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"If I had one silver bullet for the sustainable and delicious future of food, it would be green and loaded with algae" - Mariliis Holm [Interview]

Putting sustainability at the heart of her passion for food and science has opened a world looming beautifully green for food scientist and startup founder Mariliis Holm.

We interviewed her to find out more about the role algae plays in the future of food and how this ties in to feeding the solar system and specifically Earth & Mars in 2050.

Can you give us a brief summary of your career to date?

"2017 was a year of true personal and professional breakthrough: co-founding Nonfood, a food tech start-up making radically sustainable food products from algae. As a food scientist, I was prepared for entrepreneurship after graduating from Singularity University, which is based in NASA Ames Research centre in Silicon Valley, where I learned about exponential science and technologies. The final push came from LEAP - the leadership programme for system entrepreneurship and transformations to sustainability."

"However, this all started ten years ago when I discovered my vocation, a perfect combination of two specialties I adore – food and science. Building on this, I pursued an undergraduate degree in Food Engineering and Product Development at Tallinn University of Technology in my home country Estonia. My very first experience abroad consisted of a flavour and sensory science research exchange at the National University of Singapore. Now, with a taste of studying abroad, I took on an Erasmus Mundus MSc in Food Innovation and Product Design in France at AgroParisTech and in Ireland at Dublin Institute of Technology."

"In parallel to my BSc studies, I worked as a research scientist for two years at the Centre of Food and Fermentation Technologies specialising in sensory and flavour science. During and after my MSc degree I interned with Mondelēz International and INRA in France as well as with International Flavours & Fragrances in the Netherlands."

What was the attraction of the food industry and food science for you?

"Back in high school I was absolutely clueless about what to do after graduation. To get more acquainted with potential studying opportunities, I conducted a personal research study about the future plans of my peers. In the middle of the process I discovered food science. Having always enjoyed new food experiences and maintaining the same relationship with science subjects I thought to myself: why not combine the two into a career?"

"To gain confidence about my choice, I dedicated the following year to collecting insights about food science. My first experiences included visiting three different dairy industries in Estonia. I remember learning how my favourite flavour ‘smoked juniper’ is added to cheese - it is matured in a room where alder bark chips are burnt. Additionally, I had the chance to shadow the work of food scientists developing new products, participate in sensory tests and visit the oldest chocolate factory in Estonia - yum!"

"Furthermore, I approached food from another angle by working as an assistant chef at two different restaurants. Lastly, I visited and met my future colleagues at the Centre of Food and Fermentation Technologies. By the end of that year I knew I had discovered my true passion."

You were working on ideas on how to foster the innovation of sustainable future food to feed planets Earth & Mars in 2050. Can you share some details with us?

"Beginning in late 2015, my Master thesis confronted me with a new and challenging dimension of food: sustainability. Working with plant origin proteins showed me clearly how every step in the food industry or more broadly in the nutrient cycle affects the environment around us. It made me imagine how to accomplish sustainable food systems which will nourish not only 10 billion people but also our habitats in 2050."

"Today 20-50% of the total CO2 emissions result from our food consumption habits, primarily from the livestock production. One alternative is to substitute the old technology, such as the animal, with cellular and acellular agriculture."

"In parallel, it is of utmost importance to develop delicious plant-based products to increase the consumption of sustainable food. There is no way we will take cows on a rocket ship to Mars, but growing algae in bioreactors as a source of food and oxygen has been explored for space flights since the '60s!"

On your LinkedIn profile we read that your most valuable insight after a decade of food science studies, work and research spanning Estonia, Singapore, France, Ireland, Netherlands and US is that the future of sustainable and delicious food is going to be ALGAE based. Can you briefly explain why?

"Recently there was an article in Forbes “How Algae Could Change Our World” by Jennifer Kite-Powell with whom I shared my thoughts about the future of food, algae and Nonfood."

"What fascinates me about algae is the fact that it has been the most efficient group of organisms on Earth turning CO2, sunlight, and water into densely nutritious food for all living animals for more than 3.5 billion years. Quoting Dr. Charles Greene from the same article: "It [algae] grows 10 times more rapidly than terrestrial plants, and you need less than a tenth of the land to produce it. It grows on non-productive and non-arable land, it doesn't compete with other crops for land, you can use a variety of water sources, and there's no fertiliser runoff or downstream eutrophication.""

"After growing and trying Spirulina fresh myself, I was surprised to discover that it does not have any taste at all! This means that it can be used as a nutritious ingredient to make all sorts of foods. Indeed, if I had one silver bullet for the sustainable and delicious future of food, it would be green and loaded with algae."

What is the next big challenge on your list?

"My biggest mission at the moment is to open everyone’s eyes and ears to the wonders and potential of algae. I sincerely hope that the work we do at Nonfood will inspire many more companies to introduce algae to their new food products."

"Truly successful food products need to fulfill all of the four following criteria: tackle planet Earth’s health, improve human health through nutrition, be affordable and above all, taste delicious. Now is really the time to take the responsibility and act to accelerate the sustainable and delicious future of food. As Johan Rockström said: "The next 50 years will determine humanity's outcome for the next 10,000 years." Coupled with algae, the future looms beautifully green."

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