American Food Hero 2019: James Rogers
Who he is: Founder and CEO, Apeel Sciences
What he's doing: Innovating the Fight Against Food Waste
Consider the strawberry. It is delicate, sweet only when perfectly ripe, and quickly falls victim to heat, cold and the passage of time. But what if this fickle fruit were more like a lemon? Not in looks or flavor but in its ability to better withstand travel, temperature and time.
Turning a strawberry into a lemon isn't exactly what James Rogers set out to do, but stick with us here. He is a materials scientist, which means he has a deep understanding of how molecules found in nature arrange themselves and behave. One day in 2012, he heard a story on the radio about how perishability, not the lack of food in the world, is what causes nearly 11 percent of the global population to go hungry, while at the same time creating serious food waste.
The United Nations estimates that a third of all food produced—much of it highly perishable produce—gets thrown away, a staggering 1.4 billion tons annually. Rogers, then a Ph.D. student, began to wonder if he could work his materials science magic on fruits and vegetables to make them last longer.
At first, people thought he was crazy. But it wasn't long before he'd won a $100,000 research grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, raised another $110 million and launched Apeel, a family of plant-derived coatings that stave off spoilage by sealing water in and keeping oxygen out. Produce treated with Apeel—which is invisible, edible and flavorless—stays fresh two to three times longer.
Last year, Apeel-dipped avocados arrived in Costco, Kroger and several regional grocers and led to a 50 percent reduction in spoilage and a 10 percent uptick in sales. Limes and asparagus will arrive on shelves in 2019, with lemons and more than a dozen other fruits and vegetables to follow. (The coating must be reformulated for each type of produce.) Rogers is still working on the holy grail: strawberries.
While the U.S. is an essential market for growth, it's the developing world, where farmers lack access to refrigeration and infrastructure, that Rogers feels bound to serve. Apeel already has a prototype coating for the starchy root vegetable cassava, a staple for 800 million people worldwide, and one for mango designed for farmers in Kenya. "Food waste isn't just about food—it's about water, energy, labor and livelihoods," says Rogers. Now, thanks to Apeel, fresh, healthy produce is part of the solution.