We’re deep in the swing of apple season, and at least in the U.S. there’s one apple to rule them all: the Honeycrisp. Delicious to eat and tricky to cultivate, it’s so popular that farmers are having to pull less popular apple varietals (sorry, Red Delicious) to make room for more of the beloved fruit.
Philadelphia-based company Agrofresh has a suite of technologies which could help farmers growing Honeycrisp and other apple varieties reduce risk, optimize their products’ journey along the supply chain, and reduce food waste. Called FreshCloud, the service covers fresh produce from just after its picked through its transit to retail.
There are three main technologies under the FreshCloud umbrella. The first is predictive screening, which examines apple samples on a genetic level to test for produce disorders. To use it producers will send in a physical sample of their apples to Agrofresh’s lab, which will report if the fruit is at high, medium, or low risk for a particular disorder.
After harvest comes storage. The company sends someone to the farmers’ apple-packed warehouses to take an air sample every few weeks, which they analyze to identify potential problems or impending spoilage. “Apples are living, breathing things,” explained Brittany Buchanan, AgroFresh’s FreshCloud Global Business Lead, over the phone. Analyzing their “breath” for different volatile outputs can help clue producers into issues on their farms that might not be evident to the naked eye, or give storage facilities a heads-up that their crop of apples is starting to inch past its prime.
Next up: transit. Agrofresh uses data from bluetooth-enabled sensors in shipping containers to track things like humidity and temperature as produce makes its journey to retail. In terms of consumer-facing food waste, this is the part of the stack which could have the biggest impact.
Traditionally, retailers and restaurants have operated under a First In, First Out policy: food that arrives first, gets sold first. Agrofresh is trying to get companies to take a more specific approach based on the produce, instead. Their monitors can decide which products to ship when, and to what stores, so that produce that was, say, stored at higher heat can be shipped to a closer store for immediate sale. “We’re working to tie inventory management to the ‘story of the fruit,'” said Buchanan. By deciding each shipments’ destination based on its freshness, they can hopefully increase the amount of time fruit stays good on the shelves, and help ripening fruit get sold before it goes bad.
She didn’t disclose all pricing details, but Buchanan said that predictive screening service cost $500 per sample. That seems like a pretty steep price to pay just to learn if your fruit is at low, high, or medium risk for a specific disorder. But then again, one defect can destroy a producer’s entire crop. Which means that paying a chunk of change to know if they have a problem could be worth it, especially if that farmer has put all their eggs in one (apple) basket.
Other companies are also working to optimize produce longevity. Spoiler Alert has a management platform that helps food producers, distributors, and retailers better manage their inventory. Both Agshift and Walmart’s Eden Technology (plus Zest Labs) also determine food freshness using algorithms in order to divert it to the appropriate retailer. Apeel takes a more hands-on approach, creating an edible coating that, when applied to fruit and veg, can roughly double their shelf life. But Agrofresh has the appeal of offering a full stack of services that covers fresh fruit throughout its journey from farm to fork.
Agrofresh was founded in 1996 and now has over 250 employees. The company has over 3,500 direct customers in over 40 countries (basically, anywhere that grows apples). It also has around 800 patents for their tracking and testing technology. While they chiefly focus on apples, Buchanan told me that Agrofresh also works with other fruits like avocados (yes, a fruit!), cherries, citrus, and bananas.
Up to 50 percent of all fruits and vegetables go bad before they can be eaten. Companies like Agrofresh are helping to tackle this waste at multiple stops along the supply chain. Hopefully, that can help translate into more Honeycrisps — and other apple varieties — for you, and less in the landfill.