As the world population rises toward a projected high of 9.7 billion in the mid-2060s, there are questions of how to feed that population. The problem is greater than a simple population count suggests. As economies around the world continue to grow, people with higher incomes are likely to want diets with more meat, which requires more agricultural output for animal feed. In addition, agriculture can cause a variety of environmental stresses in how it uses water and land, the pressure for deforestation, runoff from fertilizers and pesticides, and others. There pressures of rising population, higher incomes, and environmental stressors all seem likely to intersect in countries across Africa. As one way to ease these constraints, a group of World Bank authors have written Insect and Hydroponic Farming in Africa : The New Circular Food Economy, by Dorte Verner, Nanna Roos, Afton Halloran, Glenn Surabian, Edinaldo Tebaldi, Maximllian Ashwill, Saleema Vellani, and Yasuo Konishi. Here’s a flavor of the discussion from the Executive Summary (footnotes omitted):
While current agri-food production models rely on abundant supplies of water, energy, and arable land and generate significant greenhouse gas emissions in addition to forest and biodiversity loss, past practices point toward more sustainable paths. Frontier
agriculture in a circular food economy is meant to be such a model. Frontier agriculture
refers to approaches to agricultural production that sustainably expand the
frontiers of current food production practices. Frontier agriculture includes insect
farming and hydroponic farming, which are the focus of this report. Insect farming
is the process of producing insects for human food and animal feed, and hydroponic
farming is the process of growing crops in nutrient-rich water solutions instead of
soil. These technologies do not require great access to land, water, or wealth—all
limiting factors in Africa and FCV countries [that is, countries affected by fragility, conflict, and violence]. The technologies use organic waste, including agricultural or certain industrial waste, to quickly produce nutritious and protein-rich foods for humans, fish, and livestock and biofertilizers for soils. This improves food and nutrition security while reducing waste, strengthening national accounts, replenishing the environment, saving hard currency reserves by decreasing food and feed imports, and promoting green, resilient, and inclusive development.
Neither consumption of insects nor hydroponic farming is new—humans have engaged in both activities for hundreds of years. … Within a year, African insect farming can generate crude protein worth up to US$2.6 billion and biofertilizers worth up to US$19.4 billion. That is enough protein meal to meet up to 14 percent of the crude protein needed to
rear all the pigs, goats, fish, and chickens in Africa, according to the report’s modeling of the annual production of black soldier fly larvae (BSFL) in Africa. The report estimates that through black soldier fly farming, the continent could replace 60 million tons of traditional feed production with BSFL annually, leading to 200 million tons of recycled crop waste, 60 million tons of organic fertilizer production, and 15 million jobs, while saving 86 million
tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions, which is the equivalent of removing 18 million vehicles from the roads.
A detailed discussion of insect farming and hydroponic agriculture follows, with a particular emphasis on how these already have a foothold in a number of African countries, but there is still a lot of room for economies of scale and innovation to bring down prices.
An obvious question is: If this is such a good idea for Africa, why not elsewhere, too? My own answer is that these options are getting a foothold elsewhere. Here in Minnesota, one of my few trips to a restaurant in the last year, during a dip in the pandemic, was to a restaurant that served crickets as one of the appetizers (and yes, they were just fine–although they were also heavily spiced so I can’t say that I know what cricket really tastes like). Hydroponic agriculture is also growing in popularity here, driven by a combination of cheaper LED lighting, improvements in thermal glass, and long and bitter winters. Fresh and locally grown herbs are showing up at the grocery in the sub-zero depths of Minnesota winter.
In the report on insect farming in Africa, I was intrigued by a section on the strategy of Korea’s government to encourage insect farming there. The report notes:
Korea has an advanced regulatory and institutional framework for governing the national insect sector. The country’s modern insect sector has developed rapidly since 2011. Insect farms are now operating throughout the entire country. According to a Korean government survey, in December 2019, there were 2,535 farms, and by May 2021, there were nearly 3,000 registered farmers producing insects for food and feed in Korea. The emerging sector has created thousands of jobs and incomes for insect farmers and processors (RDA 2020b).
Insect legislation is well established in Korea. The Ministry of Food and Drug Safety approved several insect species as safe for human consumption (2016 Korean Food Standards Codex). These include silkworms and grasshoppers as traditional food ingredients and mealworm larvae, white-spotted flower chafer larvae, dynastid beetle larvae, and two-spotted crickets as new food ingredients. In January 2020, super mealworm larvae (nonfat powder) was temporarily registered as a new food ingredient, and locust and honeybee drone pupae are expected to be registered. Another eight insect species were approved for animal feed through the Feed Management Act. These include
dried crickets, dried grasshoppers, mosquito larvae, housefly larvae, mealworms, super mealworm larvae, and BSF larvae and pupae. Insect fat and other approved by-products from insects can also be sold and distributed …
Between 2011 and 2018, the insects-for- feed market in Korea grew from US$21 million
to US$140 million, and the insects-for-food market grew from US$0 to US$354 million (RDA 2020b). By 2030, Korea’s domestic market for insect feed is expected to grow to US$581 million and for insect food to US$815 million.
From a US perspective insect farming in particular may seem an unlikely future for agriculture. But it wasn’t that long ago that many Americans had not entered a restaurant serving kimchi, bulgogi, or Korean barbeque, either.