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Locusts fit for a plague

Last updated 05:00 17/01/2013

DAVID SLACK

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My father in law once rang me, amused. I'd been talking on the radio about the future of New Zealand, taking the bold position that farming was a sunset industry.

"How's your driveway?" he asked. "I was wondering if anyone had dumped a truckload of manure on it yet." This was heresy on my part. I come from a line of farmers running back to antiquity, or at least Cambria in 1592. They were successful all the way down to my father, who won championships, ribbons and praise for his remarkable stockmanship. But the line ends there.

From the time I was 10, Dad was telling me there was no future in farming. He was right, at least about farming as we knew it then. Only the big guys are left now.

But I feel something stirring in my soul. What I feel stirring may stir you too, but not in a good way. Buckle up. What would you say to a farming proposition that will get you 10 times the yield for no greater amount of water or energy? It would use less land, cause less harm to the environment and, no kidding, it might well avert a global famine.

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I speak of a whole new agricultural world. Come with me now into the exciting world of entomophagy. Or, insect eating. In 80% of the world's nations, people are piling into them. We Westerners, with our delicious beef and succulent pork, are the minority.

I'm talking about butterflies, moths, beetles and ants. They're roasting, sauteeing, but probably not filleting, bees, wasps and grasshoppers. Also, termites, cicadas and dragonflies and another one I won't mention because it makes me gag a little.

Queasy? Guess what: you've probably already had some today.

As sophisticated as our food production has become, insects are so bound into the food chain, you can't eliminate them. They're in your grains, your vegetables, your delicious fresh farm produce. And you didn't feel a thing.

Wageningen University in the Netherlands is looking towards this new horizon for us all. It has some very impressive numbers.

To get a kilogram of meat from a cow, you have to feed it 13kg of vegetable matter. To get that same 1kg of meat from a cricket, locust or beetle, you will have to feed them just 1.5kg to 2kg of fodder. To get that fodder, you will put out a fraction of the CO2 emissions.

Yes, there's more. Insects are a richer food than cows, pigs or chickens. Insects are loaded in protein and vitamins, which means you don't have to eat as much insect as you do animal.

All this presents a very appealing solution to a grave problem. Our global population is on its way to 9 billion by 2050. In recent months, water scientists have been sounding dire warnings about the capacity of the planet to feed those people.

"There will not be enough water available on current croplands to produce food by 2050 if we follow current trends and changes towards diets common in Western nations," said a report by the Stockholm International Water Institute.

They say there will be just enough water if we can get the the proportion of animal-based foods down to 5% of total calories. A dilemma? Quite possibly. At present the proportion of animal based foods is 20% of total calories and rising.

"We will need a new recipe to feed the world in the future," the report said. And here it is — the insects that can save us from a plague.

When politicians talk up New Zealand's economic prospects they frequently mention fast growing demand in Asia for protein. What if we could sell the world 10 times as much protein for the same amount of water and feed? Insects love being shoved together, so there's no more fretting about factory farming. It requires large controlled environments and much skill. Who better to do that than this mighty farming nation?

And the taste? Making a thing appetising is everything, of course, but I have every confidence in our army of marketing geniuses. If you can get them to eat Hell Pizza, what can't you get people to put in their mouth?

David Slack is the internet adventurer behind Speeches.com and a passionate cyclist.

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