Maggot burgers can help to solve world hunger

Tempted? The makings of several maggot burgers in London Zoo. Image: By Cory Doctorow, via Wikimedia Commons

Fancy maggot burgers for dinner? Eating animals and plants which revolt many of us could cut hunger caused by climate change.

LONDON, 14 June, 2021 − A diet of maggot burgers, green slime and seaweed may not appeal to most people, but scientists say it will be essential if the world is to avoid widespread malnutrition.

These “novel foods”, as the researchers beguilingly call them, may sound disgusting to some cultures, but the idea behind them is strictly serious. It does not recommend eating the ingredients raw, or even cooked, but processed into more familiar foods.

It has been developed by a team at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) at the University of Cambridge, UK, who accept that knowing what a recipe contains is a potential barrier to novel foods, so “consideration must be given to (people’s) gastronomic preferences.” Their research is published in the journal Nature Food.

One way to sidestep the problem of repugnance could be to make pasta, burgers, energy bars and similar foods to look and taste just as they always do, while containing insect larvae or micro- and macro-algae.

“Foods like sugar kelp, flies, mealworms and single-celled algae such as chlorella, have the potential to provide healthy, risk-resilient diets that can address malnutrition around the world,” said Dr Asaf Tzachor, first author of the report.

Millions at risk

“Our current food system is vulnerable. It’s exposed to a litany of risks − floods and frosts, droughts and dry spells, pathogens and parasites − which marginal improvements in productivity won’t change. To future-proof our food supply we need to integrate completely new ways of farming into the current system.”

The team says the recent shock of the Covid-19 pandemic, coupled with wildfires and droughts in North America, outbreaks of African swine fever affecting pigs in Asia and Europe, and swarms of desert locusts in East Africa, has shown how vulnerable the world’s harvests and distribution networks are to events beyond human control – and how increasing millions of people will suffer unless we adopt novel foods. The problem will only grow as climate heating intensifies.

These new foods can be grown in controlled environments in huge quantities almost anywhere, because they are not weather-dependent. This means they could be produced where malnutrition is already prevalent, improving the diet of children who suffer stunted growth.

Currently two billion people endure food insecurity, with 690 million more undernourished, among them 340 million children fed a poor diet.

Algae, seaweed and the larvae of soldier flies, mealworms and houseflies can be grown in closed environments in containers stacked one on another. Although each species has slightly different needs insect and algae farms, once established, could use multiple containers and automatic systems. They would also offer the added benefit of using organic waste as a food stock for both flies and algae.

“Our current food system is vulnerable. It’s exposed to a litany of risks”

They would avoid the problems of adverse weather suffered by other farming systems, and would eliminate food poisoning like salmonella. Proper management would let growers adjust production to meet changing demand.

One other advantage is that these systems could operate in any climate, so could be used in parts of the world where the food was to be consumed, cutting down the need for long supply chains. This would be particularly important in places like the Pacific islands where, the researchers say, “feeble agriculture and consumption of nutrient-poor foods contribute to stunting in children, and iron-deficiency anaemia in women of reproductive age.”

However, even though these new systems do not depend on weather or even light, they do need other stable conditions, particularly good electricity supplies. So it would be important to make sure that the novel food factories were set up in places where management was protected from sudden outside shocks and interruptions of supply. They would also have to be shielded from potential contamination.

The researchers urge “scientists, engineers, investors and policymakers to consider future foods as a malnutrition mitigation pathway.” Catherine Richards, a doctoral researcher at CSER, said: “Advances in technology open up many possibilities for alternative food supply systems that are more risk-resilient, and can efficiently supply sustainable nutrition to billions of people.

“The coronavirus pandemic is just one example of increasing threats to our globalised food system. Diversifying our diet with these future foods will be important in achieving food security for all.” − Climate News Network