Episode #44: Is Food Waste the Stupidest Thing We Do (& How Do We Cut it in Half)? (transcript)
Quinn: Welcome to Important, Not Important. My name is Quinn Emmett.
Brian: And my name is Brian Colbert Kennedy.
Quinn: What was that look?
Brian: No, you just intro-ed it very interesting.
Quinn: Sometimes I change it up.
Quinn: Okay. This is Episode 44, and our topic today, Brian. Hey, food waste is definitely, especially even more so after this interview, conversation, whatever they are, the stupidest fucking thing we do.
Brian: Very dumb.
Quinn: As a people. How do we cut it in half? Alternate title-
Brian: Alternate title.
Quinn: I'm pretty excited. Avocado Toast is about to go off, son.
Brian: It's been off.
Quinn: It's been off, and then people are like, "I'm tired of it." It's enough. It's very simple. I can make it at home. And yet, let me tell you Brian, you have no idea.
Brian: No idea.
Quinn: No idea. You had no idea. I'm pretty excited.
Brian: This is a really good conversation.
Quinn: One of our most mind blowing episode guests yet, and I'm pretty pumped for everybody to hear it.
Brian: Yeah, I hope that most people are like me and have never heard of this, so that when they listen to this they're just like, "What the fuck?"
Quinn: That's the goal. That was today's goal. Our guest is Dr. James Rogers. He's a founder and CEO of Apeel Sciences. He's worked on solar paint, and metals, and at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. I just thought this is a hell of a lesson in putting down your god damn phone, and letting crazy ideas marinate in your brain unobstructed.
Brian: He was a metallurgist.
Quinn: Yep. Sure. Why not?
Brian: That's a pretty cool word and thing-
Quinn: Yeah, let's just pivot to this thing instead.
Brian: That exists.
Quinn: And what is that thing? What is Apeel Sciences? Yeah, you're going to have to listen and find out because I'm not going to spoil it for you.
Quinn: Did you see what I did?
Brian: I see what you did, and soon they will see what you did.
Quinn: Yep. Because it's science.
Brian: Yeah, that was really good.
Quinn: Rock and roll. Let's go talk to James.
Brian: That's it. Okay.
Quinn: Our guest today is James Rogers, and together we're going to discuss food waste is the stupidest thing we do. How do we cut it in half at least? James, welcome.
James Rogers: Thank you. Thanks for having me here.
Quinn: Yeah, for sure.
Brian: We're pumped to have you, brother. Let's start by just tell us who you are and what you do.
Quinn: Quick version.
James Rogers: Yeah. Short version. I'm James Rogers. I'm the CEO of Apeel Sciences, Santa Barbara, California based company that develops plant based technologies that extend the shelf life of fresh produce.
Brian: Fascinating. I think that's-
James Rogers: That's the short version.
Quinn: No, I really like the short version. Don't worry, we're going to get into the longer one for sure.
Brian: Extend the shelf life of fresh produce. Okay.
Quinn: Yeah, what's fun is we changed our format a little while ago to the point where I don't give Brian any of the outlines ahead of time. He gets to pretend he's the audience, who's texting and driving, or sitting on the subway. Sitting there going like, "What the hell did they just say? Extend the life of what?" That's Brian's role. It's super fun, for me at least.
James Rogers: Perfect.
Brian: This is very interesting for me. I buy fresh produce. I don't know when the fuck I have to throw it out, or how long it lasts. And also, I pay way too much attention, I'm sure, to what the little stamp on all the other food I buy says about when I can eat this and when I can't.
Quinn: This is perfect.
Brian: This is wrong. So, I'm pumped. Awesome. James, like we said before we started recording, we're just going to go over a little context with you. Let the audience know a little bit of what's going on. And then we're going to ask some questions, because we want our listeners to come away with this knowing that they can do something to help. Because, it's not enough to just listen to something and then forget about it.
James Rogers: And indeed, they can. I'm excited to get there.
Brian: Good. Awesome.
Quinn: James, we do start with one important question to set the tone of things. Instead of saying tell us your whole life story, as interesting as I'm sure that is, we like to ask, hey James, why are you vital to the survival of the species?
James Rogers: Oh, man. I wish we had a couple beers before answering that question.
Quinn: I know, right? We do need to start doing that. I also need to cut just a compilation track of people laughing at me. But, we've actually gotten some great answers, so I encourage you to be bold and honest. You're here for a reason.
James Rogers: Oh, man. If I put on my narcissist hat-
Quinn: Please do.
James Rogers: I would say that I'm probably here to deliver more food to more people at lower cost. The big bold statement would be here to help solve world hunger. Sounds kind of crazy to say out loud.
Quinn: Yeah. That's not a bad goal. Brian, what's your goal today?
James Rogers: Dream big. Right?
Brian: What's my goal today?
Quinn: Yeah, what's your goal today?
Brian: I want to learn from this conversation how long ... I want to know the perfect time to have an avocado. I'm having a lot of avocado issues. I don't know when it's too early. I don't know when it's too late. I always tend to fuck it up, and I throw it in the trash and it sucks. I don't want to do that.
Quinn: Yeah, this is good for you, then.
Brian: Yep. I'm very excited.
Quinn: All right. Yeah, we're going to set up a little context. James, just correct us. Tell me where we're wrong. Or, hang up and run away. Whatever works for you. Again, there's some stats here. I think they're pretty accurate. Let's see what's going on. Food waste. Americans, to no one's surprise, are the worst. Or the best, I guess, depending on who you're looking at. We waste about $165 billion of food a year. Number one in the world. Almost 40% of the food produced in the US is never eaten.
Brian: I cannot believe that that's a true number.
Quinn: If you make a plate of dinner, and you move half of it to one side, and then you move a tiny bit back, and then you just throw out the smaller side. If you do that for every meal, then that's basically what we're doing.
Brian: Which apparently is what we're doing.
James Rogers: Then you're the average person. Yes.
Quinn: Right. You're the average human, or some of us-
James Rogers: It's a little unfair to people, because some of those losses are happening in the supply chain on the way getting to you. So it's more on the people at home side, it's more like a quarter of their plate, probably.
Quinn: Got it.
Brian: Oh, okay.
James Rogers: The rest of it's going to happen at the grocery store, and in the trucks on the way to those stores. But still, a quarter of that plate-
Quinn: It's not great.
James Rogers: Ending up in the trash is kind of a tragesty, travity.
Brian: It is both a tragedy and a travesty, James.
Quinn: Yeah, we'll take all of them. And you're right. Some of the waste, some of it starts on farms. And Brian, you might ask why.
Brian: I am curious as to how that's happening.
Quinn: Sure. Overproduction. Why do we have overproduction? To hedge against pests or bad weather. A quick note, weather's changing a lot. That's fun. Because the crop doesn't meet store and consumer cosmetic standards, which James was just alluding to a little bit. It's not pretty enough, which is a problem that I know we have all the time. And because-
James Rogers: Yeah. That is definitely happening. If you walk in a grocery store, and you are looking for that perfectly shapen, perfectly colored, that right size piece of fruit. And if it's not meeting those specifications, then it's get normally culled out in the manufacturing process. And it's not necessarily that that food is going completely to waste, it's just normally going towards much lower value products. It's going to go to juice. It's going to canned. It's going to go to frozen. It's not necessarily going to be completely wasted, but it's certainly not capturing the full economic potential that it would have had, had it been beautiful so to speak.
Brian: James, have you heard of this company, Imperfect Produce?
James Rogers: Yeah, absolutely. These guys are trying to address that issue of reducing economic capture opportunity by basically making a marketplace for produce that doesn't meet classic retail specifications. I think it's an important part of the solution.
Brian: Yeah. I've just heard of it recently. I don't know how new it is or how well it's doing, but it seems like a really good idea. Hopefully that can make an impact.
James Rogers: Yeah. I certainly think ... I mean, the thing is, the magnitude of the problem here is so big, anything is going to make an impact.
Quinn: Another reason it's wasted, because of our stupid fucking immigration laws. There aren't enough people to actually work the crops, which is great.
James Rogers: That's really sad when you know you put all the time and energy into producing this fruit. One of the characteristics of fresh produce is that it's seasonal and perishable. But what that means is, if you're growing fruit in a region, and the weather gets warm and all of a sudden it's harvest time, all your neighbors have the same issue. It's harvest time, as well. You start competing for labor to the point where you actually can't afford to pick the field because there's going to be so much fruit on the market at the same time. The price is going to be depressed. It just doesn't make sense to actually do the harvest when you're going to get low prices. So, it just sits there in the field and goes to waste. It's troubling.
Quinn: Okay. And then of course, some of the waste happens at the supermarket level, as you alluded to and we've talked a little bit about here. About 43 billion pounds of food wasted, again, overstock, cosmetic, shitty displays. And as Brian mentioned, with the stamp. Go ahead, please.
James Rogers: I mean, I would say that the reason that ... If you look at it, and you break down where the losses are happening in the supply chain like we've just been talking about, a significant but relatively marginal contribution to those losses is during transportation.
Brian: During transportation?
James Rogers: Yeah, during transport. After you've picked it, you've sorted out the ugly fruit, you've packed it, you're shipping it. Maybe it's going on an ocean container, maybe it's going on a truck. You're losing maybe 3%, depends on the industry. That is significant, given how much food we're growing. But relatively marginal compared to what's happening with the losses when the fruit is on the store shelf. And then very marginal when compared to what's happening in people's homes.
James Rogers: But the reason for that is, actually we've as a species done quite well at developing technologies which preserve produce from picking and packing, to the arrival at the store shelf. The problem is that technology which we've relied on to accomplish that has been refrigeration. And refrigeration works really well when you're able to precisely control the storage environment for the fruit. So when it's in the truck, when it's in a shipping container, great. You're able to slow down the rate. The clock is ticking on that fruit by about a factor of four or five.
James Rogers: The problem is, is that those optimal storage conditions for the produce are exactly at odds with the optimum merchandising condition. You walk in the grocery store, you don't put on a parka and a respirator and go into a back CA room and pick out your fruit. It's in a big display that's shiny. It's a comfortable store environment, well lit, ambient conditions that are inviting to you to pick up the produce, to see it, touch it, feel it, and put it hopefully back into your basket.
James Rogers: And because those merchandising conditions are exactly the opposite of the optimal storage conditions, you end up having a tremendous amount of retail spoilage, retail shrink as it's called within the industry. Because again, you're balancing the need to have something people want to buy with the desire to reduce the perishability of that fruit. That's why you end up seeing so much waste at the retail level.
Quinn: Yeah, that's crazy. That's very helpful. Thank you. And then, let's talk about the last two here, which is restaurants. They say about 10% of their food is wasted before it even reaches the customer, which doesn't even include the hugely oversized portions Americans don't finish. And then at home, as you said, family of four throws away about 25% of the food they buy. That's about $2,000.00 a year. As terrible as it is though, it's worth remembering Americans regardless of status are magnitudes better off than most folks in developing countries. It's really very sad.
Quinn: And of course, the best news, taking a slight pivot is, food waste is also a major contributor to emissions. Because methane comes from food waste, and methane is about 10 times as troublesome-
James Rogers: Potent, yeah.
Quinn: As carbon. It is a nightmare. And of course, the last thing is to water. The resources we use to grow this food are really incredible. The irrigation used to grow food that's thrown away can meet the domestic water needs of nine billion people.
James Rogers: Yeah. I mean, we're using 80% of our freshwater roughly to irrigate agriculture.
Quinn: 80% of the freshwater.
James Rogers: 80%. And you know, there's wars being fought over water.
Quinn: Yeah. And that's going to keep happening.
James Rogers: Exactly. When we think about these statistics, 40% of food going to waste, the fact that we're using 80% of our freshwater to irrigate, and you're throwing 40% of it away, well gosh, the fastest way to more water is to throw away less food.
Quinn: Yeah, absolutely. And those water issues are only going to get worse, as we're very aware of here in Los Angeles.
James Rogers: Yeah, we're going to add a couple more billion people, too. It's not like the conditions are staying the same. The treadmill's moving faster and faster.
Quinn: Right. And places like Los Angeles, which already should not exist, or Arizona-
James Rogers: Or Las Vegas.
Quinn: I can't wait to see Brian fighting in the water wars.
James Rogers: All these are just pieces of the challenge. In the food service side of things, food's getting thrown away because there are certain items that we have trained people to like and to not like. Although most of the pieces of the fruit are entirely edible, we, people, they only know about certain, "Oh, only the artichoke heart is the delicious part, so we're not going to use the rest."
James Rogers: It's a little bit the philosophy of the US citizens versus the Native Americans. The Native Americans used the whole animal. We just use the white meat. There's a big cultural element to that. I think there's a lot of movement in this area, particularly recently, in food service around, "Hey, should we really be writing a menu and then sourcing the products to make those menu items? Or, should we flip that around and find out what's available, and then what can we make from those items?" That's a different type of philosophy. There's major chefs are getting behind this.
Quinn: Yeah, it seems like Dan Barber is one of those guys.
James Rogers: He is. He's leading the charge. If you've ever had the opportunity to dine at his restaurants in New York City, that's the entire idea. There's no menu. It's whatever they've harvested from the farm that day, they're going to turn into a medley of different items. They're focused on turning ingredients into menu items and not figuring out menus and then sourcing the ingredients, because that's how you get all that waste.
Quinn: I love how candid and transparent he is has been on that throughout the years. I really loved his book, The Third Plate.
James Rogers: Third Plate, yeah. And talk about a way just to cut through a lot of the jargon, and just get straight down to it. I think that he just did an excellent job in that book, making it an approachable subject to pretty much anybody.
Quinn: Yeah. Absolutely. All right-
Brian: Real quick.
Quinn: Yeah, please.
Brian: When you said that you can't wait to see me in the water wars, was that some sort of insinuation that I would be not a good warrior?
Quinn: You haven't been listening the whole time since then, have you?
Brian: Okay. No, of course, I asked him a followup.
Quinn: You said you've been working out a lot. And I said, "Have you done any cardio?" And you just had a blank stare. It feels like you can fight if you're standing still, but after that-
Brian: Question answered. Thank you. Let's move on.
Quinn: All right. Look, clearly it really is, for a lot of complicated reasons, it is the stupidest thing we do. James, let's back up just for a minute. I don't know how well versed you are in this, but probably a lot better than us. Was it always this bad? At least let's just focus on the US for now. Didn't we ration food like crazy during World War II? Was it the growth of these supermarkets in suburbia, and the focus on cosmetics that got us here? What is the main question of it?
James Rogers: Oh, man. That's a really good question. I can't speak as a fruit historian yet, although this question may prompt me to go learn a lot more.
Quinn: We can pause if you want to go read an encyclopedia or something.
James Rogers: From what I am familiar with, what has happened has been, we got really good ... Let's maybe take as an example the difference between a food supply chain in the United States and a food supply chain in a place like Sub-Saharan Africa. If you look at the spoilage rates in the United States, estimates are somewhere between a third and a half. 40% is probably the most commonly reported number. If you look at those numbers in developing countries, think Kenya, think Nigeria, and other places in Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, those losses are upwards of 80 to 90%.
James Rogers: Yeah. And the reason for that is, going back to my example earlier, we have developed techniques, effectively refrigeration, which has allowed us to reduce the perishability of fresh produce by about a factor of four or five. In so doing, it has allowed us to grow more produce, and get it to more places. It's allowing us to get a supply chain, which is making produce reach more people.
James Rogers: But because it's allowing us to reach more people, it's allowed the growers to really focus on just growing their production volume, and not necessarily worry so much about the efficiency of that supply chain. Because, they're able to grow their business by growing their distribution, because with reduced perishability of the fruit, they can get it to more places. They can export it. They can get it all the way across the country. If you're a small farmer in Sub-Saharan Africa, you might be growing it on your farm, but because you don't a refrigerated supply chain, it can only get one or two days away. You're extremely focused on efficiency.
James Rogers: I might argue that as we have developed, we've reduced losses for sure, because we now have refrigeration. But we're at a point where, okay, we've figured out how to get some of that distribution. But now we need to figure out how to do it more efficiently.
Quinn: I think that makes a lot of sense. As it becomes easier, we definitely become a little less, we meaning the few people doing that growing, become a little less focused on the efficiencies.
James Rogers: Yeah. You just want to grow your volume. And yeah, I liken this sometimes to, look at some of the new value creation opportunities in the economy. Think about the sharing economy. What does that mean? It basically means that we were able to produce so much, that now, you got the growth originally from selling a bunch of units. And now there's new growth available by sharing some of those units amongst people.
James Rogers: It's a little opaque, but think about Airbnb. You've got a bunch of underutilized assets, basically people's homes when people aren't in there, and now you see the growth of Airbnb, which is a way to get more people in those beds so you can earn some economic rent from that underutilized asset. The same with Uber. You have a bunch of cars driving around. A bunch of empty seats. Uber said, "Oh, that's an underutilized asset. There's already a bunch of cars out there. How do we get more economic value from those seats?"
James Rogers: Food waste is the same thing. We've got a bunch of food out there, but we're throwing away a lot of it. If we can reduce how much of it we're throwing away, there's economic value created in doing that.
Quinn: Yeah. That makes sense.
Brian: Sounds pretty smart. All right. We were also talking about how the cosmetic issues come into play, and how that really makes a lot of this food go to waste. What are you guys doing at Apeel to help that?
Quinn: Yeah, you gave us the short version. Let's hear it.
James Rogers: Yeah. The high level is that solving the aesthetic issue for fresh produce, at least with the current food culture, that's table stakes. The produce has to maintain good aesthetic quality because at the end of the day, the aesthetic quality of the produce is what drives that purchase decision.
James Rogers: Now, there's the second moment of truth, which is when you get the food home and you consume it. But what's originally driving that purchase decision is the aesthetic value of the produce. And then, that second moment of truth is really around the eating quality of the fruit. But if you don't have good aesthetics, then you don't even get that second moment of truth to happen.
James Rogers: And so what we do at Apeel is, we develop plant derived formulations that are a powder. Think of a brick of flour. We ship it to where we want to use it, which is generally at a packing facility, and we mix it with water. And then we spray that solution onto the surface of fresh produce as it's being packed, and we let it dry. And when it dries, it leaves behind this imperceptibly thin barrier of plant material on the outside of the surface. You can't see it, you can't taste it, you can't feel it.
James Rogers: But by precisely controlling the composition of that barrier, we're able to independently modulate the rate that water and CO2 escape from the produce relative to the rate that oxygen gets in. And so by doing that, as the fruit continues to breath and respire as it's moving through the supply chain, we build up this optimized little microclimate inside each individual piece of produce. And that little microclimate allows the produce to survive two, three, or four times longer even without the use of refrigeration. And so, this technology-
James Rogers: Yeah. That's a great response.
Quinn: I love this, because I knew what you guys were doing. This is the whole fun of not sharing these things. Watching his face as you described that, which was generally just like, "What the fuck?" Was fantastic. That was great for me. Thank you.
James Rogers: Oh, good. It's fun for me, too.
Brian: There's got to be some negative effect.
James Rogers: It's shocking. There are no negative effects from doing this.
James Rogers: Think about it this way. Plants have been around for billions of years. During that period of time, the oxygen concentration on this planet has fluctuated wildly. It's been as high as almost all of it, to as low as none. Plants have had to survive under all of those conditions. They're happy to live in whatever eon that we're existing on this planet. And actually, the rate of maturation of fruit in different time periods was much slower because ambient oxygen concentrations were lower. We just happen to be alive at a time when oxygen concentrations are about 20 and a half percent, but most fruit will happily develop at oxygen concentrations below 4%. When you do that, the fruit will live just as healthy, just for much longer.
James Rogers: And so what we're doing is, by creating this barrier around the outside of the produce, it's almost like we're just telling the produce, hey, develop like it was the Jurassic Period. And it just ends up lasting for much, much longer.
Brian: Remember when I was like, "Hey, tell us about the history of food waste," and James was like, "I'm not really a fruit historian." He's like, "Actually, plants in the Jurassic Period ..."
James Rogers: You guys, my favorite fruit historian fact is, basically the reason that fruit is fruit is because it is designed to attract animals that eat the fruit, and then ultimately spread the seeds. It helps the plant spread. Every fruit you can track back to an animal that really helped it get disseminated around the world. Do you know the animal that helped disseminate the avocado?
Brian: No. I can't. I'm so excited.
James Rogers: It was the giant sloth.
James Rogers: Yeah. You've got to Google this thing. Basically, before people killed them all, in the Americas there were these giant sloths. Think the size of a mastodon kind of deal. Giant sloths, and they would walk around eating avocados and spreading the seeds. So we can thank our giant sloth friends for the product of the avocado today.
Quinn: Yeah, way to kill all the giant sloths, everybody.
Quinn: All they did was bring us fucking avocado turds.
James Rogers: They had to have been delicious. I mean, they're feeding off avocados. [crosstalk 00:25:48].
Quinn: Sure. No, amazing.
James Rogers: Sorry. Fun fruit fact.
Brian: Hey, it's Brian. I have a quick favor while Quinn is writing his new list of reasons why I should get rid of my motorcycle. Every podcast you listen to asks you for a ratings and review on Apple Podcast, right? Here's why. Not everybody listens on Apple Podcast, like you might not be doing right now. But 79% of our listeners and most podcast listeners are on Apple Podcast. And the top charts are a huge source of even more new listeners. So, here's the deal. Some weird combination of downloads and ratings and reviews, and probably other stuff that I don't understand, drives those charts up. And we want to be on those top charts. So, we need your help.
Brian: If you are listening on Apple Podcast right this second, it's really easy. It'll take five seconds. Just do it. You're staring at the episode screen. Swipety-swipe all the way down. Down at the bottom, hit the library button. Tap our show, then scroll down to ratings and reviews, and do the star part. There's five stars. Hit as many as you want. Five, probably. Do it now. I'll wait. Hey, great! Thanks so much. That was so nice of you. Okay. Let's get back to the episode.
Brian: Is there produce that this doesn't work on or apply to?
James Rogers: All produce spoils through the same mechanisms. All produce spoils because water evaporates out of the surface, and because oxygen gets in. So by creating a barrier on the outside of the product that slows that process down, you can extend the shelf life of any fruit or vegetable. It's frankly remarkable.
Brian: Man, that is just insane.
Quinn: That makes it sound pretty easy.
Brian: Okay. Let's just back up for a second. How did this come to be? Where did you get started? How did you even know to, how did you figure this out, basically?
James Rogers: Yeah. The short answer to that question is, I figured this out with a team of we're now 120 people on our team here. We have about two thirds of those are scientists and engineers. We've taken people from incredibly diverse backgrounds, different fields, chemistry, chemical engineering, material science, biochemistry, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering. Pulled everyone in and asked them to take all of those skills and focus them specifically on this issue of reducing the perishability of fresh produce. That's led to what we like to think of as some clever solutions to the problem.
James Rogers: The impetus for the idea, however, was doing my PhD at UC-Santa Barbara, which is why we're still located in Santa Barbara. I was studying these flexible plastic solar panels. The idea was you could mix up a solar paint. You could use it to paint the side of a house or a rooftop or what have you. And then collect solar energy from that paint. I thought if we can develop that, that's going to democratize access to solar power, which is going to change the way that world works.
James Rogers: I spent about six and a half years of my life trying to understand why it was that some paints worked and some paints didn't work. To do that, I used to make the paints in Santa Barbara, and then I'd have to drive them up to Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, because I was literally watching paint dry. And to make that interesting ... I know it's sad. To make that interesting, you have to use really fancy equipment. Because if you look at just the surface, nothing's happening. But if you use fancy microscopes, you can peer inside and see what's happening at the molecular level. I was spending my time trying to understand why some of these paints worked, and why some of them didn't.
James Rogers: On one of these drives to go up to the laboratory, I was listening to a podcast, like we're having today. I was reminded that one in nine people on the planet were going hungry. At the time, I didn't realize it, but I was driving through the Salinas Valley. I'm looking around, and basically as far as I can see are these lush green fields. My naïve thought, never having grown any food was, how is it possible that one in nine people on this planet are going hungry when we have these magical seeds that we can put into the ground. They're going to absorb water, absorb sunlight, produce food. And by the way, they're going to self-propagate. How is it possible that we're screwing this up so badly that people are going hungry?
James Rogers: I got curious. I looked into it. When I looked into it, I quickly found out that people weren't going hungry because we couldn't produce enough food, it was because we couldn't get it to the people who needed it. I don't know if growing up your parents said the same thing, "You finish your food. There's people starving."
Quinn: Oh, yeah. I already lecture my children about that, big time.
James Rogers: It's like that is true. You should eat your food because people are starving. But it's not because, they're not starving because there's not enough food for them. They're starving because getting it to them is really challenging because the produce spoils. So, I was curious. Okay, if the reason people are going hungry isn't because we can produce enough food, it's because we can't get it to them. Why can't we get it to them?
James Rogers: I looked into it, and it was all related to produce spoiling. Basically, you picked a piece of produce, and it had a finite timeframe over which you could deliver it. I got a little more curious, and said why does it spoil? What cause it to spoil? And quickly turned up that the leading causes of produce spoilage are water loss and oxidation, which means water evaporating out of the produce and oxygen getting in.
James Rogers: As soon as I heard that, it reminded me of my undergraduate days at Carnegie Mellon where I was a metallurgist, and we studied steel. People don't think about it, but steel is actually highly perishable. It reacts with oxygen in the atmosphere. And when it does that, it forms rust, or iron oxide. It eats through down into the steel. That was until metallurgists figured out this really clever trick. That you could incorporate small numbers of sacrificial atoms into that chunk of steel, things like molybdenum, chromium, nickel, et cetera.
Quinn: Yeah, sure.
Brian: Yeah, molybdenum, yeah, yeah.
James Rogers: And when you did that, those elements would react with oxygen in the atmosphere to form this little oxide barrier around the outside of the steel. That little barrier would physically block more oxygen from reaching that surface. And in so doing, they invented stainless steel, and that opened up all kinds of new applications for steel.
James Rogers: And so, the thought I had was if people are going hungry because of perishability, and perishability is caused by water evaporating out and oxygen going in, and steel was perishable because of oxygen going in but we created this little barrier around the outside of it and that prevented perishability, could we put a little barrier around the outside of fresh produce that would slow down water going out and oxygen going in? Hopefully impact the perishability problem and maybe make a dent in the world hunger issue.
James Rogers: That was the genesis of the whole thing. I drove back to Santa Barbara pretty excited. Told my friends about it. And if anyone's ever been to Santa Barbara, you know it's a surf town. Told some friends about it, and they said, "Yeah, bro, sounds like a good idea. But we don't want to eat any chemicals." I was like, "Damn it." It's a great comment, but it's a frustrating thing to hear as a scientist, because of course, water is a chemical. Air is a chemical. Wait a minute, food is a chemical.
James Rogers: What if we just relegated ourselves to only using those molecules that were found in high concentrations in the fruits and vegetables that we eat every day to make these barriers? Then we'd be using food to preserve food. And philosophically, that seems like something that would be really hard to argue with. That was the genesis of the whole thing. About seven years ago now I finished up my PhD. And then started the company formally about four and a half years ago. Now you can go to Costco and Kroger and Harps and buy Apeel avocados that'll last twice as long in your home.
Brian: Okay, great. That's the perfect segue into what I wanted to ask next. You are clearly in some stores.
James Rogers: Yeah. If you go to our webpage, just Apeel.com, at the bottom of the page you can enter your zip code and a little map will pop up and show you where the closest store is that carries our product.
Brian: Oh, that's cool. Does everything seem like it's on the up and up? Here's my thought is, how come every person and company who has a piece of fruit that they're trying to sell doesn't have your shit on their fruit? It sounds like a genius plan. That would save everybody money, feed more people.
James Rogers: Before the end of next year, you should be able to walk into any grocery store in the United States and pick up Apeel fruits and vegetables. It's happening as we speak. It's fun to catch you guys right now. We, over the last four and a half years of funding, we've spent the last four and a half years and $40 million developing this technology. We just introduced it onto store shelves five months ago.
James Rogers: So, the retail programs that we've announced so far are with Harps, which is a grocer in the Midwest, with Costco, and also now with Kroger, largest national retailer. The programs are just going exceptionally well. We're adding new folks every day. It feels like the early part of the wave, before people have an option to go into their stores and get something that's going to be better tasting, longer lasting, more nutritious, and less likely to throw away in their homes.
Quinn: Is it the same process for every piece of fruit? Is it the same application? I'm curious. Is it just like, "Look, now we can do it on every piece of fruit." Or, how does that work?
James Rogers: Great question. That application process is what's gating our introduction of new product categories.
James Rogers: We have largely solved the puzzle of what formulations are necessary for what fruits and vegetables. And our rate of introduction of those formulations is now gated by do we have an application system capable of treating those produce categories. So, an avocado makes sense for our first product because that fruit is going to be picked into a bin in the field. It's going to be brought into a packing facility, where it's going to get sized, sorted, graded. They're going to pick out all the quote unquote ugly fruit. And then they're going to box it up and ship it out.
James Rogers: We have a piece of application equipment we slot right into that conveyance system. We're able to treat the produce, and it goes on its merry way. Now something like a strawberry-
Quinn: So, you treat it coming right off the farm.
James Rogers: Right off the farm. Yeah. As soon as possible. The principle of our technology is, we don't make the fruit any better than it starts, we just maintain that harvest quality for longer.
Brian: Got it.
Quinn: And that way you also avoid all the GMO shit.
James Rogers: Yeah. We don't have to do anything regarding genetic modification of produce. We're literally taking molecules from inside the produce that you would be eating, and we're applying them to the surface of the produce to create this invisible barrier made out of food.
Quinn: That's so fascinating. All right. Now you have the applications figured out for each food, but now, like you said, the gates are the actual processes.
James Rogers: Yeah. Just to carry this through to conclusion, avocados, conveyor belt, easy to implement. Strawberries, people don't know this, but they're picked in the field directly into that clamshell, and they're never touched again until they get to your home.
James Rogers: Yeah. So for us to apply our product in that process, we actually have to add a step. That's not a popular thing to do, so you've got to work with either suppliers who are growing strawberries in different ways, or looking at robotic harvesting, et cetera. That's why some of those introductions are going to take longer, just because to apply our product is going to be an additional step in their harvest practices. You don't want to add operational complexity. That adds costs. You've got to pick the right timing and work with the right partners so that you're able to implement into a supply chain which makes sense.
Quinn: Does at some point ... And I'm not sure exactly how the business works, and feel free to not go into it if you don't want to. But I'm curious, does this scale down to small farmers, farmers market type farmers at some point? How is that available?
James Rogers: I'm super happy you asked that, actually. That's actually how we got into this in the first place, was with a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The idea was, and going back to the numbers I said earlier, okay, fine, we're losing between a third and a half here in the United States. That's tragic. Developing countries losing 80, 90% of what they're growing. The reason for that being they don't have the sophisticated refrigerated supply chain that we operate here in order to reduce those losses.
James Rogers: And so, refrigeration works by basically thermodynamically slowing down the rate that the clock is ticking inside the fruit. And what Apeel is, is an alternative way to do that, which is to slow down the rate that oxygen is getting into the fruit, because oxygen is the rate limiting reagent in the fruit development process. By physically slowing it down, you're able to make the fruit last longer without refrigeration. And that's great for places in the world that don't have refrigeration installed.
James Rogers: And so, we actually have developed versions of our formulations that we distribute, and things that look like, think about a little sugar pouch. We distribute that powder. A small farmer boils water, they mix the powder in, they let it cool. They then dip their mango into that, let it dry, and now it'll last a week longer.
Brian: What the fuck?
Quinn: Yeah, it sounds like magic.
Brian: You're a sorcerer, James.
James Rogers: It's funny. I love the magic analogy, because the magician, all the hard work goes in behind the scenes preparing for the trick.
James Rogers: And then what you see on stage looks like magic. I really do think that's a lot like Apeel, because you can't see, taste, or feel the plant based barrier that we're applying to the surface, you leave two lemons on your counter and one of them's still there 15 weeks later and the other one's a puddle on the counter, it looks like magic. But all the hard work goes in behind the scenes of isolating those materials and creating the formulations in ways that are going to deliver that benefit that you really can't see.
Brian: That's wild.
Quinn: Does this, other foods besides fruits and vegetables spoil. Is there some version of this that can be applied to everything?
James Rogers: Yeah. When we think about our company, every surface is an opportunity. Living systems are constantly, if you think about it, every form of life on this planet has some form of protective barrier. Whether it's human skin, or reptilian scales, the skin on an apple, peel on an orange, everything has a protective barrier.
James Rogers: What we're saying is, if we're going to put those things, if those things are having challenges, rather than go into a lab and make up new chemistries to solve old problems, why don't we just look into the natural world to see which molecules nature's already using to solve those problems. Let's extract and isolate those materials. Let's create formulations that solve those problems.
James Rogers: Because if we use those materials, the materials that nature is used to recycling and reusing and rebuilding into different things, then when we put the materials into the environment, nature's going to use them like it would otherwise. And we're not going to cause any negative externalities in the system.
James Rogers: Our mission as a company goes beyond just addressing the food loss and food waste issue. We really believe that we're at a point in human development where we have the opportunity to look into the natural world to see how nature's solving problems. And then, just to literally cut and copy those solutions to solve problems for people.
Quinn: What about humans? My three kids are aging me so fast. And my wife doesn't even really pay attention to me anymore, which I don't fault her for. Is there something I could apply or drink? Could you figure that out?
James Rogers: Yeah, we've already got a name for it. We're calling it Sex Apeel.
Quinn: That's great.
Brian: Sex Apeel.
Quinn: I haven't heard that word in my house in a long time.
James Rogers: Our marketing team's going to kill me, because they hate that one. That's what I want to call it. It's funny, but your skin does dry out. That's what a big fraction of aging is. Your skin drying out, and reacting with oxygen. A little barrier made out of plants, that you could apply to your body to improve your skin quality is not far off.
Brian: I'll take it. Oxygen ruins everything.
Quinn: That's exactly what you should take away from this, Brian. Jesus. What else is holding you guys back? You have to be running into some sort of pushback somewhere, whether logistically, politically, commercially. I'm curious.
James Rogers: I'd say that our biggest challenges are really those around scale. If you think about it, this is a really low margin, very high volume business. So to make the business successful, you can't just work with one grower. You've got to work with huge production, and be working with lots and lots of produce. That challenges us.
James Rogers: And then, of course, this is a new technology. We're introducing it into a market where we're not replacing something that's there, we're saying here's a new tool. And anytime you're introducing a new tool where you're allowing people to reconfigure a system, you can't just sell that product to someone and say good luck. You've got to show them how to do that. We've had to become not only experts in the technology, but also in the supply chains themselves so that we can help our partners understand how this technology can be used to level up in the sense of doing things you couldn't do before.
James Rogers: Then there's the real classic innovator's dilemma in that the folks that are the market leaders, the reason that they are the market leaders on the supply side is because they have invested heavily into building the world's best cold supply chains, the world's best refrigerated supply chains. That's got them to their market leader position. And what we're coming in and saying is, now there's a second knob you can turn. And by turning that knob, you don't need to invest as heavily into the development of those cold supply chains. That's giving player number three, four, five in the industry the opportunity to compete with number one. Those number ones don't necessarily love us right now.
Quinn: Interesting. Interesting. We'll send Brian after them.
James Rogers: The water. He's been working out.
Quinn: Again, he can't chase them for very long, because again, the cardio is lacking.
Brian: I can get ahold of them.
Quinn: Yeah, that'll be great.
Brian: All right. Let's get into some action steps here. What are actions that folks can take that don't involve personally coming up with a way to double the lifespan of fruits and vegetables? Specifically, using their voice, using their vote, using their dollar. How can we help?
James Rogers: The thing that I'd love to say first is that if you go into a grocery store and you select Apeel fruits and vegetables, you are helping right there.
Quinn: Are they marked?
James Rogers: They are. Yeah. Actually, you go in the store, it'll say fresh for days. Apeel Avocados. You'll actually see it, in the store you'll see banners up actually talking about the benefits. It'll be right out there in front of you. Going back to our philosophy as a company, we don't expect people just to do the right thing. We want to make the right thing to do the easy and the cheap thing to do.
James Rogers: Our whole idea of how to solve this problem is let's just make it a no-brainer. Let's make the fruit lower cost, longer lasting, better quality. And then, you're just doing what's best for you and it ends up being what's best for the planet. That's really, the short answer of what I tell people to do selfishly, is to go into the stores and to look for Apeel fruits and vegetables because that alone is going to be helping. It's the first thing I would say. Other things that people can do, they're almost kind of stupid to say out loud, because they're kind of obvious.
Quinn: No, please. We say stupid shit out loud all day.
Brian: I'll remember that.
James Rogers: It comes down to trying to plan appropriately. Going back to Dan Barber's philosophy, figuring out how to make things out of the stuff you have, not necessarily building saying, "I want to make this," and then going to get that stuff. Because when you flip that equation around, you end up wasting less stuff. Like you said, this is the stupidest thing Americans do. Just stop throwing away food. Buy stuff you need, and use the stuff that you need. Really, it's that simple.
Brian: I just want to clarify. If I go to a store that has your fruits and vegetables, your avocado is going to be cheaper than the other avocados?
James Rogers: It depends on the retailer. They're not raising the price. Think about it this way. Before, a grocery store was buying 100% of their fruit and they were only selling 90% of it. They weren't saying, "Oh, well. It's our fault for not selling the other 10%, so we're not going to charge you for that 10% we threw away." They're charging you for the 100% of fruit that they bought, and they're only selling 90%.
James Rogers: And so now, if they start throwing away only 2% instead of 10%, they can actually charge you less for that same fruit and still earn their same margin. Some of the major retailers we're working with are actually using this to bring down the price of the fruit in their stores, which is really exciting for us.
Quinn: That's so awesome.
Brian: I just went to the website and looked at the map. You guys, it looks like so far it's just pretty-
James Rogers: Highly concentrated in the Midwest.
James Rogers: This is where the problem is most acute.
Brian: Got it.
James Rogers: And growing out the supply chain from there.
Brian: Awesome. I've very excited.
Quinn: Yeah. And obviously, if you see Apeel stuff, buy it, promote it, tell people about it. But also, like you said, just stop wasting food just because it looks ugly. Please eat it.
Brian: Could we take a step back and educate the masses in regards to the fact that you can go to the store and you can grab a piece of fruit that doesn't look perfect, and you'll be fine?
James Rogers: Yeah. I'm glad you brought that up. That's the other thing that's come to mind here. I don't know when it was, but I certainly was under the impression as well, people think if something's a little brown, or it was out of the refrigerator for two hours it's bad. It's just not the case. That browning that happens, it's just a natural reaction with oxygen, that when something goes from colored to brown it means it's had some oxygen reaction. We certainly shouldn't leave things out of the refrigerator for weeks at a time and then eat them.
James Rogers: Fruit being a little brown isn't going to make you sick. What makes you sick is when the natural bacteria that exists in the world have had a long enough time to grow on something. They form enough population that when you eat them, then they get inside your body and you get food poisoning from that. It's not like the fruit turns into poison if it gets old or something like that. You can scoop out the brown portions of your avocado and it's still completely safe and edible.
Quinn: Right. Awesome. This is very, very awesome.
Brian: Well, we've had you for a while here. Thank you so much. This is seriously one of the favorite conversations that I've had so far.
Quinn: Yeah, you look just adorable.
Brian: Thank you. That's so nice.
James Rogers: I really enjoy talking about this stuff. I'll talk your ear off about it if I get the chance, so I appreciate the opportunity to share a little more about what we're doing today, and just talk about this issue in more depth. It is what I believe to be one of the fastest ways we're going to be able to move the needle on climate impact is just to waste less of what we're growing.
Brian: Yeah. That seems like a really cool one to follow up on in a year. Just see how it's going. It seems like it would only be getting better and better. Real quick before we let you go, just a couple things. Anybody else that we should talk to, not just in food, but game changers like you? Whether it be in climate, or clean energy, or cancer, or medicine, or space, or anything?
Quinn: Yeah, game changers seem to know or be more aware of those folks. People working on the issues and questions, good and bad, that are affecting everybody now or in the next 10 years. Big names, small names.
James Rogers: If you were to ask me what would I be working on if I wasn't working at Apeel, one of the things I think is really interesting is to look at folks who are looking at the microbiome as it pertains to agriculture. It's been in vogue recently, the human microbiome and the impacts that is. That alone is an interesting topic, if you want to speak to some folks about that.
James Rogers: But also the ag biome, because plants have their own microbiome, and that controls everything from how efficiently they're able to produce food, and how effectively they resist pests, to how well they're able to uptake nitrogen in the environment. I think that is a really, really interesting area of research and development. They've had some really important insights coming out of that. That's one I would definitely highlight for sure.
James Rogers: And then the other broad space that I would mention you should take a look at are folks who are leveraging the human immune system to fight things like cancer. Instead of making chemotherapy drugs that poison the body and ideally kill of the weak cells, folks who are actually developing ways to charge up your immune system to kill off cancer in a more natural way. Meaning, using your own body's defense system against those cancerous cells. I think those two areas are really going to see a lot of growth here in the next 5 or 10 years.
Quinn: Yeah. To clarify, immunology is the natural way. Not like going on a fucking juice cleanse. Once again, not going to solve your cancer, folks. That's awesome. I love those. If you have any specific names you want to shoot us in an email or something, we'll-
James Rogers: Yeah. Ginkgo Bioworks on the ag biome side I think is a really good one to check out. And then, it's mostly some researchers on the immune system stuff, but I'm happy to send that stuff over.
Brian: Awesome. Thank you, brother. Last up, we just have a quick lightning round of questions, if that sounds good. It's very misleading, because they're not all lightning round questions.
Quinn: You know what? I'm getting tired of it, Brian.
Brian: Then do something about it.
Quinn: Okay. All right. Hey James, when was the first time in your life where you realized you had the power of change or the power to do something meaningful?
James Rogers: Oh, man.
James Rogers: Deep, really. I think it was probably when I walked into one of our time lapse facilities on a Sunday morning about three years ago, and saw the treated produce versus the untreated produce. And went, "Holy shit. I think we've got something here." I don't think it was until then that I felt that there was an actual way to fix some of these problems.
Quinn: That's pretty rad. That's like a real Jurassic Park. Like, "Hey, look. The fucking velociraptor coming out of-"
James Rogers: Yeah. Holy crap. The velociraptor came out of the egg. Exactly.
Quinn: To be clear, hopefully it works out better than that.
Brian: [inaudible 00:54:29].
Quinn: As much as I did love it and appreciate the risks that they took, again, just because you can, doesn't mean you should.
James Rogers: Right. Exactly.
Brian: [crosstalk 00:54:40] does find a way.
Quinn: Hey, who is someone in your life that's positively impacted your work in the past six months?
James Rogers: I would say Walter Robb. He just joined our board of directors. He's the former co-CEO of Whole Foods. When we raised our Series C round of financing, Walter joined our board. Just his wisdom and insight into how we can work with nature to solve problems and connect that back to people in their every day lives, that's really influenced some of the direction that we're taking as a company. I really appreciated his contributions.
Brian: For sure. Awesome. James, what do you do when you feel overwhelmed by everything specifically?
Quinn: Just acknowledging that it can be a little difficult out there these days.
James Rogers: I do a lot of yoga. Do yoga three or four days a week. That's a staple for me. Also, just getting outside and going for a walk. That normally does it for me. My guilty pleasure, music festivals when I can get truly unplugged.
Brian: Nice. Oh yeah, you're in a good part of the country for those, too.
James Rogers: That's right. Exactly. Exactly.
Brian: How do you consume the news?
James Rogers: I am basically Twitter dependent for my news. That's where I'd say I get most of my news stuff. Although now that enough people know where my interests are, I get a lot of stuff fed from outside. "Hey, did you see this?" I love casting that wider net.
Brian: Awesome. All right. James, if you could Amazon Prime one book to Donald Trump, what would it be?
James Rogers: It'd be an Apeel Avocado.
Quinn: The Apeel Avocado?
James Rogers: It'd be an Apeel Avocado, man.
Quinn: Oh. All right. I love it, man. Let's bring this thing home, dude. Where can our listeners follow you online, and follow what Apeel's up to?
James Rogers: We do a lot of Twitter. I think it's @ApeelSciences. Instagram same thing. And then, I'm on Twitter, as well. It's just JamesTRogers.
Quinn: Awesome, man. This has been tremendous. We really appreciate your time today, and clearly, everything that you're doing. It's a really good lesson to kids that just because you're watching fucking paint dry doesn't mean you can't have an idea to change the world.
James Rogers: I like that. That's a strong moral.
Quinn: Put down your fucking device. Watch paint dry, and let your subconscious do the work. You never know.
James Rogers: I'd layer on top of that when I was thinking about starting the company, I was nervous that I'd be closing other doors if something didn't work out for some reason. But about one year into it, I was like even if this didn't work out, it would've been the best experience of my life. I'd just tell people to go for it, and you're going to learn a ton.
Quinn: Awesome. I love it, man.
Brian: That's rad.
Quinn: Well James, thank you so much, man. We will definitely check in and see how everything's going.
Brian: Yeah, I'm excited.
Quinn: Brian's going to go make an abhorrent amount of avocado toast now.
Brian: I just love avocados.
James Rogers: Hey, us, too.
Brian: Then again, I have such a problem with them.
James Rogers: Us, too. We can help solve that, guys. Appreciate the time today, and looking forward to our followup conversation, as well.
Quinn: Awesome. All right, man. Be good, James.
Brian: Thank you.
James Rogers: All right, guys. Talk to you later.
Quinn: Thanks, brother. Thanks to our incredible guest today. And thanks to all of you for tuning in. We hope this episode has made your commute or awesome workout, or dish washing, or fucking dog walking late at night that much more pleasant. As a reminder, please subscribe to our free email newsletter at importantnotimportant.com. It is all the news most vital to our survival as a species.
Brian: And you can follow us all over the internet. You can find us on Twitter @importantnotimp.
Quinn: That's so weird.
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Brian: And you can find the show notes from today right in your little podcast player, and at our website importantnotimportant.com.
Quinn: Thanks to the very awesome Tim Blane for our jamming music. To all of you for listening. And finally, most importantly, to our moms for making us. Have a great day.
Brian: Thanks, guys.