Janice Ellig, CEO and founder of Ellig Group, sits down with real leaders in this series of game-changing conversations, bespoke to fellow champions of change. Heralded by Bloomberg Businessweek as one of “The World’s Most Influential Headhunters,” Janice is often consulted for her expertise and commitment to gender parity, equity, inclusion, and diversity.
Did you know that one third of all food, globally, is thrown away each year? Within that one third, 45% is in fruits and vegetables. They perish before they even get to the market.
In this month’s episode “Reimagining a World with Fresher Food and Less Waste” Janice Ellig is joined by Clinton Lewis to discuss safe and sustainable solutions that preserve the freshness of produce and minimize waste, directly impacting the consumer on a global scale! As the Chief Executive Officer and board director of AgroFresh, Clinton shares “our vision is to be the guardian of the world’s freshest produce” and that in order to achieve that, it takes rigorous data harvesting and application, combined with leveraging AgroFresh’s science-based safe and sustainable pre- and post-harvest solutions.
In April 2021, he joined AgroFresh as Chief Executive Officer and board director. Clinton was most recently in a leadership position at Zoetis, where he was Executive Vice President and Group President responsible for international operations, commercial development, and global genetics. In addition to his 30-plus years of experience in the life sciences space, he serves on the Board of Directors of International Paper and was previously chairman of the board for the Animal Health Institute and served as treasurer for the International Federation for Animal Health.
AgroFresh is an unprecedented science-based company offering solutions for storing, packing and distribution. From tomatoes to tulips, apples to avocados, they are helping to take freshness further and decrease food waste. Learn more about the AgroFresh avocado story HERE!
It is our privilege we present to you this episode of Leadership Reimagined “Reimagining a World with Fresher Food and Less Waste” with Clinton Lewis!
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Show Notes: Clinton Lewis
Clinton Lewis explains AgroFresh’s business model
AgroFresh focuses primarily on what we call the post-harvest segment. While we do some things in the pre-harvest area, the focus is mainly on post-harvest. Once fresh fruit or produce has been picked or harvested, it’s stored and packaged and moves through various points along the supply chain until ultimately it reaches the retail consumer in the supermarket. Oftentimes by that point, the produce has traveled over many miles and many geographies globally. This company focuses on science-based technology and solutions that helps to preserve the freshness of the produce, or in the case of fruit, also delays the natural ripening so that the fruit stays fresh throughout the supply chain up to the ultimate consumer.
Clinton Lewis on working in animal health at Pfizer and Zoetis
I spent the last 12 years before coming to AgroFresh in the animal health space, first with Pfizer Animal Health. I served as President of that division, which we spun off as Zoetis in 2013, creating a new standalone that became known as the largest global animal health company in the world. That company and AgroFresh are very, very similar in so many ways. First and foremost, both are companies focused on science, technology, and innovation. Helping farmers and growers do great things for the land to produce fresh fruits and vegetables and get them to consumers like ourselves. And what we recognize is because of storage, because of transit times, because of the natural environment, it often requires science, technology, innovation, to help preserve that freshness and to reduce food waste. What’s exciting about the business is that we work with highly trained scientists who think about innovative, and also more natural applications, products and tools to support farmers in their work to be great stewards of the land and great stewards of the produce. Our commercial teams often come from the same agricultural background as our customers, and we work hand in hand with those farmers to help them not only understand the products and the applications that we have – how to use them, how to get the greatest output from their activity – but also how to troubleshoot different issues and challenges that they may have along the way. So it’s a great opportunity around science and innovation, but also partnering with and supporting our customers.
Clinton Lewis on the history of AgroFresh
AgroFresh has over 40 years of post-harvest experience. It started as a division of a company called Rohm Haas, which was eventually acquired by Dow. Dow recognized when they looked at AgroFresh compared to other divisions, that this division was unique unto itself and had the ability to stand on its own. So they spun the company off in 2015, as a public standalone leader in the post-harvest segment. So it comes from rich technology and innovation companies. And again, a 40 year history in the post-harvest segment.
Clinton Lewis on safety and regulatory guardrails
Whether it’s in the pre harvest segment, or post-harvest, where we largely predominate, one of the things it’s important to recognize: all these technologies, compounds, and applications have to be registered and regulated by the different regulatory authorities in each of the countries in which we operate. Remember, all of these applications are for products for human consumption, so they have to pass very stringent guidelines in order to be approved in those markets. We can’t just think them up ourselves and bring them to market, they all have to get reviewed based on a tremendous amount of data and years of study.
Clinton Lewis explains how SmartFresh preserves apple freshness
One of our areas of leadership is in the apples and pears segment, because of the benefit of one of our products called SmartFresh, which has been around for some 20 years and is really the leader in the segment. Oftentimes, apples and pears are seasonal, so depending on the hemisphere, you may not be able to get them year-round. But thanks to applications like our SmartFresh, apples and pears can be delivered year-round to consumers that crave freshness year-round. When the apples are harvested, they’re often stored for a period of time. And then they move through the supply chain and transit to the supermarket. And a product like SmartFresh helps preserve them in a very innovative way: by blocking the ethylene receptor. Ethylene is the natural hormone in the fruit that allows for regular ripening. The SmartFresh application basically blocks that receptor for a period of time while the fruit is in storage and transit. It’s biodegradable, and there’s no residue. Again, all of these products have to get approved by the regulatory authorities like the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and others before they can be used.
Clinton Lewis on the global food waste problem
1/3 of all food, not just in the United States, but 1/3 of all food globally is thrown away each year. And 45% of that waste is fruits and vegetables that perish before they actually get to the market. Our solutions in the post-harvest area, as well as our digital and data capabilities that help track the produce through the supply chain, help minimize that wastage of food in the supply chain. Our vision is to be the guardian of the world’s fresh produce, so we’re really focused around how we can work with growers and packers to make sure they can leverage our technical insight, leverage these innovations to reduce food waste.
Clinton Lewis on AgroFresh’s efforts to reduce food waste
We have 3500 direct customer relationships globally. We operate largely in the US, across Latin America, most of the markets in Europe, as well as in Australia and New Zealand. Recently, we’ve been starting to penetrate markets in Asia, such as China, Japan, and Korea. So we’ve got that global presence in each of those markets, not just from our commercial teams, but also with our scientists and our regulatory teams that work with the authorities in each of these markets, because we have to get these products registered. We just can’t bring them out to the market, they need to be tested to make sure that they meet very stringent standards. And so we work directly with those regulatory agencies and with those customers to help them understand the products and the applications. We work hard to understand what opportunities and challenges our customers are facing, from the harvest cycle, through shipment and storage, all the way to retail. We’re working at all steps along that chain to make sure our customers understand the value of the products, the technologies and the data to help them make better decisions that preserve freshness and minimize waste.
Consider a normal crop size and normal harvest. The grower is being compensated based on the number of bushels, bins, whatever the unit of weight and size of produce that they’re taking to market. So clearly, if there is premature wastage, or spoilage of that fruit before it’s being taken to market, that hits the grower in his or her pocketbook. Our solutions work at that grower level to make sure we get the most robust yield, to make sure that we’re minimizing any spoilage even before it goes into storage or the supply chain. Our solutions continue to work with that fruit and produce as it moves through the supply chain up to the retail level. So anything that we can do to preserve freshness and minimize waste has a direct economic impact on the grower and ultimately the retailer as well.
Clinton Lewis on the future of AgroFresh
There are two areas that I’m extremely excited about, as consumers continue to engage more with where their food is produced, and how it’s produced. We want to continue to make sure our innovation is focused on more natural and even plant-based solutions to address the issue of spoilage and food waste. There are some exciting new products we call our VitaFresh Botanicals. These are plant-based solutions that we believe can serve as natural and organic coatings to help preserve the freshness and minimize food waste and spoilage. We are in early stages with these products; we are starting to test them in avocados. With some customers in South America that shipped those avocados to Europe, we’re very encouraged by some of the early results that we’re seeing.
The other area is data analytics. Regardless of what industry or sector we’re talking about, everybody’s thinking about the role of data and analytics to help both our teams and our customers make more informed, action-based decisions that can either improve productivity and output, or optimize their economics for profitability. We have a data and analytics platform that we call FreshCloud, which tracks not only the various processes, but also the applications for our products, and also different workflows that our customers along the supply chain are dealing with, providing insights that suggest actions they can take to preserve freshness and minimize food loss.
Clinton Lewis describes his career trajectory
I started my professional career some 32 years ago. I was a biology major in undergrad, and I always wanted to combine science and business. The nexus of those two disciplines led me to the life sciences industry, and specifically the pharmaceutical industry. I had the pleasure and privilege of spending 25 years with Pfizer. The first 20 of those years were on the human health side, starting in sales and working up through the commercial ranks. Over those 20 years, I had the privilege to work in pretty much every therapeutic area that Pfizer had at that time. After 20 years on the human health side, I had the opportunity to continue to extend my general management skills when I was asked to take over as President of what was then the Animal Health Division of Pfizer. That Animal Health Division was the global leader in the animal health space, and when we spun it off as Zoetis, it was the world’s largest company in that space. So just as we as humans need the benefit of vaccines and medicines, so do animals – not just dogs and cats but also what we call production animals or livestock.
It was that foray into the animal health space that really gave a city boy like me a tremendous interest in and passion for agriculture. I’ve had the privilege to work with farmers and growers globally, not just in the US, but in every region and major agricultural market around the globe. What they all share is a passion for the land, the passion for feeding the world, and also a willingness to embrace technology, to help address the need to feed the world as the population grows from 7 to 9 billion while natural resources remain finite. And that passion for agriculture is what led me to AgroFresh.
Clinton Lewis on meeting food supply challenges in the coming decades
What is undeniable is that the population, which today sits around 7 billion, will go to 9 billion by 2050. The fastest growth is going to be in the emerging and developing markets. Those markets are emerging and developing because the middle class is growing at a much faster rate. And as that growing middle class gains more earning power, their diets will continue to evolve. And farmers globally are going to continue to have to contend with less arable land, less water. We talk about the impact of climate – all of these things are real dynamics that will force the people who grow and produce our food to do more with less. And that will require smart, evidence-based technology and innovation to help support these growers and producers to feed this larger growing population. At the same time, consumers are rightfully becoming much more learned and more engaged with the question of where their food is coming from and how it’s produced. I think there is a tremendous opportunity for education around technology and scientific breakthroughs, just as we saw scientific breakthroughs bringing us a COVID vaccine, for example. And again, a plug to my former company Pfizer for leading the charge in that regard. Science, technology, and innovation will bring new opportunities to produce more with less, but to do so smartly, responsibly and sustainably. And companies like AgroFresh on the agricultural side sit in the interesting position of leveraging our science and technology new innovations to the market and help support growers as they continue to feed the world.