The Mars Advanced Research Institute is an important, but little-known segment of the private sprawling global food and health company.
MARI and focuses on how to bring Mars — and the global food system in general — into the future. Abi Stevenson, who has a Ph.D. from University College London in nutrition and health, was named the division's vice president in June.
Stevenson, who has worked with Mars for nearly three decades — spending about 25 years in the pet care division and then heading up the company's Global Food Safety Center in China —said she is fortunate to be in her new position.
"I have a passion for science, and throughout my career I've been able to leverage that to do great things for the benefit of society, really with a true purpose at the heart of what I do. And that really is something that feels pretty special to me," Stevenson said.
She spoke with Food Dive earlier this month about her new position, the opportunities and priorities in the food industry right now, and the way that the coronavirus pandemic has affirmed the work that Mars is doing.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
FOOD DIVE: Tell me about the Mars Advanced Research Institute and how it fits into Mars.
ABI STEVENSON: Mars is a leading manufacturer of food, confectionery ... and pet care products and services. We have been family-owned ever since the company was set up over 100 years ago, and the independence being family owned brings is freedom for us to invest in the long term. And this is really where MARI comes in: the Mars Advanced Research Institute.
... At MARI, we're providing the business and the different segments within the business with access to new capabilities that are longer term — working five, 10 years plus — in terms of looking at the external world, what's over the horizon beyond the scope of our business today, to really seek out those new transformational capabilities that will help to transform our business, the way we work and help shape what our business will look like. ...Really at the cutting edge of emerging science and technology.
And we do this in collaboration with a large network of over 300 partners within academia, primarily. That's our foundation, so we're collaborating with some really world-leading academic partners such as UC Davis, the Technical University of Munich, University of Cambridge, some really well-known academic groups. And then also working together with the up-and-coming technology companies.
There's a really exciting company called Oxford Nanopore Technologies that we're working with in the food safety space. They have genomic sequencing at the heart of their technology. We're working with them to really look at how we can leverage their technology for food for the first time.
The mission of MARI is really to catalyze and to enable the access for business to critical science and technology research that brings transformational capabilities and provokes long-term innovation and breakthroughs form Mars. And a lot of what we do we share broadly as well, with our industry partners, with nongovernment organizations like the World Food Program and the FAO [Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations]. And we're working in a number of different consortiums to really share what we do beyond the borders of Mars.
FOOD DIVE: What do you want to accomplish at MARI? Which direction do you want to go?
STEVENSON: One of the things that I see coming into this role is how we can bring together the power of data with the power of transformational capabilities, and to bring that to life. We generate a lot of data every day in our plants, through our quality, through the work that we do in genomics, routine sequencing. How we harness that data and use artificial intelligence to pull out of those new insights that completely transform the way we do business, or the way we leverage science and technology is extraordinary. ...Not just for us, but for everyone in the industry. For regulators, for everyone, the power of data is going to transform the whole food supply chain.
And I think we're very much at the cutting edge of that in MARI. We have a computational science program, and partners in this space — working together again with, with UC Davis and [PIPA: Process Integration and] Predictive Analytics ... — really looking at how we can leverage computational science in support of our whole science and technology program, whether that's health and wellness through nutrition, or whether that's our approach to raw materials and food innovations of the future. I think the power of data and how we leverage that through the new capabilities will be a golden thread that runs through everything.
FOOD DIVE: Data is everywhere. What are some of the areas you think it's most important to use data to improve? What are you concentrating on getting data about?
STEVENSON: Probably the most critical place to start would be food safety. And that is something where even other organizations like the FDA are ... leveraging data. They're creating more safe spaces for people to share data. We ourselves are harnessing more data than we've ever done before so that we can make connections between raw materials, between batches around the world and we can drive that kind of traceability in between different suppliers, different plants. And more and more, we're leveraging that to enable us to move away from just prevention, toward prediction. That certain [type of] data will be ... so that we can get ahead of the curve, and we can really put measures in place to prevent food safety issues.
"We believe science gives us the ability to create safe, sustainable wealth for future generations. So the long-term approach gives us this opportunity to work in science programs that can be truly transformational for the industry, for Mars, and really help future-proof our business."
Vice president, Mars Advanced Research Institute
Food innovation [is also important], understanding things like flavor and sensomics. The power of the capabilities that are available now to look at flavor analytics to generate analytical profiles of raw materials. Like, for example, mint. ...There's some really big challenges within the mint supply chain, and mint is a key component for us in gum, so truly understanding that, and understanding the profiles and working together with the farmers to improve conditions for farmers to yield higher profits through improved yields, pest and disease resistance, is really important for us as well.
FOOD DIVE: Coming to MARI from the Mars Global Food Safety Center, what are you bringing to this job from the food safety side of the business, and what food safety outcomes are you hoping to get?
STEVENSON: Some of what I've been talking about is really a collaboration in the food safety space between the Global Food Safety Center and MARI, so we will continue to collaborate. ... I now expand the focus of what we're doing into health and nutrition, and into key raw materials that we're working with. And how we leverage technologies for innovation, as well as food safety. ...I bring an awful lot of what I learned in the food safety space in my experience within China, and a lot of the partnerships that we developed and are linked to to food safety also applied beyond food safety to raw materials [and] supply chain.
A really good example here would be the African Orphan Crops Consortium. ... [It's] really critical to preserve these species, because often they're higher yield, higher nutritional quality than the crops grown in the West. And yet, they're very poorly understood. So we were a founding member of [the] consortium, ...where we're working together to sequence over 100 traditional African food crops, really looking to make the information available to prime breeders in Africa, encouraging improved breeding of these crops, enabling far more access to higher yields, higher quality nutrition. They're often far more resistant to disease and pests and far better able to withstand climate change as well, so more robust crops.
...Another one of our food safety programs is in the area of mycotoxin risk management. ... We really see this as a threat to some of the traditional crops that we and the industry really rely on. So corn and peanuts, actually, [are] quite heavily affected by aflatoxins. And with climate change, ... more extreme weather conditions, there's quite a bit of evidence aflatoxin is growing in prevalence. And given the impact this has on people's health — it's been linked to stunting in children and liver cancer in adults who consume contaminated foods. ...It's quite possible that some of these crops may withstand some of the climate change that we're seeing affecting more traditional crops. They might be much more resilient, as well.
FOOD DIVE: Wherever you look in the food industry, sustainability is hand in hand with all of the innovation going forward. What are some of your priorities for sustainability and research to further it?
STEVENSON: Food safety is probably one of our most critical [goals] in the battle for sustainability as well, given that there's a lot of food wasted.
... Plastic packaging is fundamental in our products. We need it to protect ingredients and to move them around safely, so it's a core part of food safety and ensuring the quality experience. It is a business where we're heavily investing here. We fully believe that packaging needs to form part of a sustainable circular economy. ...In line with our sustainable energy generation commitments, we have a plan in place to reduce our virgin plastics by 25% by 2025, and for 100% of our packaging to be reusable, recyclable, or compostable. Now, a lot of that target for 2025 will be driven through our operations.
The role MARI's playing here is very much focused on future science and technology solutions in the biodegradable space. ...This is where we're very much working, looking at new technologies that will transform the approach to the biodegradable, compostable and potentially we believe even beneficial to the environment when they break down. And that's whether it's a marine environment or a soil environment. The work we're doing is in understanding degradation products: taking a science and technology-driven approach to that, and really thinking long term.
We recently joined forces with another 30 businesses, including industry partners Danone and Nestlé, to call for a new global U.N. treaty on plastic pollution. It was really the first of such a collective call for action, so we're really excited about this. And we're backing calls from environmental charities like the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the WWF for a global agreement that sets out binding targets to tackle the problem of plastic pollution at a global scale.
FOOD DIVE: In the vein of food innovation, what is MARI doing in terms of development and reformulation?
STEVENSON: Understanding that nutrition and flavor go hand in hand, a lot of our products are products that we would like people to enjoy, even if they're healthier options. So, often the combination of nutrition and flavor and sensomics — the whole experience of consuming something — is not just about nutrition. It's also about flavor and the enjoyment of the products as well, so that's definitely a sweet spot for us there. That's a pun. (laughs)
"I think that the pressures on the planet will continue, and the need for us to move the whole industry to embrace truly sustainable practices in everything we do will continue as well. And to even be regenerative and not just minimize impact, but actually potentially even give back to the practices and processes that we do that we undertake in the industry."
Vice president, Mars Advanced Research Institute
... We've been doing some very interesting work [in pet nutrition] on predictive models for disease prevention in pets. In time, I think [it] could definitely expand into people, but it's more challenging in humans — because with pets, we are able to feed them complete foods that control the nutrition intake far more easily than in humans, so intervening through diets and through nutrition is much more challenging in people than it is in pets.
FOOD DIVE: One of the things that Mars is best known for is its confectionery division. Are you working on anything in the way of sugar reduction?
STEVENSON: We are, but that that is right now pretty confidential at the moment.
FOOD DIVE: Are there any specific things you're doing in the way of trying to make different foods that we eat healthier?
STEVENSON: That's an area of MARI's activity, looking at alternatives to sodium that give a similar kind of sensory profile, but are not sodium. At the moment it's pretty exciting, but very early stage.
One of the other areas we're exploring, and this probably isn't a surprise, [is] looking at the gut microbiome. It's well known now that nutrition can have a profound effect. What you eat affects the bacteria in your mouth, in your guts and this is definitely an area of interest for us to look at how the fibers, beneficial bacteria and the role of nutrition can improve health through the microbiome. And again it comes back to genomics, really, and how we can harness data in service of human health and pet health as well, as both of them share this area. So we again [are] working with partners in this area, really looking to understand more about the role of nutrition in the microbiome and various health outcomes there too.
FOOD DIVE: How have MARI's priorities been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic?
STEVENSON: Clearly none of us anticipated the impact that COVID would have on all of us, on our communities and businesses around the world. And yet, COVID-19 is disrupting an already challenged food system. We're concerned broadly around the impact that COVID is having on food supply chains, on people's access, particularly the most vulnerable people in the world. And it's brought into sharp focus some of the areas we're already working on together with the World Food Program and with the FAO in food safety and nutrition as well. I think the areas we're working in, they're the right areas for us to continue to make a difference to society as a whole through the work that we do, particularly in food safety and health and nutrition.
FOOD DIVE: So what about food safety is COVID bringing more into focus?
STEVENSON: One of the things that we see is quite challenging is the disrupted food supply chain. In recent times, food is transported all around the world. We've seen huge disruption or restrictions in food moving across borders and raw materials being moved around the world. And in people, almost stockpiling or not being able to export again from some of the most vulnerable countries in the world who typically rely on exports for their income. We've seen foods being left in the field, or being left in storage to rot, because they can't be exported. I think that's a huge challenge, and it will bring a knock-on effect to next year's harvest as well because food is being left out in the field to rot and the fields are not being prepared for the next harvest.
FOOD DIVE: Do you think the pandemic is going to change the priorities going forward from MARI, or is it more of an affirmation that you're going in the right direction?
STEVENSON: I think it affirms we are doing the right things. I think it almost accelerates the urgency, the pace at which we need to go.
FOOD DIVE: There's a lot that's up-and-coming and exciting in the wider food industry. What would you say is the most important segment for research to take place? And what's the most interesting segment for research and for new developments?
STEVENSON: I think that for MARI, it's much about understanding the future direction of the business and not limiting our thinking to today's segments, because Mars in 10 years time will probably look very different than the way it is today. Which is why we work externally with many different collaborators in our network, so that we bring the longer-term perspective from the outside into Mars. So we're responsible for looking up and out and for looking across all the segments in the work that we do. And that's what differentiates us from segment science and technology teams, who are looking at their segment today, and who are working within those constraints and looking in at the segment that they're working within to develop the nearer term solution.
The lens we look through is not necessarily which are the most important or exciting segments today. Moreso looking up and out, so what are the most exciting things out there in the external world that we should be working on and bringing back into Mars.
"We can bring together the power of data with the power of transformational capabilities, and to bring that to life. ...How we harness that data and use artificial intelligence to to pull out of those new insights that completely transform the way we do business, or the way we leverage science and technology is extraordinary."
Vice president, Mars Advanced Research Institute
FOOD DIVE: What are they?
STEVENSON: I think it's I think it's computational science capability. I think it's sensomics flavor data genomics. I think it's meta genomics of the future. They're all the capabilities that we can leverage, the transformational capabilities that enable us to move the business forward in the right direction.
FOOD DIVE: You said in 10 years, Mars will look very different than it does today. I'm sure the whole food business will look very different than it does today. What is your vision for the industry in 10 years?
STEVENSON: I think my lens is really more from a science and technology perspective. But I think health and nutrition will continue and personalized nutrition within that will continue to be increasingly important. No two people are the same. And harnessing the power of data within that is going to be key over the 10, possibly even the five-year timeframe. Everything is spinning so much faster than it ever has before. I think that will continue to grow and people's focus on health, which COVID has just accelerated, ... it's going to continue. I think that the pressures on the planet will continue, and the need for us to move the whole industry to embrace truly sustainable practices in everything we do will continue as well. And to even be regenerative and not just minimize impact, but actually potentially even give back to the practices and processes that we do that we undertake in the industry.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the location of MARI headquarters. It also misstated one of the collaborators with which MARI is working.