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Too often, people see the pandemic as unconnected with climate change. But they are two sides of the same coin. Humankind’s dominance of the planet has led us to both problems. And protecting ourselves from one crisis helps reduce the risk from the other. A radical respect and understanding of insects and better utilisation of nature’s biological processes could steer us away from such disasters and lead to a green recovery in the future.
We got 99 problems (and they’re all man-made)
Viruses are kept in check in natural ecosystems with diverse and abundant wildlife. But as humans encroach on nature, usually, to produce more food, we weaken these ecosystems and make them less resilient to disease. Our pushing of the natural world into ever tighter corners of the earth is what allows viruses to thrive.
“Through our consumption of meat, we bring diseases out of their natural quarantines.”
Related to this, we have humans’ insatiable appetite for meat. 70% of the world’s agricultural land is used to feed animals rather than humans. Rainforests are cleared and wildlife destroyed in order to mass-produce soya and palm oil as food for the animals we consume. Through this consumption, we bring diseases out of their natural quarantines, as seems to have happened when Coronavirus jumped across to humans from a wet market in Wuhan.
Finally, we live in a hyper-globalized world. Our smartphones are made in China, our supermarket-bought chicken may be reared in Norfolk but its feed comes from South America. Globalisation has come at a huge environmental cost while cheap mass transportation means that when a pandemic hits one region it is already too late to stop it from spreading across the globe.
Sadly, this is unlikely to be the last pandemic. My grandfather is 101, and the oldest living doctor in Chile. He’s lived through five pandemics in a century but we could now see five in the next decade.
We had no right to encroach into the natural space of other animals. We had no right to enslave billions of them. We had no right to fly at such environmental cost.
And this pandemic is the consequence.
But are we listening?
Coronavirus is Mother Nature’s last ‘fuck you!’. ‘This is the biggie’, she’s saying, ‘I’ve given you guys enough nudges and warnings, and you’ve not listened. Here’s an absolute kick up the ass. If you don’t listen now, you’re next.’
Because what’s really going to hit us is the climate catastrophe that’s just around the corner. There are currently 60 million refugees worldwide, many from conflicts in the Middle East. What happens when the entire band around the earth, from northern Spain to central Africa, suffers from extreme temperatures due to climate change? Around a third of the world’s population will live in extreme heat conditions in the coming decades. Sixty million refugees are one thing. 2 billion is quite another.
Once again, this is a human-induced crisis.
For all the interconnectedness between the pandemic and climate change, there is a striking difference: climate change (up until very recently at least) has been a slow burn. The ill-health of our planet today is largely the result of the actions of our parent’s generation 30 years ago. Whereas the pandemic and its impact on people’s lives, our society and the economy has been instant. The abstract and intangible nature of the future allowed people to become apathetic and even hostile to change. Just ask Shell.
Finding the light in the dark
The planet will go on regardless. It will not die. But a planet that supports humans could. Unless, of course, we use Coronavirus and its aftermath as an opportunity for recalibration. We need to:
Think before buying
Coronavirus has made people think more about what they choose to buy and why. This couldn’t be more important than with food. We need to correct what we see as normal. Local, seasonal produce should be the norm.
Protect and rewild
We need to protect and preserve the nature we have and enable areas to rewild to encourage wildlife and restore natural ecosystems. Where nature needs a helping hand, on barren and hostile land, for example, we should plant trees to capture and sequester carbon and green our world again.
Local production means employing local people. It means supporting your regional community. Not just using the cheapest possible labour. Local also shrinks and simplifies supply chains making them less likely to break when disasters or future pandemics strike. And in terms of food, locally-sourced or produced usually means it’s fresher and more healthy for you.
Work with nature, not against it
We need to better understand and utilise the abundant resources we have available in a way that works with nature. Nature has been telling us how we might answer humankind’s problems; we just haven’t been paying attention. For example, nature has no concept of waste. In nature, what we call waste is just an input for another organism. Fruit falls from the tree, is eaten by the animal, whose excrement nourishes the soil, which feeds the tree. This simple circular concept is not sufficiently respected and understood.
Better utilising insects
Insects are found on every continent and in all environments. They are nature’s way of closing the circle between life and death. They consume dead organic matter and upcycle it into protein-rich body mass in a matter of days. Their excrement is a natural fertiliser. With a third of all food thrown away globally each year, we should be utilising this circular technology in food chains across the world. We must reevaluate our perception of insects and the important role they play as nutrient recyclers and as a natural source of food for animals.
If eating meat is the problem, why don’t we just eat plants?
Our ancestors were eating meat two million years ago. That’s one hell of a tradition to get out of. The number of vegans in the UK quadrupled between 2014 and 2019 and I am vegan myself. But veganism is not likely to spread quickly outside the West. In light of increasing prosperity in Asia and Africa, a recent UN review suggested that the consumption of meat would increase by 76% by the year 2050.
Having reached the peak of meat-eating in the West, what right do we have to tell the rest of the world what they can eat? Surely we need a balanced solution — a technology that enables meat-eaters to continue but in a way that significantly reduces the environmental damage it causes, while also drawing attention to the benefits of transitioning to a meat-free and plant-based diet.
The Black Soldier Fly
At Entocycle, we farm insects all year round. The black soldier fly is nature’s turbo-charged nutrient recycler. It is one of the fastest-growing insects on the planet and will consume any kind of organic matter. We feed it pre-consumer food waste from local breweries, coffee shops and fruit and vegetable suppliers and it rapidly upcycles the nutrients from the waste into protein in the form of its body mass. The insects are harvested shortly before they turn into pupae then they are dried and processed into products. The dried protein powder can be used as an alternative to meat in pet food and can replace traditional sources of protein such as fishmeal or soy in animal feed which both come at such devastating environmental cost. Producing 1kg of protein by farming black soldier fly larvae requires 99.4% less land (or rainforest) compared to growing soy. The larvae’s excrement (frass) is then used as an organic and natural biostimulant or fertiliser to help farmers nourish their land and grow healthy plants and crops.
Around 2.5 million tonnes of soya beans are imported into the UK each year, mostly from South America, with an estimated 90% of it used to feed poultry, pigs and fish. The UK simply doesn’t have the climate to meet our protein requirements by growing soy. If the UK wants to ensure it can become food secure in the future, and specifically protein secure — it will need to use a technology like insects.
At Entocycle, a controlled indoor environment enables us to provide optimum growing and breeding conditions while robotic automation allows continuous insect protein production 24/7 and 365 days a year. We use a modular system which means the nutrient recycling process can be deployed effectively anywhere in the world. Our process enables local valorisation of food waste and local production of high-quality organic insect protein as a source of both food and feed.
The climate crisis and future pandemics might make it impossible to ship goods around the world. Containers could be held up at ports owing to shortages of labour or storms mean seas or skies become too violent for transportation. Short supply chains and local production of food will become increasingly important and nations and cities will need to think about how they become self-sufficient for food and feed instead of relying on imports.
Insects are not a silver bullet, but they offer one of the best solutions available for tackling the climate crisis, protecting nature and helping avert future pandemics.
We should use the downturn as an opportunity to recalibrate what we think of as normal. And we should start by reintroducing to our global food chain a missing but fundamental ally: insects.
The world’s health is at stake.
Keiran Olivares Whitaker is the founder of Entocycle. Whitaker received a BA in Environmental Design from Oxford Brookes University and an MSc from the University of Manchester.
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