It’s accepted that we have to diversify beyond grazed or battery farmed livestock and get creative when it comes to growing vegetables. Some of the food hitting our plates in the future may be less farm-to-fork and more underground-factory-to-fork.
Hydroponics, or vertical farming, has been around for 60-70 years and is growing (no pun intended) increasingly popular. It allows us to extend growing seasons, take less space and, ironically, use less water (80-90% less).
It is also useful in places where traditional farming isn’t so easy. The UNHCR (the refugee agency) began growing food using hydroponics in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan in 2018. That has since expanded to nearby urban areas and over 1,000 refugees have been trained how to do it. It’s also how they grow fresh food in Antarctic research bases. At the McMurdo Station, on Ross Island, they use water to grow not only lettuce and herbs, but also tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and spinach.
Fish like tilapia (sometimes even goldfish) hang out in a tank where they’re fed - and therefore poo. The poo is filtered out, but it leaves ammonia in the water. Bung in some special bacteria and that ammonia breaks down into nitrates - and plants LOVE nitrates. Thanks to the fish, the water has become a Michelin star restaurant for vegetables such as lettuce; using it they can grow twice as quickly as plants grown using conventional methods.
And there’s no waste; the restaurant water is then recycled back into the fish tank, where the whole process starts again.
It’s not cheap - and getting the balance of PH, temperature etc. is tricky - but it is one of the most space efficient ways we have of growing vegetables (possibly 12x more efficient than growing in soil). That means less water, less pesticides and less deforestation.
In Mexico escamoles, ant egg caviar, is a delicacy. They are harvested by escamoleros, who bravely navigate past the bitey adult ants to get to the eggs. Most take only a portion, leaving enough to maintain the colony. They’re fried with chilli, garlic and onion, popped in a tortilla, and reportedly look like pine nuts and taste like sweetcorn drenched in butter.
Hormigas Culonas, literally translating as ‘ants with a large arse’, are a Columbian treat. They’re crunchy and salty, like popcorn or peanuts.
The west is not a total insect-munching free zone. Bar the many accidental ones we eat (in flour and peanut butter in particular) there are a number of European cheeses that include insects. An Italian cheese, casu marzu, is a sheep’s cheese infested with fly maggots. These break down the fats, turning it into a gorgonzola like gooey affair. Yummy.
Even the cricket poo is useful; it’s high in potassium, phosphorus and has a little nitrogen - so is used as a manure for vegetables.
In countries such as Zimbabwe, where food insecurity can be rife - and even more so thanks to climate change and weather patterns - these crunchy little critters can be a life sustaining form of protein that is easily farmed without much land or equipment.
They also take less water and energy – therefore costing less and emitting less. The greenhouse gas cost of 1kg chicken protein is x300 more, and beef protein is x2,850 more, than that of insect protein.
Farming some edible insects can be risky - locusts are high in protein and fibre (they’re also the only kosher insect) - but you wouldn't want them escaping. Crickets, however, can’t fly and are tasty snacks to a plethora of other creatures, so escape (and survival post-escape) is harder. Organisations like CAMFED (an African female educational movement) run smart-agricultural courses that are helping develop insect farming on the continent.
Crickets are also gaining popularity in the west in flour form, and as sports protein bars. It’s estimated that the edible insect market will be worth nearly $8 billion by 2030.
They’re rather handsome as flies go and have good manners; they don’t eat as adults, so don’t chow down on crops, and don’t carry diseases or parasites. The maggots feed on food waste, and don’t dilly-dally about when it comes to growth; they get 5,000 times bigger in a couple of weeks. The plump pale yellow little larvae can then be ground and used as fish farm food or fed live to chickens (which they love, as foraging for insects is fun if you’re a chicken).
Animal feed is currently heavily reliant on soy. To compare the efficiency of our gentleman fly to soy; 1m2 of soy makes 0.5kg of feed per year. The same 1m2 of our fly makes 750kg feed per year. They take less water, energy and don’t drive deforestation - and they can be farmed close to where they’re needed, limiting transport.