The Biomimicry Institute has awarded the 2022 Ray of Hope Prize to GreenPod Labs, an India-based agricultural biotechnology startup focused on tackling food loss problems in developing countries. By learning how fruits and vegetables naturally resist pests and fungal pathogens, GreenPod Labs showcases how learning from nature can solve both climate and societal problems. As the 2022 Ray of Hope Prize recipient, GreenPod Labs will receive US$100,000 in support of their groundbreaking work. In an exclusive interview for Earth.Org, Deepak Rajmohan, CEO of GreenPod Lab shared the company’s story.
EO: Tell us a little about yourself and what motivated you to tackle the food waste issue.
Rajmohan: From my childhood, growing up in a middle-class family in Chennai, India, food has always been considered precious; and early in my years, I understood all the efforts that it takes to bring food to our plates. While I was doing my Bachelor’s in Agriculture Engineering I spent a significant time working with smallholder farmers to understand their pain points. I also took on a couple of projects to reduce the by-products (food waste) in the beer and wine industry during my Master’s in Food Science at Oklahoma State University. This gave me a first-hand understanding of the magnitude of this problem.
On top of that, I learned that about 40% of all fruit and vegetables are lost before they reach consumers in developing countries such as India, while in developed countries such as the US, about 35% of fruits and vegetables are wasted after they reach consumers. It’s the lack of infrastructure that causes spoilage in India whereas it’s the consumer behavior that causes wastage in the USA. This was the trigger point for me to make the plunge and move back to India to develop products that can solve food losses in developing countries
EO: Why is food loss during transport/storage an important issue for people to consider?
Rajmohan: Globally, about one-third of food produced is lost during transport and storage – this costs about $1.3 trillion and contributes to 8% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and by 2050, we will have to produce more food to feed 10 billion people. Solving this problem is important for humanity’s survival.
To us at GreenPod Labs, food waste/loss is more like a leaky bucket problem – before we pump in more water, we need to make sure we fix the leakage.
This leakage can be seen even in your own home, as you see strawberries sitting on your kitchen counter with white mould just three days after purchasing. If we solve this problem you wouldn’t have to see that again.
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EO: Why look to nature for the solution?
Rajmohan: Behind innovation is inspiration. I strongly believe that nature is the best teacher we can look at. Nature has been innovating for centuries to build a sustainable environment, and if we want to develop solutions to build a sustainable future, we need to look at nature for inspiration.
GreenPod Labs’ sachets can extend the shelf life of fruits and vegetables by 40 to 60% at ambient temperature and conditions.
EO: What is GreenPod Labs and how have you learned from nature to tackle this food waste/loss problem?
Rajmohan: Similar to the human immune system, fruit and vegetables have their own defence mechanism to fight against external biotic and abiotic stress. We got inspired by the communication platform between different fruits pre-harvest to activate the defence mechanism to fight against any stress. We have replicated this into our product to activate the defence mechanism on fruits and vegetables during storage and transport at room temperature. Everyone on our team is very passionate about the problem that we’re solving, going above and beyond to develop technologies that can transform the agriculture ecosystem in India and other developing countries.
EO: What’s the impact this solution could make on countries like India and Kenya?
Rajmohan: India is the second-largest producer of fruits and vegetables in the world but still loses about 40% of fresh produce before it reaches consumers. On top of this, the average farm size in India is less than 2 acres (0.8 hectares). For reference, the average US farm size is 400 acres (162 hectares), thus a fragmented supply chain on top of the lack of cold storage and cold supply chain. The situation is similar in African countries such as Kenya. Our product can help smallholder farmers and other fragmented stakeholders within the supply chain to help them preserve, store and transport fresh produce at room temperature and help increase their economic gain. This would in turn help improve their overall livelihood.
The GreenPod Labs team consists of 17 innovators passionate about solving the food waste and food loss problem and has over 30 years of combined research and operational experience in agriculture and food biotechnology.
EO: Why does this matter to people outside those countries?
Rajmohan: Asian and African countries can be huge agriculture production hubs and with the right technology can export their commodities to other countries, this can be a huge benefit for people all over the world. Also, climate change and global warming are impacting every country, and solving the food waste/loss problem can mitigate climate change.
EO: This year, you received the Biomimicry Institute Ray of Hope Prize. Tell us about that experience and what it means to you.
Rajmohan: In the last few years I got fascinated by Biomimicry [a practice that learns from and mimics the strategies found in nature to solve human design challenges and find hope] and its potential to transform the world. One of my personal aspirations was to incorporate the principles of Biomimicry into GreenPod Labs’ product development. The Ray of Hope Prize programme gave us the opportunity to ignore all the noise and effectively communicate our science to different stakeholders. Having access to mentors, experts, investors, and a community of entrepreneurs working towards building a better future through biomimicry is the best part of this programme. It also helped us strengthen our business fundamentals along the journey.
Winning Biomimicry Institute’s “Ray of Hope” Prize is a dream come true moment for us. I’d strongly suggest this programme to other entrepreneurs who are working on “nature-inspired” solutions to solve a critical problem. This is a true validation for the technology that we’re building at GreenPod Labs and I’m super proud of our team that has worked tirelessly to solve the most pressing problem of Food waste and Food Loss by unlocking nature’s potential to defend itself.
EO: What is next for GreenPod Labs and what is your Ray of Hope for the future?
Rajmohan: We at GreenPod Labs are passionate about solving the food loss/waste problem in developing countries. We will be scaling up both horizontally by developing innovations to reduce spoilage in more categories such as fruits/ vegetables, grain/seeds, meat, and milk, and vertically to launch our innovation to more international markets in Africa and Asia.
Our Ray of Hope for the future is “we believe Food waste is a preventable problem.”
All photos courtesy of GreenPod Labs
GreenPod Labs has commercially launched three products so far in India, working with over 150 customers (watch a customer success story). Their unique targeting for specific plants, cost-effective and easy-to-adopt approach, and plant-based chemistry sets them apart from competitors. In the coming months, 12 different products for crops will be developed, and funding from this year’s Prize will help the company further its innovative solution.
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