14 March 2022

Professor: We have to stop environmental impacts of the food supply chains and start to design circular food systems


Universities must work with companies to create circular bio-economies that increase the sustainability of food systems by stopping nutrient pollution from agriculture to the aquatic environment and we must end food waste and waste generation in the food system. In addition, we must develop minimally processed foods from locally grown raw materials. So says Marianne Thomsen, a newly appointed Professor of Sustainable Food at the University of Copenhagen. She adds that as consumers we must be prepared to welcome more sustainable products, even if they are more expensive.

Picture of Marianne Thomsen
Professor Marianne Thomsen. Picture: Lene Hundborg Koss

Marianne Thomsen took up her position as Professor in Sustainability Assessment, Sustainable Food Processing and Production in the Department of Food Science at the University of Copenhagen (UCPH FOOD) on January 1, 2022. Here she will research and teach how we can make our food system more sustainable and produce healthy foods. The research will help create food systems that contribute to counteracting climate change and restore environmental quality, ecosystem health and services.  

Prof. Thomsen sees two main trends that needs to be boosted if we are to succeed in creating a climate-friendly food system.

  1. We must optimise existing food production, reduce food wastage, and make use of unused side and residual streams. This requires short, local, and circular food chains, which minimally process foods, with less energy consumption. Local circular food systems require new business models and collaborations between companies. In some cases, it also requires consumers to support these advances by being willing to pay more for food.
  2. We must promote the creation of a large portfolio of sustainable, local, healthy foods. Seaweed is an example of a healthy food that can help to change the resource flow of nutrients from land to sea; from a linear flow, where the discharged nutrients are lost and create pollution, to a circular flow, where the cultivation and harvesting of seaweed contributes to the return of nutrients to the land-based bioeconomic system.

Prof. Thomsen’s research will develop ways to transform our food system, contributing to conserving our natural resources, restoring water and soil quality, and delivering climate-neutral food.   

The challenge is that no one can do it alone. A systemic change is required.

“We must learn to mimic and collaborate with nature. The solution is to create circular food systems, where one company’s side or waste streams are input streams to another company, and where the exchange of resources is in accordance with nature. This is an immense challenge for companies, as such circularity runs counter to the way in which individual companies usually think about business. If we succeed, we can create great economic, environmental and societal value,” explains Prof. Thomsen.

More jobs, more expensive food

She believes that the transformation of the food system also requires changes in our behaviour as consumers.

“We have to get used to the fact that food is becoming more expensive. For many years we have been profiting from the fact that our raw materials are grown in countries where wages are very low. This causes CO2 emissions from its transport, plus the food wastage associated with the transport of the raw materials,” says Prof. Thomsen.

She is convinced that many jobs will be created in the food industry in the future by adopting circular food systems, because in Denmark we will have to use more local raw materials and utilise side or waste streams.

In addition to taking CO2 emissions into account, there is also a recognition that we must support biodiversity, which should be reflected in the fact that we are producing more extensively and creating space for biodiversity. According to the newly appointed professor, we must also re-establish greater variety in the crops we are growing without using pesticides and other chemicals.

“This will require innovation in the food industry, which may need to be able to handle variable crops in the future,” she says.

Looking forward to teaching

One of the things Marianne Thomsen is looking forward to is developing the Sustainable Innovation in Food Science course, for which she is responsible.

“It is a compulsory course for students in the Food Science and Technology master’s programme, focusing on business models, intellectual property rights, and sustainability. The cornerstone of the course is that the students work on a case of sustainable innovation throughout the semester. We need to develop creativity, and a desire to create or connect with companies that can become part of local circular food systems and reduce the pressure on our primary resources. This can, for example, be companies that produce new ingredients and food types from side streams, or use minimal processing methods,” says Prof. Thomsen.

Read about a selection of the research projects involving Marianne Thomsen and her research group:


Nordic seaweed species could be used to create feed that reduces the formation of methane in cow stomachs, and could contribute to a considerable reduction in the climate footprint. The project is developing methods for growing, harvesting, and processing the seaweed into dried powder or pellets, which the farmer can easily add to feed. The objective is to create a product with a stable content of active components having a known methane-reducing effect.

The project is coordinated by DTI and is a collaboration with Aarhus University, Vilofoss, DLG, Ocean Rainforest, Dansk Tang, DryingMate, Naturmælk, SEGES and University of Waikato 

SeaSus-Protein // Biorefined seaweed – sustainable protein source for functional foods

SeaSus-Protein seeks to develop functional protein products by biorefining four Nordic seaweed species. The project will identify which species and which biorefining methods are most suitable in terms of high protein yield, quality, taste, food functional properties, and digestibility. It will develop and demonstrate habitat-restoring, gentle harvesting of sea lettuce on a large scale (10‒20 tons per day).

The project is being carried out in collaboration with Aarhus University and four industry partners: Nordic Seaweed ApS; Danish Marine Protein A/S; HedeDanmark; and VSP A/S.


ValueFarm is an EU-funded Eurostar project looking into the development of controlled, land-based production of high-quality sea lettuce. The concept is based on year-round reliable delivery of sea lettuce to a growing market, with a plug-and-play modular technology that can be connected to aqueous side streams from other food production.

The project is being carried out in collaboration with Aarhus University and two industrial partners, PureAlgae (DK) and Metal Production (LT).


SeaWheat (innovation and sustainability to improve food security in the EU) is a European network comprised of 96 researchers and representatives from companies in 26 countries. The aim of the project is to exploit the potential of seaweed in Europe. Based on the successes of previous EU and pan-European projects, green sea lettuce has been assessed as a suitable candidate and model organism in the development of European aquaculture.

The network uses interdisciplinary approaches to the sustainable use of sea lettuces. It is expected to lead to the creation of business and job opportunities in the maritime and coastal economies, and to contribute significantly to the well-being of society.

Algae and Climate

This project explores how the production and consumption of more algae can make a significant contribution to our climate goals. We examine the nutritional benefits of producing selected micro- and field algae grown in the sea and in land-based production systems. We estimate production costs and avoided emissions, and the figures are compared with land-based crops with similar nutritional properties, such as soy.


This project examines the use of the microalga Nannochloropsis oceanica to produce proteins, vitamin D3, which is otherwise found only in animal products, and omega-3 fatty acids, which we otherwise get primarily from fish. The project will deliver a “proof of concept” for the production of a protein-rich microalgae biomass with a low climate footprint, which can replace Danish imports of emission-intensive proteins.

DaKo-blueBIO; Dansk–Korean Blue Biocluster Alliance

The aim of this project is to establish a collaboration between Korea and Denmark to accelerate research and development in marine biological resources, particularly seaweed. It will promote new technologies connected to existing seaweed cultivation technology.

The project is coordinated by Innovation Centre Denmark (Seoul) with partners from Ghent University - Global Campus, Aarhus and University of Copenhagen. 


The PlantPro project examines how Denmark can strengthen the transition to a more plant-based diet, less food wastage, and green food innovation that supports sustainable development. It will provide a catalogue of market and consumer insights and recommendations for policy and market actions, including the expected effect in relation to consumer behaviour change.

The project is a collaboration between the MAPP Centre in the Department of Management at Aarhus University, the Department of Food Science at the University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen Business School, the Danish Plant-based Business Association, the Danish Vegetarian Association, Think Tank OneThird, Simple Feast, Beyond Coffee, Circular Food Technology, Møllerup Brands, Food Innovation House, Orkla, Naturli’, Planteslagterne, Upfield, Everything, Rema1000, and Fair Trees.


This project seeks to create robust food systems in Europe through circular solutions that prevent food wastage and garbage. Marianne Thomsen is leading a work group on systemic sustainability, addressing technological matters and the “societal readiness level” in the transition to a more plant-based diet. The objective is to develop a multi-criteria analysis tool that can quantify the nutritional value and the environmental sustainability of the foods we choose to eat.