AgTech startups in Chile: 4 success cases

Agriculture is not always associated with high-tech, but this is rapidly changing. Chilean startups are becoming increasingly relevant in agriculture innovation, mixing genetics, engineering, software development, and IoT. These companies are part of the AgTech landscape.

What is FoodTech and AgTech?

FoodTech has been defined in different ways, one of the most comprehensive definitions is:

“Food Tech as the emerging sector exploring how technology can be leveraged to create efficiency and sustainability in designing, producing, choosing, delivering and enjoying food” by ForwardFooding.

On the other hand, the definition of AgTech industry comes from uniting the agriculture and technology industries. It is an emerging economic sector that can dramatically reshape global agriculture by increasing the productivity of the agricultural sector and, at the same time, reducing social and environmental costs associated with current agricultural production practices. It can, therefore, lead us on the path towards a more sustainable agricultural system.

AgTech is also associated with the concept of Agriculture 4.0, which references the digitalization of agriculture. Connectivity is the cornerstone of industrial and agricultural transformation. IoT is an enabling technology that is increasingly part of agriculture’s equipment.

Challenges facing agriculture and technology

A few decades ago, farmers could cope with a growing food demand by expanding the land they used to farm. However, this is no longer feasible. Around 50% of the world’s land is already being used for agriculture, and most of the rest isn’t appropriate to grow food. Climate change is also impacting agriculture in many ways, from changing precipitation patterns to heatwaves and increased pests’ occurrences.

Furthermore, the consumer’s behavior and their demand is rapidly changing; affluence is related with an increased demand for fruits, vegetables and animal products. While connectivity is associated with a growing market for internet-based strategies.

Here is where innovators can play a crucial role in developing the agriculture of the future. Innovations can be short-term solutions by creating waste-reducing irrigation tech. They can be long-term by developing sustainable technologies to use water smartly.

Even though the opportunities to integrate agriculture and digitalization are multiple, there are several obstacles to adopting new technologies. Among them are the mindset and practices in the agricultural sector, the challenge of standardization, and the ability to invest and modernize agricultural equipment and supporting infrastructures.

Tracing the origin of the food in a certifiable way is every day more critical. Here the implementation of technologies such as blockchain could ensure that the point of origin is known. Furthermore, the same process could be modified to include data on the product’s treatment in each stage along the food chain. This would ensure that the labeling at the point of sale is correct and that there are no frauds on the product’s quality.

AgTech investment

The AgTech sector has enormous investment opportunities. The demand for sustainable food, fibers, fodder, and energy is projected to grow. Through most of the 20th century, a major part of agricultural innovation investment was funded with public money. However, during the 1980s, public expenditure in agricultural R&D stagnated.

During the first two decades of this century, private investment in food and agricultural innovation has steadily grown; indeed, between 2005 and 2015, the number of investment funds specializing in food and agriculture assets grew from around 30 to more than 300, with current holdings over US$52 billion. Between 2015 and 2020, global venture funding for AgTech had added more than US$15 billion. In 2020, the investment in FoodTech companies was projected to reach €15 globally.

AgTech investment in Chile

The agriculture sector is one of the main economic sectors in Chile’s economy. Furthermore, the country’s quality of agricultural exports is widely recognized, from bottled wine to fresh and dried fruits. By the early 2010s, the country’s potential for agricultural investment was being highlighted due to its farming capabilities and for being a geographic center.

In the last decade, the Chilean government started to seriously consider public and private investment in the development of agricultural innovation in the country. In collaboration with the World Bank, the government implemented a plan to fund technological agricultural innovations to project the sector into the future.

By 2017 the government had begun to work with farmers, private investors, researchers, and technology firms to develop functional ingredients and specialty additives of natural origin in Chile. This project had a public investment of US$3,600 million.

Partnerships between innovation companies, the state, and venture capitals have found fertile ground in Chile. Among the main factors to invest in the country are:

– the good reputation of its agricultural products

– the country’s institutional and macroeconomic stability that guarantees security for investors

– the support of the Chilean government that continues to invest in AgTech industry via CORFO and other institutions

– the country’s free trade agreements with more than 80% of the world’s GDP

off-season fruit production for the Northern Hemisphere

Four successful Chilean AgTech and FoodTech startups

Many AgTech startups have appeared in Chile during the last years, thanks to the innovative partnerships between public and private capital. Below you can find more information about 4 Chilean startups that have revolutionized the foodtech industry.

NotCo

NotCo is a food technology company that produces plant-based meat and dairy substitutes. It uses artificial intelligence to make plant-based food that tastes, looks, and smells the same as animal-based. The company was founded in 2015, and it has raised more than US$115 million. NotCo has a range of products that include NotMilk, NotBurguer, NotIceCream, and NotMayo. It has partnered with Burger King and Papa Johns in Chile. The company is expected to shortly scale its operations in the U.S. The most important rounds of investment for the company have been September 2020 with US$85 million lead by Future Positive, L Catterton and March 2020 with US$30 million lead by Bezos Expeditions, The Craftory

PolyNatural

PolyNatural is based on disruptive intelligent science that is used for the first time in the fruticulture industry. Based on all-natural ingredients, the company offers unique products that benefit the quality of food. Shel-life® is a natural emulsion manufactured with natural extracts, lipids, and plant polymers to form a covering on the fruit that reduces the growth of microorganisms and dehydration, thus reducing food waste. The company’s product differs from the competition in the components used, most of which consist of synthetic waxes derived from petroleum. PolyNatural’s Shel-life® is organically certified in the European Union and the United States, so it can safely be used to protect organic apples, peaches and oranges, among other produce.  The company was founded in 2015, and it has raised US$800 thousand in funding so far. The most important investment round for the company has been February 2020, with US$800 thousand lead by ChileGlobal Ventures.

Instacrops

Instacrops is an AgTech platform that integrates different technologies and services. It is a virtual assistant that combines IoT modules and software to optimize irrigation based on weather forecasts and can also detect diseases and pests and maximize fertilizers’ utility by giving farmers real-time recommendations and actionable insights. The Chilean startup’s services are based on Big Data and virtual assistance, the use of Plug & Play technologies, continuous research and development, and remote monitoring and control. Instacrops was founded in 2015, and it has raised US$220 thousand in investment. The most important round of investment for the company has been February 2020 with US$100 thousand lead by Thrive Agtech Accelerator.

Agrourbana

Agrourbana is the first vertical agriculture company in Latin America, leading the foodtech industry in the region. It produces the best vegetables using cutting-edge technology as well as social and environmentally responsible processes. Vertical agriculture allows farmers to grow high-tech crops indoors. With much less space, it is possible to grow the same amount of food in only 1% of the land compared with traditional agriculture, while also saving up to 95% of water. Agrourbana’s innovation is particularly relevant when considering that most of the land adequate for agriculture is already being used. The company has raised US$1 million in investment so far. The most important investment round for the company has been February 2020, with US$1 million lead by CLIN.

Chilean AgriTech startups are leading the path towards a more sustainable agricultural system, reducing food waste, increasing productivity and, giving consumers new and healthy food choices.

New trends in sustainable packaging

The packaging is an integral part of the food we eat. Unless you eat something straight from the tree after picking it, the food you eat is involved in one way or another with some form of packaging. The use of packaging allows for products to last longer and is therefore associated with less food waste. However, not all packaging is created equally.

Packaging has positive and negative impacts on the environment. On the one hand, we have packaging-related emissions and waste; and on the other, packaging allows us to move and distribute goods that would otherwise be unavailable.

The different functions of food packaging

Besides transportation and distribution, packaging can also be used as a form of advertising. A visually pleasing package attracts attention, which is vital in an increasingly competitive market.

In developed countries, where packaging is widely used,  can be as low as 3% for processed foods and up to 15% for fresh food, while in less-developed countries, where packaging is minimal, food spoilage can be as high as 50 percent.

Packaging in numbers

Globally, the  was USD$851 billion in 2017, and it reached USD$876 billion in 2018, according to data from Smithers Pira. By 2023 the industry is expected to have a value over USD$1 trillion, and by 2028 an additional USD$$150 billion will be added to the market. Overall, an expansion of 3% per annum is expected to occur up until 2028.

The  is located in Asia, representing more than 42% of the industry, followed by North America (24.3%) and Europe (18.4%).

In terms of , cardboard (35%) dominates -primarily due to the growth in e-commerce-, followed by flexible packaging (23%) made with plastic or paper. Flexible packaging gained over rigid plastic mainly due to its lower weight.  leading material is flexible packaging, followed by rigid plastic, paper-based containers, liquid cartons, metal, and glass.

Packaging in agriculture

Packaging is an intrinsic part of agricultural production; moving the product safely from one part of the production cycle to the next is key to achieving a successful business. Non-recyclable packaging is often used because of its ; waxed cardboard or plastic wrap are cheaper than pressed wood.

The reliance on non-recyclable packaging is based on its ability to do a good enough job for its price. However, this is not always the case; broccoli, when packed in unrecyclable waxed cardboard boxes, often reach its destination in an unfit-to-sale state due to bacterial growth.

Developing safe and effective sustainable packaging is critical to achieving a sustainable agriculture system.

Environmental considerations

Plastic pollution is a ; from the 350 million tons of plastic produced each year, 8 million end up in the ocean. Moreover, plastic food packaging is the most common beach trash. Nine of the top ten  are related to food and drink; the most common items are food wrappers, straws, forks, knives and spoons, plastic beverage bottles, plastic bottle caps, plastic grocery bags, plastic lids, and plastic cups.

There was a rapid increase in plastic from the 1950s onwards, and currently, the usage of single-use plastic is rising, particularly in developing countries. Globally, less than 10% of plastic is recycled; this is particularly troubling when we consider that plastic takes more than .

The  in the ocean reached such a level of notoriety that the United Nations Assembly passed a resolution signed by more than 200 countries to eliminate plastic pollution in the seas. Although the treaty is not legally binding, some countries have already passed local legislation to decrease their plastic pollution.

Packaging materials

Food packaging is made from various materials, including plastics, glass, metal, ceramics, cardboard, wood, and waxes. The majority of modern packaging is made of glass, plastic, paper, and paperboard. The manufacture of food packaging materials involves using various resources, including energy, water, chemicals, minerals, petroleum, fibers, and wood. The manufacturing process often  that include particulates, greenhouse gases, toxic contaminants, and wastewater.

Glass manufacturing  greenhouse gasses, sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, and fine particulates containing heavy metals. The manufacture of aluminum requires significant energy quantities; it uses a lot of water and creates a toxic sludge that may contain heavy metals and radioactive elements; the emission includes greenhouse gasses, sulfur dioxide, and wastewater. The manufacture of paper and cardboard involves a lot of land used to obtain the fibers. The milling process uses a lot of energy and water; air emissions include sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and nitrox oxides. Plastic manufacturing emits significant amounts of greenhouse gasses, hydrofluorocarbons, nitrous oxides, sulfuric hexafluoride, and perfluorocarbons.

Sustainable food packaging

The most significant . The concern over the environmental impact of products is a long-lasting phenomenon. The EU launched an initiative geared towards circular economy principles, focusing on plastic waste and single-use plastic packaging.

Reusable food packaging is an alternative for diverting plastic from landfills and oceans. Not so long ago, food containers were reused, milk and beer bottles were returned to the manufacturer for cleaning and reuse. Shoppers can bring their own containers to stock from bulk bins, besides carrying their own shopping bags.

When reusable containers are not the solution, more sustainable packaging alternatives are needed. Researchers, entrepreneurs, and companies are stepping up to solve this issue. Non-petroleum-based plastics – made from corn or sugarcane- better recycling technologies, degradable plastics are in the works.

Consumers are putting recycling responsibilities mainly  More than two-thirds of US shoppers say that manufacturers should be responsible for environmentally friendly choices. While 55% of Brazilian consumers agree that companies should offer sustainable solutions and 45% of Swedish consumers say brands should use more recycled materials.

As sustainability has risen as a critical motivator for consumers, brands have begun to look for innovative packaging alternatives to show their sustainability commitment. Nestle has committed to making 100% of its packaging reusable or recyclable by 2025. Unilever followed closely with its own sustainable packaging commitment. Besides these giants, many other companies are actively researching new packaging technologies;  announced new materials that are fully biodegradable in industrial and home composting.

The rise of food e-commerce has had associated the need to  to protect the product during the last mile, besides being perceived as a sustainable choice by consumers. In development are packaging alternatives that weigh less, are sustainable, and perform well in the delivery market.

Innovative alternatives in sustainable agricultural packaging

provides flexibility, versatility, and durability. Packages with these materials save space and are easy to transport due to their collapsible assembly.

Food wraps made from seaweed and casein. These wraps reduce plastic reliance, have a lower carbon footprint, promote positive environmental practices, and can even be edible.

Plastic-less  specially designed for avocados, apples, and other fruits; are able to preserve the produce from damage while looking enticing for the consumer. These packaging solutions are critical for the fruit export industry.

Food coatings that can be applied to fruits and vegetables also help to preserve food. By preventing dehydration and serving as a protecting barrier from bacteria, . Food coatings can be made from a combination of ingredients, including synthetic and natural ones. The main advantage of using natural coatings is their reliance on natural -non-plastic- ingredients; they are also better accepted by discerning consumers and strict legislations -such as the EU-. Fruit coatings are critical for a more sustainable fruit export industry.

Consumers can make a difference

Consumers’ actions and preferences have led to changes in the industry, a more sustainable food packaging industry is possible. Consumers can continue to make a difference by using less plastic in the kitchen, choosing beeswax wrappers over plastic wrap, avoiding plastic cutlery, and electing to use compostable materials, carrying their own bags when shopping, and selecting zero-waste stores that have been opening in new places, allowing consumers to buy bulk products in reusable containers.

Fruit and vegetables are often sold in bulk, and many companies also pack them to extend their shelf-life;  has found an alternative. The company produces a thin edible fruit coating made with natural materials that is tasteless and can be applied to fruits to make them last longer. By using this coating, it is possible to extend the shelf-life of fruits and reduce food waste.

Sustainable food trends are here to stay, particularly considering that the largest majority of Gen Z want eco-friendly packaging and seek environmentally sustainable products. From fruit coatings that make produce last longer to biodegradable and compostable plastics sustainable packing is steadily growing.

The myth of shiny fruit: natural food trends for FoodTech

Have you ever wondered why supermarket fruit looks different from the one you can find in your local farmer’s market? It probably has a lot to do with the use of edible coatings, but what exactly are those?

You might have seen online videos claiming that apples or other fruits have dangerous substances covering them. Nothing further from reality, the main role of that substance, or coating, is to protect the fruit and maintain its freshness for longer.

The importance of edible fruit coatings

Edible coatings can provide an additional protective layer to fresh products; this can have a similar effect as modifying the product’s surrounding atmosphere and internal gas composition, which allows preserving fruits for a more extended period of time.

Learning to love natural products

Many fruits produce their own protective wax naturally. However, after picking and cleaning, this coating is lost. Therefore, adding a coating to its surface for the fruit to last longer is necessary. The coating’s principal role is to preserve the fruit’s qualities, avoiding moisture loss and protecting its surface from microbes.

New trends, and the fight to reduce hunger and food waste, have put a new paradigm  in place, the one where the so-called “ugly fruits” and natural appearances are no longer rejected, but promoted and demanded by consumers.

Applying natural coatings alternatives will preserve the natural appearance of fruits, which, in some cases, are not shiny at all. The final product will have a protecting layer, but not a glossy finish.

Natural and artificial coatings can contain fungicides to inhibit mold growth while at the same time controlling fruit respiration to delay the ripening process, protecting it from bruising during transportation. Artificial fruit coatings -such as petroleum-derived- are designed to merge food preservation and presentation; they can look nicer, but in some countries are forbidden, and they won’t get organic certification.

Are coatings safe?

Coatings are meticulously formulated and tested. They have to meet the local food authority requirements, be it the US Food and Drug Administration, or the European Legislation on food additives, or more generally, the FAO Codex Alimentarius on International Food Standards. The last one is a collection of codes, guidelines, and practice that ensures that food is safe and can be traded; the 188 global members agree in the Codex’s content. 

Not every country or region in the world allows the use of the same coatings or food additives. Among the most restrictive commercial zones is the European Union, which allows only for the use of naturally made fruit coatings.

Concerns have been raised regarding the sealing of pesticides that can occur by applying a coating. However, it has been shown that the prior fruit washing removes the majority of pesticides. And as far as the coating goes, it has no health issues since the body does not absorb it, and it passes right through the digestive system.

The regulatory bodies are in charge of ensuring that fruit is safe to eat, so they regularly check for things like pesticide and herbicide levels. Coatings need to be safe. They also have to meet consumers’ demand, who want to buy fruit that looks and tastes good and is not covered in strange looking substances.

Coatings in time

Wax was the first edible coating used to preserve fruits. During the 12th and 13th centuries, the Chinese used to apply wax to preserve lemons and oranges. Later, in the 1930s, melted paraffin waxes were used as edible coatings in pears and apples. Paraffin and wax both were able to slow down the respiratory gas exchange, allowing the fruit to be stored for more extended periods of time.

Nowadays, many more natural ingredients -not based on fossil fuels- are used to make coatings. Among the most widely used ingredients are:

  • beeswax (bees)
  • candelia wax (desert plant)
  • carnauba wax (Brazilian palm)
  • shellac (Indian lac bug)

Synthetic esters are also used, they can be made by combining fatty acids and sucrose. Polyethylene is also frequently applied; it is interesting to note that it can be vegan if the ethanol is made from corn.

Consumer perceptions have also evolved in time. A larger proportion of buyers is more in synch with their food, their precedence and any treatments that have been applied.

Trends driving change in the agrifood industry

The agrifood industry is rapidly evolving. Among the leading natural food trends driving the change are the demand for a healthier and more sustainable food future. Transparency, plant-based foods, wellness, and food waste are part of the industry’s latest tendencies.

Consumers want to know and understand the ingredients that go into what they eat; they seek simplicity besides quality. It is now routine for consumers to check the back of packages and labels to see what they are buying. Consumers are currently looking for brands that are transparent with their products, their sourcing, and ingredients.

Plant-based burgers are perhaps the better known of the plant-based foods. They became ubiquitous in 2019 in restaurants and grocery stores. They are sought after by vegans, vegetarians, and everyone else trying to reduce their meat intake. More recently, plant-based pork, fish, and chicken have also become available, along with non-dairy milk, cream, and mayo.

Health and wellness are gaining traction in the agrifood industry, accompanied by labels claiming “better for you” characteristics and organic alternatives. Consumers are becoming more educated on the benefits of healthier choices. This has led companies to change many of their products for other options with less sugar, preservatives, fats, artificial coloring, and GMO-free.

In an effort to reduce food waste, the practice of upcycling foods is becoming more common. Upcycling allows producers to add value to by-products or surplus ingredients that otherwise would have been wasted. Rescuing wonky fruits and vegetables, using eggshells to make a calcium supplement, and turning fruits into sugar substitutes are among the many food upcycling ideas.

The development and implementation of eco-friendly and sustainable packaging is a growing trend in the food industry. Many companies have started to use compostable, biodegradable or recycled materials. The use of sustainable packaging helps companies meet their environmental goals, and it also helps them enhance the brand’s image as consumers become more aware. It has been estimated that 74% of consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable packaging.

Natural alternatives to preserve fruits, reduce food waste and protect consumers health

Many new alternatives that consider the latest natural food trends in the food tech industry and AgTech industry have appeared globally. PolyNatural is a startup with a clear view towards using more natural plant-based ingredients and reducing food waste.

PolyNatural’s Shel-Life® is a natural coating that creates a “second skin” in fruits, especially used in those that travel long distances from South America to northern markets.

Shel-Life®is prepared from polysaccharides made from rinds discarded from the juicing industry. This natural and innocuous polymer protects the fruit from dehydration and the action of microorganisms. In that way, it allows for a longer shelf-life while maintaining its natural smell, flavor, and shine.

Also, Shel-Life® can outperform all other products available in the market since it is made from all-natural ingredients, ensuring its consumer’s wellness. It can also reduce rot incidence and dehydration, thus reducing food waste. Furthermore, Shel-Life is organically certified in the United States and Europe.

Shel-Life® has a 3% rot incidence reduction and 7% less dehydration. It has an equal performance as current petrol-based coatings but has no restrictions for entering the European market due to its all-natural ingredients. When comparing with untreated fruits, Shel-Life® extends in 40% gondola days.

Shel-Life®is available for pomaceous, citrus, and stone fruits, besides one specially designed for avocado. In the development process for cherries, blueberries, and kiwis.

The trend to achieve a more transparent, sustainable, and healthier food tech and AgTech industry is here to stay. By adapting to consumer’s demands, the industry is turning towards a world with potentially less food waste and hunger.

Natural coatings as an ally to reduce food waste

Food loss is a significant issue in today’s world; the food that is not consumed and is wasted constitutes a loss in the fight against hunger and malnutrition. Food losses directly impact food security, quality and safety, economic development, and the environment. Food waste is associated with a waste of resources, including water, energy, land, inputs, and GHG emissions.

Definitions of “food loss” and “food waste”

Food loss and waste, which sometimes are used as synonyms, constitute two different processes. Food losses refer to the decrease in edible food that occurs through the supply chain; food losses occur at the production, post-harvest, and processing stages of the food supply chain. The loss of food at the end of the chain, either in retail or final consumption, is called food waste.

Losses due to storage, transportation, distribution, marketing and consumption can be alleviated by using specifically designed food coatings that can prevent spoilage and rotting.

Causes of food loss and food waste

The exact causes of food loss and waste vary across the world and are very dependent on the specific context. However, it is generally possible to ascertain that food losses are influenced by crop production patterns, infrastructure and capacity, marketing chains, distribution channels and consumer purchasing practices.

Even if food is wasted through the supply chain, different phenomena can be detected in high-income and low-income countries. In medium and high-income countries, food is mainly wasted at the retail or consumer level; this means that it is disposed of, even if it is still suitable for consumption. In low-income countries, food is mainly lost in the production, post-harvest, and processing stages of the supply chain.

Food loss and waste in numbers

A worldwide study estimated that around 30% of the world’s food was lost or wasted every year. A more recent FAO assessment concluded that up to 14% of food is wasted in the world from post-harvest up to the retail level. Food is lost in every continent, with the higher rates occurring in Central and Southern Asia (21%). In comparison, the rates for industrialized nations in North America and Europe are close to 16%. The lowest rates in the globe are found in Australia and New Zealand (6%).

In terms of specific food categories that are lost; roots, tubers and oil-bearing crops are the highest (25%), followed by fruits and vegetables (22%), meat and animal products (12%), and cereals and pulses (9%). Fruits and vegetables are mainly lost during on-farm operations, storage and processing, and packaging.

In the United States, food waste is estimated at between 30% and 40% of the food supply; this corresponds to around 60 million tonnes and US$161 billion. In the European Union, around 88 million tons of food are wasted each year, with a cost of 143 billion euros.

The best approach to reducing food loss and waste is not to create it in the first place. Waste can be avoided in several ways, including improving product development, storage, shipping, labeling, and marketing. However, if excess food is unavoidable, several strategies can be taken, including donating it for hunger relief. If food is in an inedible state, it can be recycled into animal feed, compost, bioenergy, and bioplastics.

Food waste in fruits, the importance of cosmetic appearances

In high-income countries, fruit and vegetable losses occur mainly in the consumption and distribution stages. In contrast, in low-income countries, a higher proportion of the product is lost between the production and processing stages. The losses and waste that occur in the different stages worldwide amount to nearly one half of all fruit and vegetables produced being lost.

Appearance quality standards for fresh produce from supermarkets can lead to food waste. Indeed, a perfectly fine product in terms of nutrition can be rejected based on size, shape, or appearance. Cosmetic specifications that normalize the size, shape and color of food are crucial along the whole food chain; from producers to intermediary and middle actors such as exporters and importers, and final purchasers, including retailers and consumers. Cosmetic specifications ultimately determine what food can and cannot be sold based solely on external appearance.

Due to the increased scrutiny of food waste, the European Union began to relax its regulations on selling fruits and vegetables with imperfect appearance. Retailers have slowly and cautiously begun offering misshapen products. Nonetheless, consumer behavior hasn’t changed from one day to the next. In general, slightly or moderately misshapen fruits and vegetables have a better chance of being bought than heavily deformed products. Even when consumers have a better perception of different shapes and colors in their fruits, it is still critical to ensure that products last for longer and that food waste is reduced.

Fruit coatings, key in reducing fruit waste

Intermediaries, for whom food is an input, have a clear incentive to reduce food loss. Food importers can play a crucial role in lessening food losses and waste by carefully choosing their suppliers and supply chain methods.

There are several techniques to preserve produce for a longer time. Among them is applying coatings that can reduce moisture loss, slow the post-harvest decay, and extend the product’s shelf life. Coatings can close small cracks in the skin of fruits, creating a barrier that stops the spread of bacteria and fungi that can affect the product.

Several coating products exist in the market today; they are made from either all-natural ingredients (like PolyNatural Shel-Life™), synthetic ingredients, or a mix of both. Among the most common ingredients are sugarcane, carnauba, beeswax, and polyethylene. However, all coatings are not received equally in global food markets. The European Union has strict food regulations for the usage of food coatings, allowing the usage of Beeswax (E 901), Candelilla wax (E 902), Carnauba wax (E 903), Shellac (E 904) and Microcrystalline wax (E 905). Furthermore, if the product -and its ingredients- are certified, they can be sold in organic markets.

Some chemicals are banned from the UK and the European Union, such as morpholine; complete fruit shipments that contained this chemical have been banned from commercializing in the region, with great losses to producers and traders.

Another reason for food importers to prefer natural coatings is to satisfy consumer’s demands. Current consumer’s preferences go along with buying natural, organic, and fair-trade certified products. Therefore, trading these products is not only a sound environmental choice but also good for business.

PolyNatural: a solution for natural coatings to preserve fruits

PolyNatural offers a natural coating based on vegetable extracts and vegetable polymers that extends the shelf life of fruits. It reduced the incidence of rot by 3% and dehydration by 7%, increasing by 40% gondola days. Shel-Life™’s PolyNatural offers the same or better performance than synthetic waxes while being natural, which positions it at an advantage for discerning customers and strict international markets.

On organic apples, Shel-Life™ performs 4.85 times better in terms of rot incidence, reducing it to 0.4%. It has the same performance on conventional apples as synthetic waxes. On conventional nectarines, Shel-Life™ is 132% superior in controlling rot incidence and reduces the fruit’s dehydration. On lemons, Shel-Life™ shows 75% less dehydration and 50% less rotten incidence. On avocados, it reduces dehydration and extends shelf life by 20%.

PolyNatural products include specially designed coatings for pomaceous, citrus, stone fruits, and avocado. With more than 35,000 tons already shipped and organic certifications in the USA and the EU, their coatings are a sure bet for food importers.

Waste and food losses are no longer an option for most countries, and they have implemented legislation that will impact the whole food chain, from small food producers to big export companies. Most importantly, an agreement has been reached to diminish the impact that food waste and losses have on the environment and society. The private sector is taking an active role in this, working hand to hand with governmental agencies. An example of this is the Courtauld Commitment, “a voluntary agreement aimed at improving resource efficiency and reducing waste within the UK grocery sector”, more than 50 retailers are already part of this.

Another interesting approach is the “10x20x30” supply chain initiative, where 10 of the biggest food and agricultural companies “commit to act and engage their 20 largest suppliers to do the same by 2030”. 

The time is now, importers, exporters and trade companies are taking action and, by reducing food waste and losses, are gaining reputation and profitability.

The growth of investment in agri-food startups

The global agribusiness scenario is currently defined by several factors, including the growing world population and varying dietary patterns, the limitation on the use of fossil fuels to mitigate climate change, intense economic competition, the possible effects of climate change on food production and the whole food systems, and the effects of COVID-19 on food production and demand. 

Framed by these issues, it is clear that there are challenges to produce more food, energy, and fibers more efficiently, conserving resources while at the same time polluting less.

The importance of agri-food innovations

As a critical driver of productivity and economic growth, innovation in agriculture happens across every dimension of the production cycle and along the entire value chain, including crops, livestock, or fisheries production to market access and inputs’ management.  

Innovation is also much more than a buzzword or a fashionable notion. It has become a key issue for companies, policies, and society globally; it is a factor of competitiveness for enterprises that can lead to improved productivity, cost reductions, and the opening of new markets. 

Several areas have a great potential for innovation in the agri-food sector (also called agtech or agrotech), including digital data-driven solutions, like data analytics and big data, automation and robotics, development and production of new food ingredients, and bio-based and biodegradable materials for packaging.

To make sure that local, regional, and global food production is prepared to surpass the future challenges, more innovation in the agri-food sector is critical. Furthermore, the industry has great potential for invention by using new technologies, such as precision farming, sustainable packaging, and blockchain-based food tracing. 

Challenges of agri-food innovations

Innovation in the agri-food sector is not always easy. Businesses in the sector are interdependent and usually compete based on price rather than quality or environmental impact; this, associated with low margins and long payback periods, limits taking chances on innovation. 

Payback times of costs associated with innovating in new ingredients, molecules, or food products is around 3 to 5 years, with an R&D (research and development) of 4 to 10 years and a breakeven point of 7 to 15 years. The development process of new and innovative products requires more time and money to enter the market and are, therefore, riskier. Financiers must be prepared to accept long maturity and payback periods.

Financing agri-food innovation

At a world level, public-sector spending in agricultural R&D has stagnated during the latest decade in most high-income countries but increased in middle-income countries. As a comparison, between 2008 and 2013, public-sector spending in agricultural R&D fell more than 20% in the USA but increased by 70% in China. Meanwhile, private-sector R&D spending has been thriving, accounting for more than 60% globally.  

The growing investment in agricultural innovation has been led by an impressive convergence of advances in agronomy, biology, animal and plant science, robotics, and digitalization; all of which are part of the ‘digital agriculture’ revolution.

A recent EU study indicates that the demand for new financing tools in the agri-food sector has risen steadily during the last decade. In the region, several institutions, including the European Investment Bank, offer a wide range of instruments to finance the sector, such as loans, equity products, guarantees, and advisory services. 

Investment in agri-food startups has grown by 370% since 2013. However, 2020 has been a year like no other. The economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic will impact the investment in agri-food innovations; this is already apparent when comparing the results for Q1-2020 (around US$550 million) and Q1-2019 (around US$1 billion).

In 2019, agri-food startups raised US$4.7 billion, representing a 6,8% year-over-year growth; this is particularly important compared with other economic sectors’ behavior, across which investment fell around 16%. Even though the number of deals decreased in 2019, the total investment was larger thanks to several over-US$100-million contracts, including the French Ynsect, Germany’s Infarm, California’s Plenty, and New Jersey’s AeroFarms.

Interesting agri-food startups to follow in 2021

AgBiome natural high-tech protection for your crops

AgBiome, founded in the USA in 2012, has raised US$119 million in investment. It is a biotechnology company that uses new knowledge of the plant’s biome to create innovative agriculture products. Their products help farmers combat some of the major crop production problems, such as insects, nematodes, and diseases. AgBiome’s products include the most diverse microbial collection for agricultural applications. Genesis™: is a gene and strain identification system that allows them to efficiently capture and screen microorganisms and proteins that kill insect pests, fungal pathogens, and weeds.

The Yield increasing production sustainably

The Yield is an Australian company founded in 2016 that has raised US$10.15 million in investments.  The Yield is an AI-driven, microclimate sensing, analytics, and prescription platform for irrigated crops. The company’s focus is to help farmers increase yields, reduce risks associated with frost, extreme heat, and disease events, and optimize their supply chains. The company has global patents for using AI to predict weather variables at microclimatic hotspot levels. Sensing+ is an end-to-end solution for large-scale growing operations that combines sensors, data analytics, and apps.

Agri-food innovation in Latin America

During 2019, US$1.4 billion were raised by agri-food startups in Latin America. Even if Rappi accounted for a significant portion with its record-breaking US$1 billion, there was a 40% year-over-year growth in the number of deals, highlighting the region’s growing activity.

2020 has been a good year for agri-food startup investment in the region; indeed, the third quarter ended, breaking new records. In September alone, more than US$400 million were invested in three Latin American rising companies. 

Among the most interesting startups in the region are: 

AgroSmart insights for farmers and the agribusinesses

AgroSmart is a Brazilian company founded in 2014 in Brazil that has raised US$8.8 million in investment. AgroSmart generates agronomic models based on seed genetics, soil type, and microclimate. The company builds market intelligence by combining ground data and best-in-class analytical capabilities to provide actionable insights to develop a more sustainable and productive agriculture. AgroSmart uses sensors to monitor crops and satellite images to generate recommendations regarding irrigation, climate, and diseases; the company also generates data to orient genetic development and seed placing strategies.

Beeflow pollinating crops naturally

Beeflow is an Argentinian company founded in 2017 that recently raised US$3 million in investment. Beeflow is a provider of professional pollination services that aim to facilitate crop pollination using honeybees. The company’s bees are fed with a unique organic mixture that enhances their immune system and helps them fly for a longer time in colder climates; they also specialize in specifically targeted crops, enabling farmers to increase crop yields by up to 90%.

Polynatural natural food coatings – fighting food waste

Polynatural is a Chilean company founded in 2016 that has raised US$800 thousand in investments. The company develops a 100% natural product designed to coat agricultural products. Polynatural produces edible organic coatings made only with natural ingredients that increase the shelf life of fresh produce by reducing microbial contamination and dehydration; this also improves the product’s appearance and smell. Shel-life® is manufactured with natural extracts, lipids and plant polymers, an alternative for synthetic coatings with equal or better performance and some organic certifications.

Even if agri-food businesses have been part of investment portfolios for a long time, the convergence of climate change, the global pandemic, and food security have contributed to bringing them to the forefront of venture capitalists and private equity firms’ investments. They not only see the opportunity to contribute to society but also to have a high profit. This is the case of pension funds, which by financing sustainable agri-food companies and startups, meet their social and environmental goals while delivering healthy returns. 

Agri-food startups are on the rise, and this is the time to invest sustainably and profitably.

Is natural wax the coating solution for long lasting fruits?

Fruits are an essential source of vitamins and dietary fiber that are indispensable for human health and wellbeing. However, fruits are highly perishable; they can get damaged during transport and marketing and have short shelf lives –”shelf life” refers to the time that a product, especially medicine and food, can be kept before it becomes too old to be sold or consumed–. Producers can apply wax to protect them from decay and dehydration.

Naturally, fruits produce their own coating –the epicarp– or wax to protect themselves from drying or getting oversaturated with water when it rains. However, once the fruit is picked and washed, the natural protection comes off along with the residual dirt and chemicals from the orchard. Coatings can be used to preserve fruits for a longer time.

Nutrition and waste

Water is the main component of fruits. It can reach almost 90% of its weight for cantaloupes and watermelons, and close to 80% for apricots, oranges, blueberries, pineapples, peaches, raspberries, and plums. The passage of time after harvest and environmental conditions can cause excessive loss of moisture in fruits, resulting in wilting and shriveling, as well as disagreeable textures, which can negatively affect the fruit’s appearance edible quality.

Coatings can be applied to reduce moisture loss, slow post-harvest decay, extend the product’s shelf life. Using coatings make it possible to close small cracks and dents in the skin and create a physical barrier to stop bacterial and fungal pathogens from affecting the product.

Apples are perhaps the most known fruit to be waxed, but it certainly not the only one. Citrus fruits, stone fruits, avocados, cucumbers, tomatoes, melons, peppers, and even jellybeans are commonly coated.

The most recent FAO report on food loss and waste showed that 14% of the total food produced is lost between the post-harvest and retail level. If we consider only fruits, this amount is close to 22%. Preserving foods and lowering loss and waste is essential to ensure that the food system is more sustainable and equitable.

What are coatings made of?

Coatings have been used for a long time as a way to preserve fruit. Indeed, the records show that the Chinese began using coatings in the twelfth century after noticing that it slowed water loss and fermentation; Chinese citrus farmers used to pack oranges and lemons in wooden boxes filled with wax before shipping them. By the fifteenth century, the Japanese used a film made by boiling soymilk to coat their fruits before storing them. In the US, hot melt paraffin waxes were used since the 1930s to cover fruits and carnauba wax and oil in water emulsions since the 1950s to protect fruits and vegetables. Afterward, different edible films were made from various polysaccharides, proteins, and lipids.

Modern coatings are made from a mixture of resins, beeswax, sugarcane, carnauba, and other substances, and they accomplish two tasks, preserving the fruit and making it look appealing. Waxes can delay fruit ripening by controlling its respiration, inhibit the growth of mold, protect the fruit from bruising when it is being handled or traveling, while at the same time enhancing its appearance by giving it a glossy shine.

Furthermore, edible coatings made from natural ingredients are an environmentally ideal package; they are biodegradable, can be directly consumed, and their main ingredients come from renewable sources. This is a clear contrast from synthetic materials, such as paraffin, polyethylene, and plastics that come from a limited supply of fossil fuels.

Even though synthetic and natural coatings fill the same role, they are certainly distinct. Among the main advantages of choosing natural coatings is going in line with current consumers’ preferences, who are more inclined to buy natural -or naturally- based products. Therefore, coatings made from shellac, rosin, gum, ethanol from sugar, and other ingredients are highly desirable.

According to researchers from McGill University, modern coatings can be made of up to 50 different components, most of which are in the esters chemical category. Among the most commonly used ingredients in current waxes are carnauba wax that comes from the leaves of a Brazilian palm, shellac extracted from the Indian lac bug, and candelia wax that originates from a desert plant. Commonly used synthetic esters are made by mixing sucrose and fatty acids. Polyethylene can also be applied in a fine layer, as an alternative ethylene derived from corn ethanol can be used.

Among the main benefits of using natural ingredients to prepare coatings are the inherent characteristics of each component, for example:

  • Preservation of quality attributes and good water vapor barrier from using guar gum, candelilla wax, glycerol, and gallic acid.
  • Good oxygen barrier property and transparency from whey protein.
  • Smooth and homogeneous coating layer, and hydrophilic surface from using soy protein.

Are coatings safe to eat?

Videos and posts have appeared claiming that wax is unsafe to eat; however, those claims are not true. Waxes are used in small amounts to give a microscopic coating that surrounds the product’s surface; thus, each piece of fruit only has a drop or two of wax. Furthermore, coatings used on fruits and vegetables have to pass strict regulations from the US Food and Drug Administration or the European Food Safety Authority.

Coatings used on fruits and vegetables have to meet the regulations ordered by the authorities in each territory. The regulatory agencies are constantly researching the effects that any additive can have on human and environmental health to ensure that they are safe. People concerned about animal byproducts or allergens can check the point of sale information displayed alongside the waxed fruit.

Even though it is possible to develop new waxes from a wide selection of available materials, both synthetic and natural, it is paramount to ensure that the products can fulfill their role; protect food products from deterioration processes, including oxidation, moisture absorption/desorption, chemical reactions, and microbial growth, as well as to improve their physical strength, reduce particle clustering, and possibly improve visual and tactile properties of food product surfaces (Pirozzi et al, 2020)

Why should you prefer natural coatings?

Recently, the study and development of natural coating materials have attracted a lot of attention from researchers. This can be seen in the wide use of Aloe Vera gel and other polysaccharides, or seaweed extracts that have an intrinsic antimicrobial activity, which significantly contributes to longer shelf life. This tendency also extends to the use of natural gums, starches, cellulose, and other compounds recovered from agri-food residues. Glycerol is also being used as a plasticizer, and natural extracts, including essential oils and different plant and fruit extracts, are used as antimicrobial or antioxidant agents.

Among the main advantages gained by using edible coatings are:

  • Reduction in weight loss and an improvement in fruits’ firmness.
  • Reduction in respiration rates and ethylene production, which delay senescence.
  • Prevention of injuries related to chilling and storage.
  • Encapsulation of aroma compounds, antioxidants, and pigments that stop browning reactions.
  • Reduction of the use of packaging material.
  • Improvement of external appearance by providing an extra shine in the surface of the fruit.

However, not all coatings are equal. Food regulations differ in different areas of the world, and the European Union is recognized as one of the most astringent territories in this regard. Regulation (EC) No 1333/2008 of the European Parliament on food additives stipulates the several uses for which each food additive, including coatings, can be used.

European Union Food Regulations and the role of natural wax

The European Union recognizes several ingredients that can be safe as fruit coatings; they include Beeswax (E 901), Candelilla wax (E 902), Carnauba wax (E 903), Shellac (E 904), and Microcrystalline wax (E 905). All of them have been tested multiple times as glazing agents and have shown no safety concerns. Furthermore, beeswax, carnauba wax can be used as organic coatings.

Wax coatings can be used in organic produce. In this case, they have to come from a natural source, such as beeswax, wood resins, or carnauba wax; they also have to be certified by a recognized authority in each territory.

By using protective coatings to preserve fruits, it is possible to increase the product’s longevity, increasing the possible days in a gondola by 40% compared with untreated products.

Shel-life® by PolyNatural, your coating alternative

PolyNatural offers Shel-life®, a natural, invisible, washable, tasteless “natural packaging” for each fruit. Their products can be used in pomaceous, citrus, stone fruits, and avocados; and they are developing a natural coating for blueberries, cherries, and kiwis. Their products are already approved to be used in the US with several organic certifications such as OMRI, Ecocert, and NSF.

Shel-life® has been tested several times. In 2018, it performed better than the control in organic apples by reducing the incidence of rot (0.4% vs 2.3%) and dehydration rates (4.7% vs. 4.9%). When tested against conventional apples, Shel-life® demonstrated the same performance as synthetic coatings.

When comparing the performance in nectarines in 2017, Shel-life® proved to be 132% superior in controlling rot incidence than other synthetic waxes while also lowering dehydration rates (2.9% vs. 3.6%).

In preserving plums, Shel-life® proved to perform better than other organic and conventional products both in rotten incidence and dehydration. And when the performance in oranges and easy peelers was tested, Shel-life®’s proved to be equal to synthetic coatings.

Most recently, in 2020, Shel-life® was tested in lemons and avocados and its performance was proved to be better in both cases. In lemons, it provided 75% less dehydration and 50% less incidence of rot; and in avocados, Shel-life® was shown to reduce dehydration rates (9,8% vs. 12%) and to extend shelf life by 20%. 

If you are looking for a natural solution to make food last longer while taking care of it in transport, protecting it from fungal and decay, in that case, Shel-Life can be your solution.