Strella Biotechnology is maturing its approach to prevent food waste

Put your best fruit forward — that’s the motto Strella Biotechnologya company founded in 2018 by Katherine Sizov and Jay Jordan that is making headlines in the food industry.

In the an interview with IBM, Sizov said he couldn’t believe the amount of food waste from fresh produce. Sizov learned that apples are packed, transported and treated in a similar way to paper towels. What’s the problem with that? Apples are living food! Spoiled or unripe fruit wastes money and contributes heavily 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 an apple from a small cutting to a large tree takes time and money and affects the environment. Use tractors and labor to make sure every cut has a chance to produce. Fast forward to a tree’s productive years: Farmers check orchards, maybe spray herbicides and other protective products to keep produce and trees healthy. Every apple benefits, even if it ends up being thrown away later in the value chain.

During harvest, farmers drive the apples from the orchards to the processing facility, pickers drive through the rows picking all the apples they can get their hands on. The apples are cleaned and packed in a large facility that consumes electricity and water. The apples are crated and stored in a large, controlled-atmosphere warehouse that looks like a storage closet.

In 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 in a truck.

Unfortunately, since farmers can’t run around the oxygen-free rooms and check which apples are ready to go and which can stay a little longer, sometimes an entire room of apples will go bad and no one notices.

Did your grandmother ever tell you that if you have unripe fruit you should put it in a bag with a banana? Or maybe he told you that one bad apple spoils the bunch. That’s because the fruits talk to each other through the chemical ethylene. Many fruits release ethylene as they ripen, but when exposed to ethylene, they will ripen faster.

As you can see in the produce aisle of the store, all the fruit on the counter is of a different ripeness, that’s 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 ripe apples create a chain reaction of ripening so that an entire storage room can spoil quickly.

Now back to Strella Biotechnology, which started in Pennsylvania and is now headquartered in Washington state, the nation’s largest apple-producing state. Sizov and Jordan knew that if they could measure the ethylene in those storage rooms, farmers could strategically choose which rooms should be sold so that surprises with slimy apples would be greatly reduced!

Sizov and Jordan made a tiny shoe-sized box that measures ethylene in the air in storage rooms and sends reports to farmers so they can track which rooms need to go out. It’s a simple concept, one we’ve known for a long time. Sizov says that when they piloted the little ethylene detection box, the farmer reported that it saved him over $600,000!

Apples and other fresh produce are cared for, harvested, processed, packaged and transported even if they are destined for landfill. This process is labor intensive, expensive and emits a lot of greenhouse gas emissions. ReFED reports that about 2% of US GDP is food that is never sold or eaten.

Strella Biotechnology is taking steps to change fresh food waste in the US. They give farmers the ability to be more efficient in ways they’ve never been able to before.

So the next time you pick up an apple at the grocery store, know that Strella Biotechnology is on the front lines, working hard to keep that apple out of the Trash!

Elizabeth Maslyn is a dairy farmer born and raised in upstate New York. Her passion for agriculture has led her to share farmers’ stories 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.

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