Probably not. Bugs make poor jet fuel. But it might be an important component of futuristic food systems. It’s not as far out as it sounds. When I started working with insect protein a few years ago, I met with researchers at Cornell to discuss the prospect.
Food is a big problem for space travel and so far, the only place we can find food is on Earth. Colonizing other planets for any meaningful duration will necessitate a way to produce our own food and terraforming to make hostile planets less hostile might still be years away from becoming science fact. Nonetheless, as Matt Damon taught us all, you can grow potatoes on Mars—you just need science and determination.
A potato is great food to consider. They’re fairly nutritious, versatile, and universally loved. They also come with a lot of inedible residue and are pretty low in protein. As with most plant foods, we can only eat a portion of the total mass of the plant. A potato is a tuber, a swelled, starchy root, that lies beneath the green, leafy part of the plant. You can eat the tuber but the rest is unfortunately poisonous (it was the downfall of Chris McCandless in another potato-themed movie, Into the Wild).
Potatoes, like tomatoes, eggplants, and some berries, are members of the nightshade family. Nightshades are a diverse family of plants containing toxic alkaloids, these are usually concentrated in the leaves and roots and are why you shouldn’t eat green potatoes. (Interestingly, the Latin name of the nightshade family ‘belladonna’ means ‘beautiful lady’ and refers to its historical use as a cosmetic. In small, non-lethal doses, nightshade can dilate pupils—apparently a sign of beauty.)
Inedible residues are an important byproduct of agriculture. They may find use as fertilizers, returning their nutrients to the soil, but this might be useless in a futuristic hydroponic system like we might see on Mars. Enter insects. Insects can provide the biomachinery needed to digest and repurpose such residues into high value protein. They could be an essential part of a futuristic agri-food chain, supplementing a starch-heavy potato diet with essential proteins, fatty acids, and vitamins.
This isn’t a new concept. Historians suggest that Inca’s would sell caterpillar infested corn for more than the bug-free version. The caterpillars supplemented essential amino acids, fatty acids, and vitamin B12 in the corn and made an opportunity out of a pest.
Getting to other planets might take some rethinking an ingenuity but we can do well to consider how these systems could improve life on Earth too—there’s no reason to reserve invention for the red planet. Creating connections between different parts of the food system creates a more robust network and one that’s more resilient to shocks and disruptions—when one node is compromised in a network, others can pick up the slack.
Edible insects can fill gaps in our agriculture, converting edible or inedible products into nutritious biomass and connecting sectors that may have lacked an edible bridge. With new processing techniques and some culinary cleverness, these can taste pretty darn good too.
Space is a lonely and expensive place. Nothing can afford go to waste. Insects are a vital piece of biomachinery in the effort to do more with less. It’s not a new idea, just a new application. Besides, in space no one can hear you chirp.
About the author: Lee Cadesky @lcadesky