seafood, and produce, is currently in the process of producing a silk-based film.

These efforts could have a big impact in areas that already suffer from food insecurity. Lebanon’s “dire” situation, as Shumate put it, was an inspiration for Startchy’s product: Company co-founder Richardos Lebbos had met a taxi driver in Lebanon who used to be an apple farmer but had to stop because he could no longer afford cold storage or bear to watch his apples rot on the ground. Since 2015, Lebanon has wasted up to 40% of its total apple production, largely due to the ongoing crisis in Syria, the country’s inability to provide 24-hour electricity, and its ongoing economic crisis. “That’s one of the reasons we made sure that our ingredients are not only in abundance worldwide, but also available at a high quality for a cheap price,” says Shumate. “We want to affect change on a global scale, especially for those who don’t have access to refrigeration for whatever reason.” Their product — whose main ingredient is starch — is set to launch in Lebanon this season.

But despite the many benefits of films, experts caution they are not a silver bullet. “Extending the shelf life of produce is a nice solution, but it’s not going to completely solve the issue of food waste,” says Westra. “Each crop has its own challenges, so there isn’t a big solution which can work across the industry.” Planning ahead, he adds, is important. “If you simply produce too much, then extending the shelf life isn’t going to prevent that food from being thrown away.”

Jessica Aschemann-Witzel, PhD, of Aarhus University, whose research centers on value creation in the food sector, agrees that such a technology could affect change. “Improving shelf life would clearly reduce food waste in the supply chain and households, which is better for sustainability,” she says. Elina Närvänen, PhD, of Tampere University, an expert in food waste and consumer behavior, also agrees, though she highlights the potential downsides. “The environmental impact of producing the film also needs to be taken into account,” she says. “Furthermore, even though the film uses natural ingredients, consumers may be suspicious and reluctant to adopt it. Consumer habits are a huge problem leading to food waste, and technologies alone cannot change this.”

In addition to the pandemic, food waste is closely linked with other world issues like climate change and poverty: Not only do we waste one-third of all food produced worldwide, and therefore all of the resources invested, one in nine people in the world were already going hungry before masks became an integral part of our daily lives. Deforestation, which is primarily driven by agriculture, increases the likelihood of further pandemics. Food waste also accounts for at least 6% of global emissions.

Under normal circumstances in developed countries, a film like Startchy’s can only treat a symptom of the core issue of food waste: overproduction. As it stands, even if all humans received the nutrition they needed, we’d still be throwing food away. Eradicating food waste would require fundamental changes to our food systems so that farmers aren’t incentivized to overproduce for subsidies. Cultural attitudes would also need to change: If we want a wide variety of choices in supermarkets at all times of the year, then we need to accept food waste as a necessary part of that decision, and there’s no film that can change that.

Still, by doubling the time farmers have to move their produce where it needs to be, a film like Startchy’s can be incredibly helpful in developing nations where access to refrigeration is limited — or in a crisis situation like a pandemic. With the relatively low risk to high reward, technologies like this are likely to become more standard in the coming years. If nothing else, at least your chances of finding a rotting apple at the bottom of your fruit bowl are greatly reduced.

Freelance writer / Berlin based, UK born / Science, sustainability & future tech / Tweets @jack_mcgovan

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