The prospect of feeding ourselves into the future is an interesting one. In a world plagued by global warming, natural disasters, political unrest, and a continuously growing population, one has to wonder about the sustainability of our agricultural systems. When I think upon this topic and its potential solutions, I often begin to wonder, how much of the “fiction” in our Science Fiction is actually that? Shall we be feasting on squirming grub like the characters in the recently released Blade Runner sequel Blade Runner 2049? The answer to that is “actually, maybe.”
One thing that is becoming evident upon examination of our agricultural systems, is that our society’s approach towards food is unsustainable. It is estimated that by the year 2050 the population of the Earth will reach 9.7 billion people (from today’s 7.5 billion). To put that in perspective, it took the human race an estimated 200 millennia or so (up until the year 1800) to reach its first billion alone! So, in the future, how will we go about satisfying all those hungry mouths?
A somewhat unconventional push to provide more food for more people is by cultivating insects as a food staple (grub-infested dystopian future, here we come!). According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, Entomophagy (or the human use of insects as food) is an optimal choice for feeding burgeoning populations. The rationale behind this is that insects, per unit of water and feed input, bring far more protein to the table than beef or any other meat staple currently favored in western countries.
Beyond just being a good source of protein, insects are surprisingly nutritious in regards to other necessary components of the human diet! According to a report published by The Food and Agricultural Organization based out of Italy, insects have the potential to round out diets lacking in proper nutrition. For example, compared to the 6mg of iron found in every 100 grams of dry-weight beef, the Mopane caterpillar produces 31mg of iron per 100 grams! And not only are these little critters iron rich, Mopane caterpillars are also a good source of other necessary minerals like potassium, sodium, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, zinc, manganese, and copper. This information, in addition to the potential of other insects to be great sources of fiber, fat, and vitamins, seems to make the addition of insects to our diets a no-brainer.
Another great fact about insects is that they’re green (as if you even needed another reason)! According to the same FAO report, “livestock rearing is responsible for 18 percent of green house gas emissions, a higher share than the transport sector.” To give an example of this, during the course of a day, pigs give off an estimated 1,100mg of ammonia per kilogram. By comparison, mealworms give off less than 40mg a day of ammonia per kilogram. Furthermore, livestock waste (urine and manure) contributes to environmental pollution that can lead to nitrification and soil acidification.
What is evident by all this is that in the decades to come there are likely to be dramatic shifts in how, and what, we eat. But it seems that despite our reasons to be concerned, we will be able to provide ample solutions to the growing food challenges ahead. The only difference being that, unlike today, some of the food of the future might wriggle a little more than we are accustomed to.