WRITTEN BY CRISTINA MICHELINI
Katharina Unger is the founder and CEO of Livin Farms.
Katharina grew up on a farm in Austria. Her grandparents used to have cows, and soon Katharina and her brother grew fond of the animals, even made friends with them. The first calf Katharina and her brother ever had was Pumuckl, named after their favourite cartoon character (pictured above).
It wasn’t too long before, maybe a year later, Pumuckl landed on the family’s table. That marked the beginning of Katharina’s inquisitive relationship with food. It prompted her to question where her food came from.
Would she have known that she was eating Pumuckl, hadn’t she asked?
A lot of our conversations around food systems and sustainable food boil down to the concept of connection. In our series, Misplaced, this came across very clearly. So, while the Pumuckl experience may have not turned Katharina into a vegetarian or a vegan, it sparked questions around our connection to food.
Where does our food come from and what happens to the food that we grow but do not eat?
One food in particular is at the center of conversations these days: meat. Growing demand for animal proteins is putting unprecedented pressure on the planet’s resources.
In the past decade more research went into meat alternatives. Among other trends, the insect protein industry grew quickly alongside the plant-based meat alternatives.
So, here is the one million dollar question we want to discuss today:
Insects as allies
Because insects can produce higher quality and more sustainable proteins and fertilisers, all while eating food waste and upcycling it into higher quality new nutrients.
Can you believe the superpowers these little critters have?
Insects are uniquely positioned to turn things around and quite literally save us from ourselves. They can help us tackle not just one, not two, but at least three major environmental problems tied to food production, such as:
1 - excessive land and water use, as well as greenhouse gas emissions due to the livestock industry;
2 - methane gas emissions due to excessive and wrongly disposed of food waste;
3 - Harmful effects of chemical fertilisers, both due to their production and use in agriculture.
This is where insects have the potential to make one of the biggest positive environmental impacts (To learn more about these 3 problems and why they need to be addressed, read our blog here).
So, with insect-based alternative proteins we do not need new resources. Instead we can leverage insects' natural role in the ecosystem as scavengers to upcycle our organic waste. Insects are uniquely capable to be integrated into an existing food system to make it circular.
“Insects make the energy stay - from waste, you have insects, and from insects you have fertilisers and proteins, that are new nutrients”, Katharina Unger
The lifecycle that turns waste into gold
So how does this work exactly?
The first thing we need to understand is the role of insects in the ecosystem. Actually, that was simplistic. There are around 840,000 species of insects in the world, 200 million insects per human (that’s right) and they play many roles, pollination being the best known. But what we are interested in here is their role as scavengers. Yes, because many insects are like the cleaning crew of the earth: besides finding organic matter (like food waste) nutritious, they help us decompose it.
And it does not stop there. The pooping part is important too. Insects' poop, called frass, gets recycled back into the environment and acts as fertilizer. This is a big part of what keeps forests alive!
The other role that insects play in the ecosystem is that of feed. They are the source of proteins for animals like birds, lizards, fish, some types of monkeys, and, well, humans!
See where we are going with this?
It’s pretty intuitive, and a process that nature already knows very well.
For the most health-conscious, knowing that insects can solve issues related to food waste may not be strong enough of a motivation to eat bugs.
If that did not do it, maybe understanding their amazing nutritional profile will.
Insects tick a lot of the boxes of a healthy diet. They are highly functional, with a great amino acid profile, they are easily digestible and contain fiber (which is not the case with meat), making for a complete ingredient. Most importantly, they can contain up to 75% proteins.
And if the idea of finding a bug on your plate scares you, think of insects as an ingredient rather than a meal in itself. Edible insects are often made into powder and mixed in recipes, such as burgers or energy bars. Think of it as your protein powder, adding functionality to your meal.
Not to forget, that edible insects are not meant to only solve problems of food for human consumption. Livestock can feed on edible insects too, and by doing so save even more environment and biodiversity. Take fish for example: when we farm fish, we feed it fishmeal, which is made of, you guessed it, more fish! With every ton of insect-based fishmeal, we save 5 tons of fish from the ocean.
We rest our case that edible insects are climate-smart food. What about plant proteins? Compared to soy, for example, insects can be up to 500 times more water efficient, 17 times more space efficient and emit 67% less CO2.
As you can see, the upcycling of food waste is supported by a lot of other key factors that really make edible insects competitive compared to plant-based alternative proteins.
Insect farming in the future landscape
Katharina notes that, as we have seen through the COVID-19 pandemic, people moved from the city to find safety and comfort in rural areas, where they were still able to work and connect to their friends remotely.
What does that mean for the future of urban areas?
According to Katharina, In the future there won’t be only an urban or a rural space. Those spaces are growing closer (as in, more similar) to each other. The work from home culture played an important role in accelerating this process. As we are home-bound in the cities, we are using more green technologies indoors, as they become more efficient and compact. On the other hand, the rural spaces are becoming more technologized and important in supporting the infrastructure of the food system.
The future, hence, sees a mixed use of agriculture, urban spaces and residential areas.
More diversification and decentralisation: this is where Livin Farms sees the future of protein production.
The future of production is also affected by trends of more mixed uses of technologies and spaces. In agriculture we are already seeing AI-, tech-, and data- driven approaches that bring nature, technology and knowledge closer together.
Finance also mirrors the same trend, where we are witnessing more decentralisation, with more technologies that provide alternatives in the hand of the consumers.
And finally, industry: think of manufacturing, traditionally sturdy and reliant on quite a lot of infrastructure. Today we have innovations like 3D printers that facilitate decentralisation - any computer in the world can send a file to a 3D printer and start manufacturing.
“You cannot solve a problem with the same thinking you used when you created it” - Einstein
The mission is to create a food system that is more resilient, that prevents food shortages, logistic problems and infrastructure collapses like the ones we saw during COVID-19.
We’ve already said it, we need to look at local systems that work well and benefit the global economy.
Livin Farms is on a mission to achieve exactly that.
First, we, consumers, need to regain the connection with food. Just like Pol Fabrega advocated for with regards to plants, we need small ecosystems in our homes to upcycle food waste and harvest proteins sustainably and, most importantly, with our own hands.
The Hive Explorer does exactly that. It’s a compact and smart device that can complements your plant farming kits with sustainable proteins and organic fertiliser. All in the space of a shelf. While the Hive Explorer primarily focuses on education, the opportunity to process food scraps in your home and rearing small amounts of edible insects (mealworms) teaches about food waste upcycling and sparks initiatives to become more sustainable.
Secondly, businesses need scalable solutions to upgrade their food waste. The word scale here is key. Livin Farms’ industrial technologies are going to be applied at an industrial level that can truly make an impact by processing a few thousands tons of byproducts, while staying at a scale relatively small compared to the infrastructure that is otherwise needed in the industry today. This makes the process more flexible and versatile, hence easier to turn around and adjust.
Next time you eat, think of Pumuckl
Now you know what can be done. The rest is up to you. Just remember, next time you eat, think of Pumuckl.
Do you know where your food comes from?
And if you are in the mood for trying something new, follow these simple five suggestions.
1 - Experiment with insect farming the same way you’d experiment with home-growing greens. To get you off on the right food (oops, "foot"!), we are gifting you 30 USD on your Hive Explorer purchase: simply use MISPLACEDFRIENDS at checkout.
2 - Try snacking on insect proteins. Next time you are in the mood for a beef jerky, try replacing it with a healthier and crunchier source of proteins, like crickets!
3 - Think of it from the food waste perspective. Stay up to date with the latest insect-based technologies and question your restaurants, retailers and even employer: what are they doing about food waste and have they considered insects?
4 - If you are really struggling with the idea of eating insects, try a proxy first. Choose livestock that were fed on healthy insect meals, that will already make a huge difference for the environment.