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‘I’m fully in favour of biotechnology to improve our food and make it more sustainable’ – Anneli Ritala [Interview]

Article-‘I’m fully in favour of biotechnology to improve our food and make it more sustainable’ – Anneli Ritala [Interview]

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Anneli Ritala is principal scientist at Finnish research centre VTT, specialising in plant biotechnology. She tells us about her career to date, and why she believes cellular agriculture and genetic modification are essential to ensuring our agri-food system operates within planetary boundaries.

You have a PhD in pharmacy. What led you to pursue a career that has focused more on food applications than pharmaceuticals and drug development?

“I did already my MSc and PhD theses on a side-track in biotechnology, focusing on plant molecular farming. Then I was employed by VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, where all the work is on the applied side.  We are serving needs of society and industry, and that led more to the food research, little by little.”

You have worked at VTT for nearly 30 years. What have been the benefits in staying at the same organisation for so long?

“It is really amazing to work in a multidisciplinary house like VTT – [there is] always something new and interesting cooking. I´m always saying that still after 30 years I don’t have the feeling that I need to go to work in the mornings but I´m allowed to go there and work with great people and projects.”

You say that you have a keen interest in scientific research that can produce ‘food without fields’. Can you give some examples of your work here? In your opinion, why is it important that we develop ways to grow food without fields?

“We are working with the approach named cellular agriculture, which means the cultivation of cells – microbe, plant, animal, algae, and insect cells – in fermenters to produce agricultural commodities. My expertise is in plant cell culture technology, and we are developing undifferentiated plant cell lines for food ingredient use – for example, from plant species that are causing a lot of burden to the globe, like coffee, cocoa, avocado, et cetera.

“The carbon footprint and land and water use of these new cellular agriculture-based technologies is far less when compared to traditional agriculture. Furthermore, we can develop side-streams to be utilised as feedstocks in the cell factories.”

Since 2011, you have served on the Advisory Board on Biotechnology (BTNK), a consultative board of experts appointed by the Finnish government. Do you have any reservations about the rising use of biotech and genetic modification in food, or is it an essential tool in making our food system more sustainable?

“I´m fully in favour of using biotechnology and genetic modification for improving our food – particularly making it more sustainable, as there is clear scientific data that they can do that. The safety of food is, of course, something for which we cannot [make] any compromises – it is a must-have feature.

“However, the current novel food and GM regulation processes in Europe are really hindering the progress in taking these new technologies to full use. The EU system is not working as it should work. Thus, most companies are taking their novel [ingredients] to other markets and building their factories outside Europe, which is a really worrying development.”

In addition to your position at VTT, you are editor-in-chief at Dosis, a Finnish scientific pharmaceutical journal. What do you enjoy about this role?

“This is really a great opportunity for me as I´m able to keep up to date [with] what is going on in the pharmaceutical research in Finland.”

During your career, have you ever come up against any obstacles because of your gender? If so, how did you overcome them?

“I´ve been so lucky that I have not faced any obstacles due to my gender – partly due to the fact that Finland is a country of equality. If I had, I probably would have been dealing with those [in] the same way as other obstacles – by not giving up.

“I´m really a stubborn person and I would have been requesting a justification, explanation, or reasoning. Of course, this is easier to say as I guess that the most difficult cases are those that are not that obvious.”