If we are ever to colonize Mars we will need an amazingly sustainable and resource efficient food source. Will it be plants, mycoprotein, lab grown meat, algae, or grass-fed cattle that feeds the future Martians? Or could insects be the right choice? Let’s take a look at what the future of protein might be, whether on Earth or Mars.
The race for the most sustainable protein
The way we produce protein today is not sustainable and conventionally raised meat is a great example of that. We don’t believe people will stop eating meat in the following decades. But we think there will be less meat and a higher proportion of it coming from grass-fed or perhaps lab grown sources. We also think that insect eating will be socially accepted and common world-wide. Variety of alternative protein sources will be price competitive and food producers as well as consumers will be much better at reducing and reusing bio-waste. To put it simply, there won’t be a single winner, rather a portfolio of sustainable protein sources that consumers will be able to choose from.
The case for insects
That was our vision for Earth, with Mars there will be a much greater need for space and resource efficiency. Only the best of the best will do. There are several reasons why we think insects will be the first animal farmed on Mars. Insects are incredibly nutritious, they can be ethically farmed, and they are easy to transport. But perhaps most importantly, they are really efficient at converting feed into protein and low-value waste into high-value nutrients.
The most resource efficient animal
Chicken farming is one of the most studied industries. Over the last 60 years, chickens grew by 90 % from 1,3 kg in 1930s to 2,58 kg in 2010. And it only took 42 days for them to reach the 2010 weight compared to a grow-cycle of 113 days in 1935. These improvements were achieved through selection and feed optimization. Automation in chicken farming is so advanced today that feed makes up 73 % of the costs of chicken (1).
If you give crickets and chicken 450 g of the same feed, crickets will do a better job at converting it to edible weight (2). These are impressive results because the chicken had an advantage of 500 consecutive growing cycles on roughly 20 billion chickens. In contrast, the authors of this study completed only 3 growing cycles with about 50 thousand crickets.
Even today cricket farming doesn’t even have 1 % of the time and resources that chicken farming had and crickets are already out performing the efficiency champ. With the use of vertical farming, specialized feed for all growing stages, economies of scale and automation, cricket farming can no doubt take the lead and set a new standard for efficiency.
An essential part of circular economy
Virtually any plants we choose to grow on Mars will produce some bio-waste. Insects can be fed this waste to produce protein and other essential nutrients. They will not be a competitor to plant protein sources rather a valuable ally.
That’s because insects also give back. Frass, the by-product of cricket farming, serves as a bio-pesticide and fertilizer for plants (3). A circular economy with plants and insects at its heart seems to be a great starting point. We are hard at work at The Cricket Lab to show the world the full potential of cricket farming. Whether an automated cricket farm like ours will ever see a Mars base is unclear but we know it’s going to help us here at Earth.
1) Smil, V., ‘Should we eat meat?’, 2013, Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, https://www.amazon.com/Should-Eat-Meat-Evolution-Consequences-ebook/dp/B00BY2M0KQ
2) Lundy ME, Parrella MP, ‘Crickets are not a free lunch: protein capture from scalable organic side-streams via high-density populations of Acheta domesticus.’, PLoS One. 2015, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25875026
3) Veldkamp, ‘Insects as a sustainable feed ingredient in pig and poultry diets – a feasibility study’, 2012, https://www.wur.nl/upload_mm/2/8/0/f26765b9-98b2-49a7-ae43-5251c5b694f6_234247%5B1%5D