The recent climate summit in Paris carries our hopes that the nations of the world can commit to the concrete, far-reaching commitments that we will need if we are to face the challenges of accelerating climate change.
One strategy for addressing climate change is simply wasting less; making the shift to a “circular economy” where we reuse everything we can, rather than the old linear model of making, consuming and wasting. Instead of giving up consumption, it implies making more of what we already have. One solution that is drawing increasing interest is using insects to turn waste into edible food.
How insects can help us capture lost nutrients
Many existing agricultural practices are “insect-based.” Bees pollinate, ladybugs eat pests, silk worms make their namesake fabric, and a myriad of species participate in the ecosystems that rejuvenate our fields. In many parts of the world, insects are eaten, with research often highlighting Asia and Africa for their progressive, direct consumption of insects. In addition to these traditional customs, there is a growing awareness and urgency to make use of the potential for insects to help us reuse our food waste.
Food production is an investment. Resources, such as water and energy, are invested in growing returns, like crops and livestock, which are consumed by people. From an outside perspective it is difficult to find a logic in the wastefulness of the current model. In many places, more food is produced than consumed and the excess is simply thrown away. Two practical reasons for this are that food degrades, and reusing food requires an efficient process capable of operating on a small scale.
In nature, the problem of turning rotting food into high-quality nutrients falls to insects. Species such as the larvae of the black soldier fly (BSF), have the capacity to consume low quality feed and to operate on scales that conventional mechanical systems still have not achieved.
Companies interested in exploiting the potential of species like the BSF have been founded in countries around the world. These companies were attracted in particular by the promise of high protein conversion, but other products are fats, chitin from the skins, and compost.
Currently, these companies are targeting the pet food and livestock markets, but many insect companies that do not use waste as feed are already selling insects directly for human consumption. The approaches taken by the recycling companies realize a number of benefits of the circular economy.
By moving towards local reuse, activities like these reduce transportation-generated pollution and increase local food security.
- Logistics and production composes a large component of insect production’s climate impact, so the local scale of operation mitigates its footprint substantially.
- Local production of insects as feed for other animals reduces dependency on imported food crops, such as soy, creating a spillover savings in logistics pollution to other livestock.
- It eliminates the demands on the environment needed to regrow crops and livestock to replace food we throw away, such as land and water use, soil and water source damage, overfishing, and pollution from the production and processing of replacement food.
- Growing insects is not input intensive. For example, given food waste with typical moisture levels, it requires less than 30 liters of water to grow 1 ton of BSF larvae, whereas a comparable amount of chicken needs 9.500 liters of water. In locales with limited water, this could be the most sustainable way to recapture value from food waste. In the U.S., about one quarter of fresh water we use is lost through food waste.
- It creates a market for waste, incentivizing the development of new technologies and enterprises to utilize it, growing this sector of the economy.
- Insects reach adulthood quickly (e.g. 12 days from hatch to harvest of BSF larvae, compared to 5-7 weeks for chickens) and can be harvested on a small amount of land.
To put some concrete numbers in this post, 46% of food ends up as waste, or roughly 1.3 billion tons. Insects, like the BSF have a conversion rate of at least 25%, so that would mean, applying insects could make available an extra 325 million tons of extra food. To put that number in context, in 2012 the total net food production in sub-Saharan Africa was about 230 million tons.
Although insects will not necessarily solve the distribution problem of taking food from the over-producing West to other countries, they can at least help the West to mitigate its sizable footprint, which often impacts other countries, for example in overfishing in South Asia. Insects can also strengthen the food independence and economies of countries with tenuous access to key nutrients, especially proteins.
To fully realize the potential of insect-based agriculture in the circular economy, an important development will be bringing regulation up to date. Currently, there is a lack of policy specifically for insect farming, and the default is to rely on policies originally created with animals from completely different classes in mind. This ignores major differences between insects and other livestock species. Conversely, there are safety challenges to reprocessing waste, and better regulation here is urgently needed.
Author: Kees Aarts is the founder of Protix, a World Economic Forum Technology Pioneer. He is participating in the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos.