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From Pest to Pot: Can Insects Feed the World?

The winners of a global competition are asking us to consider the crucial role insects might play in the future of food.

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Biteback team member with mealworm

This content is brought to you by Syngenta.

Science loves a challenge and undoubtedly one of the biggest challenges we face is how to feed the nine billion people projected to populate our planet by 2050. Already around 800 million people worldwide suffer from hunger, and we are currently using the earth’s limited resources 50% faster than it can handle. You don’t need to be a mathematician to see that the numbers don’t add up—not today and certainly not tomorrow. We need to find new ways to feed the world, giving farmers the tools to increase their productivity without putting further pressure on the planet’s precious natural resources.

The search for such sustainable solutions is being given a boost by pitching the problem to the next generation of thought leaders—university students. Thought For Food is a movement committed to tackling global hunger through bold, breakthrough solutions. Their annual competition, sponsored by Syngenta, brings together creative-thinkers from a wide-range of disciplines, and applies their energy to the question: How do we feed nine billion people? Encouraged to think outside-the-box, collaboration between science, business, engineering, and more is generating some different ideas that are as exciting as they are innovative. Even more importantly, many of the proposals are viable both environmentally and commercially: the competition is a source of real solutions. And that’s where the insects come in.

At this year’s Thought For Food Global Summit, held in Zurich, Switzerland, it was the lowly insect that stole the show. There are nearly one million described insect species, and yet, despite being one of the most abundant creatures on the planet, insects are almost universally neglected as a food source. In fact, when it comes to food production insects are traditionally seen as part of the problem rather than a potential solution. But Thought For Food is all about looking beyond convention, and by applying a little blue sky thinking the winners of Thought For Food saw a central role for insects in their start-up company Kulisha.

The team, made up of students from different universities and disparate disciplines, had the idea to produce low-cost, high-quality sustainable fish-feed from insect larvae. Fish is a tremendous source of protein and has great potential for feeding a growing population. But with natural stocks under strain many are proposing aquaculture or fish farming as a solution. The problem is that fish-feed, traditionally made from smaller fish, is often expensive and can be environmentally harmful to produce. Kulisha will grow, harvest, and process black soldier fly larvae into a protein-rich meal for millers and finished pellets for hatcheries and have begun prototyping in Kenya.

Armed with $10,000 of seed funding from Thought For Food, the potential benefits of Kulisha’s idea are significant. By substituting insects for fish in their feed, Kulisha will reduce the pressure on coral reefs and coastal communities, bolster local economies through aquaculture, and contribute a sustainable food source, in the form of fish, to help feed nine billion. What’s more, the larvae are grown using locally collected food waste which is subsequently sold as a nutrient-rich fertilizer, creating alternative revenue streams for local communities. Indeed, close collaboration with the local community is an important element of Kulisha’s business model.

Insects are also at the heart of the idea from Thought For Food runners-up Biteback. The team of students from Indonesia propose using mealworms as a replacement for palm oil in cooking. Cooking oil is one of the most ubiquitously consumed ingredients with worldwide consumption predicted to exceed 230 million tons each year by 2020. Growing production of palm oil has been environmentally controversial as it has been a major source of deforestation, especially in Biteback’s native Indonesia.

Mealworms seem to offer a sustainable alternative. These edible insects are rich in protein, vitamins, and minerals such as iron and zinc. They also contain the fat acid that makes them perfect as a cooking oil. Cheap and easy to farm, a single hectare can produce 150 tons of mealworm based cooking oil, compared to just 4 tons of palm oil a year. Through Thought For Food Biteback has secured $5,000 of seed funding to establish insect farms and process the mealworms into a nutritious and sustainable cooking oil which will sold in stores and online.

As the world’s population grows by 200,000 people every day, we have a global responsibility to find new ways to feed everyone without further depleting the planet’s already stretched natural resources. Finding viable, sustainable solutions means thinking-outside-the-box and considering the previously inconsiderable. And for the winners at Thought for Food, that means shifting our perception of insects as a pest, and giving them a place in our pot and even our plates.

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