Put Your Best Fruit Forward — that’s the motto of Strella Biotechnology, a company founded in 2018 by Katherine Sizov and Jay Jordan that is making headlines in the produce industry.
Sizov says “every single person consumes food, and we take it for grated that we have 24/7 access to so many options” — something that has shaped her dedication to reducing waste in the produce industry.
Sizov found out that apples are packaged, transported, and treated in a manner similar to paper towels. What’s the problem with that? Apples are live food products! Spoiled or unripe fruit wastes money and contributes greatly to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
You have to think about an apple from harvest to consumption to understand what motivated Sizov and Jordan to create Strella Biotechnology.
Growing the apple tree from a little cutting to a big tree takes time and money and affects the environment around it. You use tractors and labor to make sure every cutting has a chance at producing. Fast forward to a tree’s production years: Farmers are checking on orchards, maybe spraying herbicides and other protection products to keep the produce and trees healthy. Every apple benefits even if it ends up being thrown out later in the value chain.
During harvest, farmers drive the apples from the orchards to the processing facility, pickers are driving through rows picking all the apples in reach. The apples are cleaned and packaged in a big electricity- and water-consuming facility. The apples are put in crates and stored in big controlled atmosphere warehouse that looks like a storage locker facility.
In the controlled atmosphere rooms, the apples are kept cold and all the oxygen is sucked out of the room to keep the apples preserved. Once the oxygen is sucked out, the apples aren’t looked at until it’s time to put them on a truck.
Unfortunately, since farmers can’t run into the oxygen-free rooms and check on which apples are ready to go and which ones can sit a little longer, sometimes a whole room of apples will go bad and nobody realizes it.
Did your grandma ever tell you that if you have unripe fruit you should put it in a bag with a banana? Or maybe she told you that one bad apple ruins the bunch. That’s because fruit talks to each other via the chemical ethylene. Many fruits release ethylene as they ripen, but when exposed to ethylene, they’ll ripen faster.
As you may notice in the produce aisle at the store, all the fruit on the counter are of different ripeness, this is because they don’t all ripen and grow at the same rate when on the tree. So while in storage, some apples ripen faster than others. These ripening apples create a chain reaction of ripening, so a whole storage room can go bad fast.
Now back to Strella Biotechnology, which began in Pennsylvania and is now based out of Washington state, the nation’s top apple-producing state. Sizov and Jordan knew that if they could measure the ethylene in those storage rooms, farmers would be able to strategically pick which rooms should be sold so that the mushy apples surprises would be greatly reduced!
Sizov and Jordan made a tiny box, about the size of a shoe, that measures the ethylene in the air in the storage rooms and sends reports to farmers so they can keep track of what rooms need to go out. It’s a simple concept, one that we have known for a long time. Sizov says that when they piloted the little ethylene detecting box, the farmer reported that it saved him over $600,000!
Apples and other fresh produce products are tended to, harvested, processed, packaged, and transported even if they are going to end up being thrown in the trash. That process is labor-intensive, expensive, and puts out a lot of greenhouse gas emissions. ReFED reports that about 2 percent of the GDP in the U.S. is food that never gets sold or consumed.
Strella Biotechnology is making strides to change fresh food waste in the U.S. They are giving farmers the ability to be more efficient in ways they have never been able to before.
So next time you pick up an apple at the store, know that Strella Biotechnology is on the front lines working hard to keep that apple out of the Dumpster!
Elizabeth Maslyn is a born and raised dairy farmer from Upstate New York. Her passion for agriculture has driven her to share the stories of farmers with all consumers, and promote agriculture in everything she does. She works hard to increase food literacy in her community, and wants to share the stories of her local farmers.