A leading plant scientist from the Netherlands has claimed that we should get used to eating more insects, not least of all because their waste can be used to help grow crops.
In an opinion paper published the journal Trends in Plant Science, Marcel Dicke and his colleagues discuss the benefits of using the waste from insects raised for food and feed production to promote sustainable crops. According to the authors, this approach could enhance plant growth, health, pollination, and resilience.
Insects: the food and fertiliser of the future?
Dicke and his colleagues see the application of insect byproducts to crops as a novel step towards a circular food system. Circular systems are systems in which there is very little to no waste.
Under such a circular system, the insects would be fed waste streams from crop farming or food production, and the insects in turn would provide humans with food. The leftovers – i.e. the waste – from insect production could then be used to bolster crop growth.
“I have eaten crickets, mealworms, and locusts,” says Dicke. “Many people in in our part of the world need to get used to eating insects, but I can tell you that I’ve eaten many other insect species around the globe, and I’ve always had a wonderful meal on them.”
Dicke refers to insects as “mini-livestock,” and touts their efficiency as such, especially when compared to more traditional livestock. Advocates such as Dicke say that it takes roughly 25 kilograms of grass to produce one kilogram of beef, whereas the same amount of grass can produce ten times as much edible insect protein. This is due to the higher conversion rate of insects and because up to 90% of an insect’s body mass is edible, as opposed to only 40% of a cow.
The waste from insect production come in two main forms: exuviae, which are the exoskeletons left behind when the insects molt; and frass, which is “basically insect poop and unconsumed food,” says Dicke.
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Researchers at Flinders University in Australia claim that marine algae may provide a way to create sustainable ‘superfoods’ in the very near future. They claim to be responding to growing interest from consumers in environmentally friendly, sustainable and ‘ethical’ alternatives to traditional forms of animal protein.
Marine algae are single-cell organisms that use photosynthesis, like plants, to produce their energy. And according to Flinders University Professor Wei Zhang, they could be the solution to the world’s ‘meat protein shortage’.
“Our research spans the entire value chain, from microalgae cultivation and circular advanced biomanufacturing to the development of high-value functional food,” Professor Zhang says.
“Microalgae come in a diverse range of nutritional profiles and advanced cultivation strategies can be developed for tuning microalgae to produce protein-, oil- and carbohydrate-dominant types that can be processed into a broad range of functional foods, including healthy cell patties, chips, pastes, jams and even caviar.”
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When the exuviae and frass are added to soil, they promote plant growth and health. Insect feces are rich in nitrogen, an essential nutrient for plant growth which is scarce in most soils. Nitrogen is often added to crops in synthetic fertilizer.
The insect exoskeletons are rich in chitin, a polymer that is difficult for most organisms to digest.
“There is, however, a set of bacteria that can metabolize chitin, and those microbes help plants to be more resilient to diseases and pests,” says Dicke. “When exuviae are added to soil, the populations of those beneficial bacteria increase.”
We wonder what the people of Australia would have to say about the prospect of eating bugs. A recent survey showed that 73% of male respondents would rather knock years off their lifespan than give up meat.
Then again, if governments start taking the advice of certain scientists, individual choice is unlikely to come into it. Researchers have been making it quite clear that the most effective way to get people to eat meat alternatives is simply to give them little or no choice at all.
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