WRITTEN BY CRISTINA MICHELINI
The COVID-19 pandemic unveiled the fragility of our food systems and we are on the lookout for change.
Timeliness is key, as the SDGs 2030 mark approaches in less than a decade. How are we going to bring results quickly?
Here is how insects may be the answer to at least 3 of the major malfunctionings in our food systems.
Problem #1 - Food waste
Every year, In the EU alone, we throw away 3.5 million tons of bakery waste, 3.4 million tons of spent grains from breweries, and a whooping 53 million tons of vegetable and fruit waste. Globally, we waste ⅓ of all food we produce.
There are two consequences to this. First, when we waste food we also waste all the energy, water and excess greenhouse gasses it takes to grow, harvest, transport, package and store it. It’s all for nothing.
Then, if food waste ends up in landfills, it produces additional methane gasses and for longer.
Food waste, like apple cores, leftover lettuce and ends of zucchinis, are organic materials. To decompose normally, they need enough air circulation and in particular access to enough oxygen. When this is the case, food decomposes pretty quickly and it is easy to turn it into nutrient-rich compost.
But, landfills typically allow for little oxygen flow. Food waste is tied up in plastic bags and often covered by other waste, which means that the normal aerobic decomposition cannot happen, and anaerobic decomposition kicks in. This process produces methane gas, which is an extremely warming greenhouse gas, 20 times more warming than the well known CO2.
On top of that, anaerobic decomposition takes much longer.
So, to recap, when we toss food waste in the landfill we
1 - waste resources and emissions that went into getting that food on our table to begin with;
2 - initiate a different decomposition process that emits extremely heating methane gasses;
3 - extend the duration of this greenhouse gas emitting process sometimes by decades!
While we should definitely prioritise reducing food waste, there will inevitably be some of it as part of farming, processing and retailing.
And this is where our heroes, insects, come into play. There are around 840,000 different types of insects, but we do not want to generalise. All you need to know is that some of these are scavengers: they are nature’s cleaning crew and their role is to help the planet decompose organic matter. In simple words, for these critters food waste is a feast!
So, there goes an alternative use of your food leftovers that can save them from ending in the landfill.
Livin Farms is at the forefront of developing such insect-based food waste management technologies. You can read more about it here.
But what after you fed all these critters with tons and tons of food waste? What’s next? Next, we solve another problem.
Problem #2 - Meet the meat
To start with, meat is a very inefficient way to eat. It takes 3.2 Kg of crops to grow 1 Kg of chicken. It is estimated that livestock provides 18% of our calories intake while taking up 83% of our farmland!
As this wasn’t a contradiction big enough, hear this. Meat production makes our food susceptible to major health problems, as the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted. To respond to the monumental demand of meat out there, industries farm intensely, keeping livestock animals close together. Maintaining hygiene becomes difficult, and infections and diseases need to be prevented, so animals are given antibiotics. 80% of the antibiotics on the market are given to livestock animals. And end up in our food.
We need a better way to farm proteins. And guess what. Remember those critters that love to eat our food waste? They are also healthy (and safe) sources of proteins. Yes, insects can be eaten (not all of them of course!) and humans have a long history of entomophagy.
We just lost touch with it.
Livin Farms provides education on the meat industry and its effect on the environment. One of our hands-on experiences, the Hive Explorer, also allows you to rear mealworms in a safe and compact environment right in your home.
Problem #3 - Harmful fertilisers
Yet another contradiction of agriculture. The very fertilizers that we use to scale up farming and provide for a growing population, may be the culprit of our resources’ irreparable damage.
Synthetic fertilizers cause so-called nitrogen overload in the soil and, most importantly, groundwater pollution. It is a pretty complex process, but the simple version is that when we use synthetic fertilizers we overload the environment with different forms of nitrogen, which causes all sorts of problems, including but not limited to:
- acidification of the soil,
- eutrophication - an excessive enrichment of an environment with nutrients - thereby causing structural changes in ecosystems and affecting biodiversity;
- 50% of nitrogen fertilizers added to farm fields ends up as pollution;
We encourage you to read more about the Nitrogen Cascade via the UNEP.
Once again, insects to the rescue!
Insects are scavengers, yes, but their role to clean up is as important as their role to recycle organic waste’s nutrients back into the soil. You guessed it: it’s poop! Insects’ poop, known as Frass, acts as fertilizer.
Organic fertilisers like insect frass are slower in their release of Nitrogen and do not overload the soil or water with nutrients, hence do not alter ecosystems. It also has living microorganisms that strengthen the plants’ stems and stimulate root growth!
Frass may also be more energy efficient than composting, as composting includes processes that are exothermic (that give away energy in the form of warmth) while in the case of frass the conversion of organic waste into fertiliser happens inside the insect.
Frass has other advantages: the nitrogen in the insect fertilizer is organically bound and is easily available to the plants. When it spreads in the soil, bacteria convert the fertilizer and ultimately release all of the nitrogen to the plants. Such slow-acting fertilizer is particularly suited for houseplants, balconies and generally for garden plants.
How to get started
Ok, now you know. How will you get started?
A few tips for you:
Learn more about insects and insect farming by subscribing to our YouTube Channel;
Get started on your insect farming journey at home. You can start small with the Hive Explorer. To get you off on the right food, we are gifting you 30 USD on your purchase, simply use MISPLACEDFRIENDS at checkout.