Mars turns to Israeli tech to develop global food solutions

Mars has committed to investing $1 billion over the coming years to become sustainable within a generation.

George Graham, vice president of the Mars Advanced Research Institute (photo credit: Courtesy)
George Graham, vice president of the Mars Advanced Research Institute
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Mars Inc.’s billion-dollar efforts to develop groundbreaking solutions for global food and agriculture challenges have led the US food giant to embrace Israel’s innovation scene.
The global food manufacturer, among the largest privately held companies in the world, operates in more than 80 countries, employs 125,000 workers and boasts more than $35 billion in annual sales.
Emphasizing its desire to innovate toward an eco-friendly future, Mars has committed to investing $1 billion over the coming years to become sustainable within a generation.
During a visit to Israel this week, George Graham, vice president of the Mars Advanced Research Institute (MARI), told The Jerusalem Post that his commitment to discover the most crucial breakthrough solutions for the global food system is what brought him to the Jewish state.
Established in 2013, MARI is an internal Mars organization that drives the company’s long-term research agenda.
“Part of my role, and why I think I have the best job in the world, is that I can discover and commit to the most crucial breakthrough solutions to tackle some of the most critical issues in the global food system,” Graham said.
Mars is working in Israel, he added, “to spur research and development that can drive progress related to agtech, nutrition and food security in our industry.”
Earlier this year, the food giant announced what Graham called a “first of its kind” partnership with venture capital fund Jerusalem Venture Partners (JVP) to collaborate on the research and development of innovative technologies to tackle the world’s most pressing food challenges.
The R&D agreement will see the Virginia-headquartered manufacturer support Israeli start-ups and the formation of companies, and work with leading Israeli academic institutions, including the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Weizmann Institute of Science and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, to explore and advance the convergence of food, health and technology.
Graham’s latest visit to Israel comes as JVP celebrates its 25th year of activity and hosts key investors from around the world. In recent years, the fund has increasingly focused on the development of the emerging food-tech ecosystem in Israel, which is now home to more than 230 active start-ups.
“We want to partner with today’s brightest and most innovative minds to solve issues in the global food system, and to have real, lasting impact, we know we need forward-thinking, global partnerships,” said Graham. “And what better place to talk about partnerships than in Israel – one of the world’s strongest innovation hubs.”
In its hunt for technology, Graham said Mars is taking a holistic view right across the supply chain, from making raw materials safe to ensuring that the creation of next-generation packaging that’s sustainable using transformational technologies. Other key areas of interest for Mars include food safety and ways to safeguard populations.
“We are family-owned, which makes us different,” Graham said. “Our family ownership gives us the freedom to take a longer-term view than many public companies, that means we can commit to long-term science and innovation that will positively transform our industry.”
Some of the greatest challenges facing the global food system today are already present, he added, and innovative solutions can emerge from unexpected sources.
Graham cited the example of the 4.5 billion people chronically exposed to cancer-causing aflatoxins through food consumption, but which are not widely-known. Produced by fungus found in soil on crops, aflatoxins have been linked to stunting growth in children. The carcinogens can contaminate essential foods like wheat, maize and peanuts, which are staple foodstuffs in the developing world.
To solve the aflatoxin challenge, Mars has entered into an uncommon citizen science collaboration. Alongside Thermo Fisher Scientific and the University of California, Davis, Mars has recruited computer gamers to play a specially created version of Foldit, a puzzle video game.
“Players redesign the chemical structure of enzymes to break down aflatoxin molecules, detoxifying the compound,” Graham said. “So far, gamers have created millions of designs for scientists to analyze.”
The most promising computer-generated designs are currently being assessed to see whether any might have the potential to eradicate aflatoxins in the future.
“Initial results are very positive,” Graham said, “We expect to have results soon.”