Food of the future – insects or plants?

Food of the future – insects or plants?

Faced with the increase in the world population, the question increasingly arises of how to feed it in the years to come.
To answer this question, however, as usual, we cannot make simplistic considerations (to be understood in the manner of tweets or Facebook posts) as it is a complex matter that needs a series of data, information and, hence, considerations.
In this contribution, even with the need for the summary necessary for a popular article, we will address the whole question.
Let’s start with the population estimates from now to 2100.
The United Nations, as early as 2019, predicted that population growth would continue further, bringing the population from the current 7.7 billion people to about 11 billion by 2100. In 2014, another forecast was published, led by scientists of the Iiasa (International Institute for Applied System Analysis), according to which the world population will reach a peak of 9.4 billion people around 2070 and will drop to 9 billion by the end of the century.
For the sake of completeness of information (and hypotheses) another subsequent report, published by the same group in 2018, corrected the projections to a peak of 9.8 billion around 2080, and a further update estimated a population of 9.7 billion. of people in 2070.
Another article, published in 2020 by experts from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), estimated the peak at 9.7 billion people in 2064, followed by a decline to around 8.8 billion by 2100. According to this, work several countries, including Italy, Japan, Thailand and Spain will see their population halve by the end of the century.
Well, these scenarios, albeit with the necessary divergences, still lead to data in which peaks are hypothesized after the middle of the century and a decrease by the end of the century.
At this point, the first consideration to make is whether our planet has sufficient arable land to feed (in the worst case scenario) 11 billion people.
To draw useful data, it is necessary to start from the UAA (Utilized Agricultural Area) at a global level; leaving out here the SAT (Total Agricultural Area) which, due to a restrictive hypothesis, we are not going to modify.
According to the latest UN reports, compared to the total surface area of ​​land (about 15 billion hectares), the UAA represents about one third of the total, or roughly 5 billion hectares, of which:
– 3.4 billion hectares for grazing (including mountain pastures);
– 1.4 billion hectares of arable land;
– 140 million hectares of permanent crops (orchards, palm trees, vineyards, tea or coffee crops).
In recent decades, despite the clearing and cultivation of vast forest areas in Brazil, Africa and Indonesia (between 12 and 13 million ha per year), the surface of arable land has remained almost constant, starting from from the seventies of the twentieth century, due to the losses that occur due to the salinization of irrigated areas, impoverishment and loss of agricultural land and the advance of urbanization.
Therefore, to understand whether the UAA is sufficient to ensure food (in a sustainable manner) for the entire world population, complex calculations must be made (which I am saving you here) which must however be based on a series of parameters:
– Average nutritional requirement for each person;
– Average yields of arable land;
– Water availability;
– Availability of fertilizers;
– Energy availability for agricultural production;
– Etc..
If all these data are processed, more than half of the estimates, however, fall between 4 and 16 billion people, and some estimates go well beyond 16 billion people.
The difference between the estimates is obviously very dependent on the development models adopted and the lifestyles of some countries.
Those that propose scenarios based on the current lifestyles of Western countries (such as the United States, Europe, Japan, etc.) are very low; those based on different lifestyles (which does not equate to poverty criteria) rank much higher.
Let’s say right away that the food capacity of the planet goes far beyond 11 billion people and is around 30 billion people (see calculation). Obviously this data changes considerably if the production method is of the intensive type (massive use of fertilizers, water, energy, etc.) or of the extensive type. But the scenarios (see Entropy by Jeremy Rifkin from 1980) tell us (and here complex thermodynamic calculations come into play) that the more we push on the increase in unit yields (intensive agriculture) the more we lose in the overall performance of the system. It is like when we push a car beyond a certain speed and even if we increase the speed, consumption worsens exponentially (yield curve).
In the meantime, this first figure tells us that, in accordance with what has been stated by the FAO in recent times, that food can be guaranteed for everyone on the condition that the method for producing it is changed.
Monocultures, specializations, indiscriminate use of fertilizers, water waste, food distribution over long distances, etc. they are criteria energetically (as well as scientifically and therefore technically) obsolete and the result of mercantilistic and commercial needs.
We must move from agriculture based on high yields to that on high yields.
In a nutshell, we need to move from post-green revolution agriculture (to be clear, the great art of that set up with the Common Market after the 1958 Treaty of Rome) to Agroecology (the one envisaged with the Farm to Fork of 2020 and already implemented in Sicily with the Regional Law 21/2021).
There is an abyss between the two models, not only from the conceptual point of view but, obviously, also from the scientific and therefore technical and technological and, last but not least, social point of view.

It is a conversion that requires a new awareness, new knowledge, new training and dissemination and new organizational models as agroecology is not only a different way of producing but also a different way of relating with end users.
This conversion therefore concerns not only farmers but everyone: politicians, researchers, technicians, ordinary citizens.
Meanwhile, let’s start from the consideration that by implementing so-called conventional agriculture, especially in the last half century, we have gradually abandoned most of the edible plant species.
We have gone from a great agricultural biodiversity (leaving aside that of the natural order) to a very low and very dangerous company biodiversity, with consequent negative ecological feedbacks, such as the increase of some species of insects and the disappearance of others or the decrease in fauna and other species which in any case play a fundamental ecological (and therefore productive) role.
The best known of these (but not by far the most important) is the loss of production due to the decreased pollination of pollinators.
Today in the world there are about 30,000 edible species of terrestrial plants (leaving aside algae) and of these, with the advent of conventional and specialized production systems, only 200 plants grown on a significant scale have grown. Of these 200, only 8 provide over 50% of our daily calories: barley, beans, peanuts, corn, potatoes, rice, sorghum and wheat.
Over much of the globe, then, the contribution of spontaneous species (the so-called alimurgic and others) was gradually abandoned, which made a very important contribution both in terms of food and biodiversity and, therefore, of ecological services.
In fact, history tells us that since the very beginning, humanity has based its diet on the collection of edible plants, such as roots, herbs, leaves and fruits and that these, until the beginning of the last century, ensured an important ecological and social role. Then out of the blue the more total abandonment and, unfortunately, the loss of knowledge about their use, their role, their recognition, etc.
In ecological and food terms, the so-called spontaneous species ensure numbers that are anything but negligible both in terms of direct and indirect productivity.
Furthermore, we must use biodiversity in a sustainable way, so that we can better respond to the growing challenges of climate change and produce food without harming our environment. Statements made not by the usual unknown of Twitter or Facebook but, first by the ex. FAO Director, José Graziano da Silva, in 2018, and then by QU Dongyu, current FAO Director, in 2021.
FAO itself, in a recent report, indicates at least 6000 the number of plants that can be recovered and cultivated for food purposes, triggering a process of agricultural and food biodiversification that would bring with it incredible benefits also of a productive nature.
Among other things, it is well known to all how plants – cereals, fruit, legumes and vegetables – make up, on average, over 80% of the human diet.
Faced with an incredible biodiversity available for human nutrition (forgotten biodiversity, I would dare to say), we hear more and more of the need to satisfy hunger in the world by producing insects.
Here we are even in the grotesque and I want to dismantle, if possible once and for all, this scientific as well as conceptual absurdity.
Insects, beyond the eating habits of some peoples who have used them for centuries with the criterion of alimurgic plants (collecting them or recovering them in nature), are living beings which, like their elder brothers (cattle, sheep, etc.) must be fed in order to produce them.
Insects, therefore, must be fed; they are mini livestock farms. Remember that they are heterotrophic organisms, which must therefore transform autotrophic species such as plants (phytophagous insects) or even other heterotrophic organisms (zoophagous insects).
Now everyone knows the question of low energy efficiency for the production of meat in human nutrition. A bovine in order to be “fattened” requires a lot of energy that has been accumulated primarily by heterotrophs (vegetables) and transformed into vegetable proteins. This process, like all calculations on yields (which I also save you) has a very low yield, which is equivalent to saying that eating meat (at least with animals from intensive farming) beyond the ethical question, is nonsense.
This issue must also be addressed with valid scientific criteria as it is also known how the presence of fauna in both natural and agricultural ecosystems (within certain equilibrium ratios) is useful for ensuring the correct ecological balance and an important contribution of organic matter, phosphates, minerals, etc .. Agriculture without animals is another completely “modern” distortion. Nature has its rules and we cannot reinvent them ourselves.
Now, breeding insects is the “point 2 intensive animal husbandry” version with the exact same defects. Breeding insects (as an entomologist who has done it since the 1980s tells you, but for research purposes) requires large quantities of substances of various kinds: from vegetables, to sugary substances (of vegetable origin) to other products and derivatives. .
In short, insects, like all heterotrophic beings, must acquire energy and chemical compounds starting from organic substances elaborated by autotrophic (vegetable) organisms or coming from other heterotrophic organisms.
In a nutshell, in order to produce insects, we must draw from the heterotrophic tank (plants) and more, but with a very low process efficiency as it needs, in turn, high rates of energy in the form of water, electricity (to maintain farms), various substances, etc.
The insect solution, like the intensive animal husbandry solution, is the worst we can imagine.
The question is: cui prodest?
The answer is even easier than expected: insects (their industrial production) belong to that world of the hoarding of rights to produce that sees in GMOs, in the ownership of seeds, in certain process certification criteria, etc. the opportunity to translate the right of peoples to self-sustain themselves with their culture, with their knowledge, with their traditions (all principles contained in the criterion of Food Sovereignty) and on their territory, replacing them. By transforming human beings into consumers and objects and not protagonists, with their correct relationship with Nature, of which they are a part.
We have come to a time in which the questions can be resolved only by raising the quality of thought, according to the path traced by Thomas Aquinas (Roccasecca, 1225 – Fossanova Abbey, March 7, 1274), following a new arrangement, as: “The feeling of man requires a mutation not only material, but also spiritual”.

Guido Bissanti

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