By Pat Melgares, K-State Research and Extension news service
Manhattan, KS– It seems like such a simple question.
Yet, for a team of undergraduate and graduate entomology students at Kansas State University, it was just the opening salvo in their quest to help tackle one of the world’s most pressing issues: food security.
In their case: What if insects could use plastic as a food source, ultimately helping mankind with such challenges as managing the world’s food supply and recycling waste.
“As entomologists, we are always trying to help solve the world’s problems through our own unique lens,” said Hannah Quellhorst, a K-State doctoral student from Lebanon, Ind. “For us, insects are at the center (of this challenge); they can be beneficial and they can be pests. We sought to find a way that insects could help us solve the issue of food insecurity, food waste and plastic contamination in the environment.”
A team of nine K-State students and entomology department head Brian McCornack initiated the idea based on an innovation challenge sponsored by Wilbur-Ellis, one of the world’s largest family-owned agribusinesses, as part of that company’s 100-year anniversary.
K-State team member Mollie Toth, a graduate student from Blue Springs, Mo., kick-started the idea by suggesting that insects can use non-traditional food sources for energy, such as plastics.
So, the team went to work: By engineering or selecting bacteria that can degrade plastic and live symbiotically within an insect’s gut, insects could use plastic as a food source.
“Food waste – ranging from agricultural production to restaurants – would then be supplemented with plastic waste, and these diverse waste streams become food for insects,” Toth said. “The resulting insects can then be fed to livestock – chickens, cows, fish and more – and insect manure (termed frass) is an excellent source of nutrients for crops.”
Ivan Grijalva, a doctoral student from Quito, Ecuador, focused on insects’ benefits to agricultural ecosystems. Brandon Hall, a doctoral student from Crete, Neb., worked on the benefits of using insects as food.
“Insects have a well-rounded nutritional profile similar to other protein sources, such as beef and chicken,” Hall said. “Insects are also highly efficient at resource conversion compared to traditional livestock species. They can convert our food waste into usable biomass, which we can reincorporate into the global food system.”
In early August, the team’s vision paid dividends when Wilbur-Ellis selected it as the first-ever grand prize winner of its innovation award, termed the Best Idea to Feed the World. The recognition comes with a $25,000 prize.
“What’s great about our idea is that we envision it to be scalable from large factories that service metropolitan areas down to the backyard compost where consumers can begin degrading plastics alongside their banana peels,” said team captain Cameron Osborne, a doctoral student from Fresno, Calif.
Other members of K-State’s winning entomology team are doctoral student Jacqueline Maille (Lum, Mich.); undergraduate Theresa Markwardt (Fayetteville, Ark.); undergraduate Molly Edeburn (Rockford, Minn.); and doctoral student Victoria Pickens (Sand Springs, Okla.).
“I’m very proud of this team and excited that this semester we are able to offer an undergraduate program in entomology,” McCornack said. “Hands-on teaching and undergraduate research is a huge component in our curriculum. I expect to see more creative projects and solutions like this one popping up with undergraduates in the program.”
A team of K-State students in the Department of Grain Science and Industry won 1 of 4 honorable mention prizes (and a $5,000 award) in the same contest. Their project suggested using ocean agriculture (growing crops and seafood in a large body of water in a fixed location) to reduce the amount of land required for traditional agriculture.
According to information from Wilbur-Ellis, 30 university teams from around the U.S. competed for one of five prizes.