Unsustainable Animal Agriculture: Can Bugs Save Us?

by jballard on October 6, 2017 - 11:06pm

According to a recent report by the WWF, feeding the ever-growing population of Earth is putting an immense strain on natural resources and biodiversity, primarily in already vulnerable landscapes around the world. Currently, the global population is over 7 billion people and rising quickly, our numbers are expected to reach 10 billion by 2060 (UN 2017). This increase in population coupled with an increase in demand for meat and animal by-products is quickly making animal agriculture one of the most unsustainable efforts on the planet. Feed production for livestock is simply too land, water and energy intensive and is one of the primary causes of deforestation and biodiversity loss. If global demand for meat continues throughout the century a more environmentally friendly method of feed production will be a necessity.

The Guardian reports that there is in fact a better method: feeding animals with insects and algae instead of traditional crops like soy and maize (van der Zee, 2017). Producing batches of this kind of feed will dramatically reduce land and water use while utilizing significantly less energy. An expected secondary affect is that deforestation and therefore loss of species will be reduced as the area needed to form the algae and insect meal is much smaller than the current crop fields. This future is closer than we think, ‘alternative’ feeds have been a project for a handful of years and companies such as Entocycle are already producing meal made of waste-fed black soldier flies (van der Zee, 2017).

Oftentimes with environmental or sustainable courses of action the primary issue that is raised is the difficultly to invest when peoples jobs are on the line. However, in this case that argument really does not apply, farmers that are currently producing crops for feed can merely switch to producing crops for human consumption or incorporate this new style into the land they already manage. Furthermore, the production of this new feed type will require individuals to manage it, creating a series of new jobs. Switching an entire system of this magnitude will obviously come with some pushback but with proper management the transition shouldn’t be too difficult. Insect and algae feeds could be phased in using regulatory instruments, start with the meat production companies for example, for every 500 cattle, 100 must be algae fed, then 200 and so on. By introducing the concept gradually and not putting in immediate substantive policy the key players of the animal agriculture industry will hopefully be more willing to adapt. On the production side, the government could provide subsidies to farmers and those who choose to produce these kinds of feeds as an incentive. Although not as reliable as specific regulations, the economy should then begin to play a part in this process, as algae-insect feeds become cheaper the effect should trickle down to cheaper livestock, then cheaper meat and soon the consumer will play a large role in driving these sustainability efforts.

Although this report was informative it failed to mention any issues that could arise with this new technology. The one that stood out to me was whether this practice would be considered ethical, the article even admits that we, ourselves are “squeamish” about the concept of eating insects (van der Zee, 2017). Humans are afforded the luxury of choosing what we eat, however these animals would not have any say in the matter, so is it wrong of us to force them? Following off of this point, there was no argument made for the fact that if drastic measures are what is needed, then caps on meat consumption or production should be the primary focus. Ideally, the simple solution is to put government controls on where meat is coming from and how much of it can be produced rather than diverting so much attention to finding alternate feed sources.

Ultimately, lessening the destruction of land and biodiversity needs to be focused on at a global scale and it is evident that a change in animal agriculture will be needed in order for this to occur.

 

 

Van der Zee, Bibi. 2017. “Farm animals can eat insects and algae to prevent deforestation.” The Guardian October 5. Retrieved October 5, 2017.

(https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/oct/05/farm-animals-can-eat-insects-algae-save-forests-water-energy)

 

The United Nations. 2017. “World Population Prospects” Retrieved October 6, 2017 (https://esa.un.org/unpd/wpp/Publications/Files/WPP2017_KeyFindings.pdf)

 

Comments

Hi,

I want to congratulate you for your excellently composed text and to further the discussion you engaged on alternative ways to produce food.

As you pointed out, the global population is steadily increasing and little effort are made to improve or question our costly food production methods. Feeding animals with insects and algae could lead to striking advantages: it reduces land and energy use, which in turn decreases deforestation.

However, as you wrote, these production methods raise ethical concerns in addition to missing the problem that they are trying to solve. Although feeding animals with bugs and algae can decrease pressure put on ecosystems, the most effective way to reach this goal is to actually decrease meat production itself. Indeed, animal feeding involves transfers of energy between different trophic levels. For instance, plants must be used to feed insects, which are then eaten by animals intended for human consumption. Since each organism in this chain has used some energy in order to fuel its cellular respiration, most of the energy harvested from the previous trophic level is dissipated into the environment as heat. Only a fraction is transferred to the other level. Therefore, meat is a very resource-costly product since an initially great amount of energy ultimately produces a small amount of food. Agriculture could be made more ecological if it involved as little energy transfers as possible.

As you said, one really effective way to decrease land use would be to drastically limit meat consumption and to rely on food that requires less energy to produce, such as plants, algae, or even insects. If people could put their disgust aside for the third case, producing food would take less space and become more ethical.

New techniques in agriculture that employ insects differently to limit land use and preserve ecosystems are also being developed. One of them involves planting rows of wild plants around cultivated areas in order to attract different types of animals that are beneficial to the crops. For example, pest predators settle down in those “wild zones” and hunt down harmful insects, which decreases pesticide use. It also raises biodiversity levels by providing habitat for different organisms. That kind of resource-wise innovation combined with a change in our diet could be, I believe, much more efficient on the long-term to decrease environmental pressure than relying on alternative food sources, which fail to address the issue directly.

You can learn more about this technique on a publication written by Devika G. Bansal, available on Scientific American:
https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/fighting-bugs-with-bugs/

For the explanation on trophic levels, refer to:
Raven, H. Peter, Jonathan B. Losos, Kenneth A. Mason, Susan R. Singer, George B. Johnson. Biology, New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008. Print.