Insects play many roles in nature. They pollinate flowers, make food, spread diseases, destroy crops, condition soil, and tons of other things. They're estimated to make up 90% of all animals on the planet, so it makes sense that we're looking to them for innovative solutions to global problems. This article will exhibit some promising solutions of the future that can derive from insects.
1) They are a sustainable food source
They may not look it, but insects are a very nutritious food source. Commonly eaten species like Mealworms, Crickets and Beetles contain similar amounts of protein to animal meat, and often have higher mineral contents. But what makes them sustainable?
The global warming potential of insects is 5 to 10 times less than cows and 2 times lower than chickens. 14% of global emissions come from farm animals, and cows are the biggest polluters, so farming insects instead of cattle would have a massive environmental impact. Currently, enough edible food is fed to British livestock to make 11 billion loaves of bread. Insects can fully use all kinds of waste to produce protein, so farm by-products like chaff are the perfect food for them and allows us to have more food for ourselves.
Insects are poikilothermic, which means they don’t maintain a body temperature using energy obtained from food. This allows them to convert more food into protein than an animal would be able to and means less food and a fraction of the water is needed to farm them. Insect farming is becoming big business. Governments and investors around the world are starting to recognise the power of insects to create food security in an eco-friendly way.
2) Insect excrement (bug poo) is an amazing fertiliser
Frass is insect manure, and just like any other manure, it can be used as an organic fertiliser. Frass performs at the same level of fertilisers sold in shops, but that’s not all. It contains beneficial bacteria that can improve the soil quality and chitin from insect exoskeletons which improves the resilience of the plant to pests, environmental stress and disease. The production of the chemicals found in fertilisers creates massive pollution. The ammonia industry is responsible for 1% of all global emissions and other chemicals in fertilisers are obtained from heavy mining. Frass is a much more eco-friendly alternative.
3) Recycle waste food
Insects are a key step to creating a ‘circular economy’, where resources are efficiently used and recycled to eliminate waste. Around 7% of food is wasted on British farms, and this waste could be diverted to insect farms, where it would be turned into a high quality source of protein for animals and humans alike. The frass from insects could then be used to fertilise the farm and grow more crops, creating a sustainable cycle. If this concept was applied to the entire world, where a third of all food is wasted, the amount of insects that could be raised would be able to provide enough protein and nutrition to the global population, and provide fertiliser to countries that have difficulties sourcing it.
4) Reduce plastic waste.
Some insects have the ability to break down or eat plastics! Plastic pollution is a pressing issue, as every year 8 million tons of plastic ends up in the ocean, killing millions of animals. Over time, plastics break down into microscopic particles that have been found everywhere on earth and even in our bloodstreams.
Scientists at Stanford have observed mealworms eating polystyrene and safely excreting a toxic chemical additive. The worms could then be used as food for shrimp without harm. Recently, scientists discovered that Waxworms were able to break polyethylene plastic down with their saliva. They could degrade the plastic in only a few hours, at room temperature, a discovery that could revolutionise plastic disposal.
5) Power cars
Removing fat from insects is one process employed to turn them into animal feed, but this fat has many uses: insect oil could be used to fry food, made into butter for biscuits and crucially, made into a biodiesel that could sustainably power cars. Biodiesels made from used cooking oils have already made an impact on the environment, with every litre recycled saving 3 kg of carbon dioxide. Insect biofuel could take it a step further, utilising feeds like animal waste and the previously mentioned plastic to create a valuable product from recycling.
6) Make eco batteries
Scientists at the University of Maryland have created a biodegradable battery that utilises chitin, a compound found in the exoskeletons of insects and the shells of crabs and shrimps. It is a Zinc-ion battery, which suffered from corrosion before chitin was used to reduce the amount of water molecules inside. The battery can be recharged 1000 times and the zinc can be recycled at the end of life stage.
While commercial chitin is sourced from shellfish, insects have the potential to be more renewable sources, as crustaceans are facing population threats due to climate change. Current batteries use Lithium, an element much rarer than Zinc which is being mined in very precious habitats like salt flats, so this discovery has the potential to impact more than the battery market.
7) Help advance medicine
Insect cells are used to produce vaccines. Fall armyworm cells are used to produce antigens and have been used to make a vaccine for pigs, and vaccines for hepatitis and a form of cancer. Covid-19 vaccines are also being produced using the armyworm method.
A substance found in Asian ladybirds, Harmonine, was found to be effective against tuberculosis, schistosomiasis and malaria pathogens. The ladybird is an invasive species and scientists speculated that it had a powerful immune system to protect against unknown bacteria. Chitin is not just a handy fertiliser component or battery material, it also has uses in biotechnology. It can be used for tissue engineering, with applications for controlled drug release and wound healing: chitin fibres cause regeneration of skin cells when used as dressings on wounds. It has uses in stem cell technology and has been found to have anti-tumour and anti-inflammatory effects.
Finally, maggots can actually be used to disinfect wounds! They do so by secreting a substance that dissolves dead tissue and bacteria, leaving healthy tissue alone. The chemicals in the secretion have been isolated and used to develop dressings and medicine.
Insects can reduce our waste output by turning the edible and the inedible into a high protein nutritious food. In turn, they create a manure that is excellent for growing healthy plants and deterring pests.Their fats can be turned into a sustainable biodiesel, and chitin from their exoskeleton can be turned into battery components or medical wound dressings. In short, Insects could be a key to a sustainable future.