As any fruit farmer will tell you, sunlight is great — until your trees get sunburnt.
The scorching of high value fruits like apples or pears is already a major cause of costly yield losses for farms in warmer climates. Anticipating a future of ever hotter summers, agronomic attention is swiftly turning to how farms can better shield their harvests from excessive blasts of sunshine.
Gene editing or more traditional breeding methods is one avenue, and there are dozens of lab projects across the world looking to produce crops with higher heat or sun tolerance. Another avenue is experimenting with more proactive responses to the surrounding environment. Better netting designs to provide shade; smarter use of calcium carbonate or kaolin clay powders to provide sunscreen; or novel over-crop sprinkling systems to offer evaporative cooling.
Betting big on sunscreen for trees
In Las Vegas, the biotech startup Cultiva is betting big on the uptake of a sunscreen option, though CEO Luis Hernández said in a video interview with AFN that his company’s solution would steer away from calcium carbonate use, as this requires a cumbersome wash-off post-harvest and the plumes of powder were an irritating hazard for farm workers doing maintenance or picking.
Instead, he said, Cultiva produces a proprietary, food-grade biofilm technology known as SureSeal. The technology delivers a soothing moisture-regulating supplement onto a plant’s outer skin-like layer, its cuticle. By reducing spoilage from excessive wetness or dryness, Sureseal is designed to help farmers increase marketable yields on their crops.
Built off earlier research into phospholipids by Dr J. Mark Christensen, a pharmaceutical sciences professor at Oregon State University, the idea of a biofilm was first deployed to prevent crackling rain damage on cherries. A sun protection product soon followed for other fruits as well, which is food-grade and can be sprayed onto a crop using conventional sprayers. “It’s easy to apply,” said Hernandez, explaining its delivery, “and can be tank-mixed with most other agrichemicals.”
Looking at the market trends, Hernandez reckoned anti-cracking “continues to be a big market, but sunburn is now growing to be the biggest.”
Sealing the deal on a $2.94m investment
While the company told AFN how expansion plans have been slowed by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, Hernandez also spoke of the more positive news that it had, despite the widening economic crisis and investor pullback, managed to seal the deal a $2.94 million investment from Advantage Capital. The deal has been made in connection with the Nevada New Markets Jobs Act to boost the local economy, according to Advantage Capital’s Abhi Chandrasekhara. He explained in a statement that his firm “has a long history of investing in businesses based in underserved communities in Nevada and across the country.”
Although many businesses in the state of Nevada have suspended operations, Cultiva is considered an essential business in the state. Like other agribusinesses, it continues to operate with social distancing measures in place. The funds will see Cultiva double down on new hires, a production ramp-up, a search for new markets, and research and development into a new line of cuticle-coating products.
“Cuticles are everywhere in nature,” said Hernandez, saying how his team was developing a platform for pre-harvest products that could see it deployed in the same spray mechanisms as fertilizer or pest control. He mentioned plans to look into coating seeds, and the development of post-harvest solutions to maintain freshness.
Cuticle competitors await downstream
In the post-harvest freshness space, there will be a healthy hotbed of competitors to reckon with. To start with, there’s Sufresca, an Israeli startup designing edible fruit and vegetable coating solutions to reduce food waste and curb plastic packaging. That company raised a round last year. Then there are other biotech companies like Apeel Sciences, which uses agricultural byproducts and waste such as orange peels to manufacture a formula that can be applied to fresh produce to extend its shelf life. Its products are 100% edible, the team say, and decompose in the environment the same way that food does. Another creative food storage idea comes from the sericulture tech startup Cambridge Crops, which effectively cocoons sausages or steaks with an imperceptible and edible micro-layer of silk-based proteins. These keep all varieties of food from going to waste, the team claims, and reduces dependence on single-use plastics.
Cultiva might be faced with questions of whether coating is even the way to go after harvest. Founded in 2015, Hazel Technologies has developed a package insert that releases vapors to triple the shelf-life of produce by slowing the aging process and preventing fungus or decay, according to the company. The sachets can be placed in bulk boxes of produce at the packing house to help ensure that they arrive at the supermarket in prime condition. In the same way that Cultiva is rolling the dice on venturing post-harvest, some of these companies are looking at where they can find their use cases on the farm.
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