Sustainability and food insecurity are two issues that often go hand in hand. As our climate changes, the farming methods we use today will become harder and harder to maintain, especially livestock farming. Two food sources that are both sustainable and nutrient dense are insects and algae. Although these food sources are considered largely unconventional in the Western world, many other cultures around the world already partake in the consumption of insects and algae. For example, Japanese cuisine often includes seaweed, a form of macroalgae. With climate change threatening agriculture as we know it, we need to turn to methods that are more sustainable and more efficient. In order to eat as sustainably as possible, we need to start thinking outside of our cultural perceptions of food.
One dilemma I always have to deal with is balancing my love for the environment and my love for meat. Although meat is delicious, it is the most costly and inefficient form of food for humans. Many people cut meat out of their diet completely for sustainability, and I did too, for about two and a half years, until I was subjected to the dining hall vegetarian options during my freshman year. Cutting meat out of your diet completely when you’ve grown up eating it is hard, and changing consumer habits as a whole is even harder. Creating “meat” out of bugs is a good middle ground for those who wish to eat more sustainably but are unwilling to give up meat. According to the Food and Agriculture Organizations of the UN, to produce cricket meat, you’d need 12 times less feed than you would need to produce the same amount of beef. Another advantage insect agriculture has over traditional animal agriculture is that insect life cycles tend to be much shorter than the life cycle of other animals. This fast life cycle means you can get insect meat from the farm to your dinner plate in a shorter time than you would be able to turn a calf into a steak. Insects also take up a lot less space than traditional livestock and are happier with less space. This makes insect farming more space efficient than traditional animal farming, as well as more ethical, as insects can live a happy, fulfilling life crowded in with their families. Keeping cows and chickens in the same density that bugs are happy in is considered by many to be cruel and inhumane. Although most people don’t consider the feelings of bugs, a lot of insects thrive in and even prefer crowds. I can speak from personal experience, as my pet cockroaches will hang out right next to each other no matter how much space I give them in their enclosure.
Another food source that may help us eat more sustainably is algae. As mentioned before, macroalgae consumption is already quite common, and many of us have eaten seaweed in some shape or form. However, most of us have not considered eating microalgae, which is the algae that grows in our ponds and fish tanks. Algae is extremely nutrient dense and is especially rich in omega-3. In fact, fish don’t naturally produce omega-3; they receive it from eating algae. Algae is one of the most nutrient dense foods on earth with it being rich in amino acids and high in essential vitamins. Dry microalgae also contain about as much protein per weight as soybeans, but they take much less land to produce. One hectare (a measurement used to describe 100 acres) used to grow algae can produce 4-15 tons of protein a year, whereas the same amount of land used to grow soybeans only produces about 0.6-1.2 tons of protein per year. Algae is also a great source of vitamin B12, which is a nutrient that soybeans, as well as most other plant products, lack. B12 is a nutrient that is often deficient in plant-based diets, and making algae more accessible to vegans and vegetarians can help bridge that gap. It also grows much more easily than your traditional agricultural plant products, such as fruits and vegetables. Many fruits and veggies need specific climates and conditions to grow successfully, and also, like traditional animal agriculture, they often need a lot of space. Algae, on the other hand, can grow easily in a variety of conditions and doesn’t need acres and acres of land to be produced. Anyone who has owned a fish tank before can tell you how easily algae can multiply. All you need to really get your algae farm going is to leave your tank lights on for a little too long, and you’ll have colonies of green, hair-like organisms growing out of what seems like thin air (or water). Algae can grow anywhere, in hot and cold climates, in fresh and saltwater, and even on snow and ice. All algae really needs is light, water, carbon, and nutrients. Those nutrients can even come from what farmers would normally throw out, such as animal waste and waste water, adding another layer of sustainability to algae cultivation. With the low cost and high benefit of growing and eating algae, it’s clear that algae agriculture, or algaculture, is the future of food production and consumption.
Sustainability in the agriculture industry is a complicated, multifaceted issue that requires creative solutions. With the price of food sharply rising across the globe, it’s more important than ever that we look into agriculture methods that produce the most nutrients while using the least amount of resources. Insect agriculture is much more energy efficient than traditional forms of animal agriculture, as bugs take less space and time to produce than cows, pigs, and chickens. Algaculture is superior to traditional plant agriculture in many ways. Algae, much like insects, require less space and resources to cultivate than their traditional agriculture counterparts, and they are much more nutrient dense than most other plants as well. There is much to be learned from both these forms of food production, but we should rely on them in the future, as climate change makes traditional agriculture more costly and difficult.