Ending World Hunger: Insect-Based “Power Flour”

insect_flourIt has long been understood that if we, as a species, are going to deal with overpopulation and hunger, we need take a serious look at our current methods of food production. Not only are a good many of our practices unsustainable – monoculture, ranching, and overuse of chemical fertilizers being foremost amongst them – it is fast becoming clear that alternatives exist that are more environmentally friendly and more nutritious.

However, embracing a lot of these alternatives means rethinking our attitudes to what constitutes food. All told, there are millions of available sources of protein and carbohydrates that aren’t being considered simply because they seem unappetizing or unconventional. Luckily, researchers are working hard to find ways to tackle this problem and utilize these new sources of nutrition.

HULT-PRIZE-large570One such group is a team of McGill University MBA students who started the Aspire Food Group, an organization that will produce nutritious insect-based food products that will be accessible year-round to some of the world’s poorest city dwellers. Recently, this group won the $1 million Hult Prize for the development of an insect-infused flour that offers all the benefits of red meat – high protein and iron – but at a fraction of the cost.

The team – which consists of Mohammed Ashour, Shobhita Soor, Jesse Pearlstein, Zev Thompson and Gabe Mott – were presented with the social entrepreneurship award and $1 million in seed capital back in late September. The presentation was made by former U.S. president Bill Clinton in New York City at the Clinton Global Initiative’s annual meeting.

world_hungerThe Hult Prize Foundation runs an annual contest open to teams of four or five students from colleges and universities from around the world. Their task is to develop ideas for social enterprises – organizations that use market-based strategies to tackle social or environmental problems. This year’s challenge, selected by Clinton, was to tackle world hunger.

Over 10,000 students entered, and the McGill team was one of six which reached the final stage, where they pitched their idea Monday to judges that included Clinton, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Muhammad Yunus and Erathrin Cousin, CEO of the World Food Program. The $1 million was provided by the family of the Swedish billionaire Bertil Hult, who made his fortune with the venerable EF Education First company.

insect_flour1Mohammed Ashour explained the process behind the insect flour in an interview to CBC News:

We are farming insects and we’re grinding them into a fine powder and then we’re mixing it with locally appropriate flour to create what we call power flour. It is essentially flour that is fortified with protein and iron obtained from locally appropriate insects.

What is especially noteworthy about the product, aside from its sustainability, is the fact that it delivers plenty of protein and iron in an inexpensive package. These nutrients, the team noted, are in short supply in the diets of many people in developing nations, but can be found in high amounts in insects. For example, they note, crickets have a higher protein content per weight than beef.

???????????????????????????????And while the idea of eating insects might seem unappealing to many people living in the developed world, Soor pointed out that people in many of the countries they are targeting already eat insects. In addition, the type of insect used to produce the flour for a local market would be chosen based on local culinary preferences. As she put it:

There really isn’t a ‘yuck’ factor. For example, in Mexico, we’d go with the grasshopper. In Ghana, we’d go with the palm weevil.

The insects would also be mixed with the most common type of local flour, whether it be made from corn, cassava, wheat or something else. Thus, the product would not only provide nutrition, but would be locally sourced to ensure that it is accessible and beneficial to the local market.

Developed-and-developing-countriesIn addition, the team has already held taste tests in some markets. In one test, they offered people tortillas made from regular corn flour, corn flour containing 10 per cent cricket flour and corn flour containing 30 per cent cricket flour. As Ashour indicated, the reviews were met with approval:

Amazingly enough, we got raving reviews for the latter two… so it turns out that people either find it to be tasting neutral or even better than products that are made with traditional corn flour.

The team hopes to use the prize money to help them expand the reach of their organization to the over 20 million people living in urban slums around the world by 2018. And I can easily foresee how flours like this one could become a viable item when teamed up with 3D food printers, tailoring edible products that meet our nutritional needs without putting undue strain on the local environment.

And be sure to enjoy this video of the McGill students and their prize-winning flour, courtesy of CBC news:


Source: cbc.ca

The Future is Here: “Spiber” Silk

spider-silkFor years, scientists and researchers have been looking for a way to reproduce the strength of spider silk in the form of a synthetic material. As an organic material, spider silk is tougher than kevlar, strong as steel, lighter than carbon fiber, and can be stretched 40 percent beyond its original length without breaking. Any material that can boast the same characteristics and be massed produced would be worth its weight in gold!

Recently, a Japanese startup named Spiber has announced that it has found a way to produce the silk synthetically. Over the next two years, they intend to step up mass production and created everything from surgical materials and auto arts to bulletproof vests. And thanks to recent developments in nanoelectronics, its usages could also include soluble electronic implants, artificial blood levels and ligaments, and even antibacterial sutures.

spiber-synthetic-spider-silkSpider silk’s amazing properties are due to a protein named fibroin. In nature, proteins act as natural catalyst for most chemical reactions inside a cell and help bind cells together into tissues. Naturally, the process for creating a complex sequence of aminoacids that make up fibroin are very hard to reproduce inside a lab. Hence why scientists have been turning to genetic engineering in recent years to make it happen.

In Spiber’s case, this consisted of decoding the gene responsible for the production of fibroin in spiders and then bioengineering bacteria with recombinant DNA to produce the protein, which they then spin into their artificial silk. Using their new process, they claim to be able to engineer a new type of silk in as little as 10 days, and have already created 250 prototypes with characteristics to suit specific applications.

SpiderSilkModelNatureThey begin this process by tweaking the aminoacid sequences and gene arrangements using computer models to create artificial proteins that seek to maximize strength, flexibility and thermal stability in the final product. Then, they synthesize a fibroin-producing gene modified to produce that specific molecule.

Microbe cultures are then modified with the fibroin gene to produce the candidate molecule, which is turned into a fine powder and then spun. These bacteria feed on sugar, salt and other micronutrients and can reproduce in just 20 minutes. In fact, a single gram of the protein produces about 5.6 miles (9 km) of artificial silk.

spiber_qmonosAs part of the patent process, Spiber has named the artificial protein derived from fibroin QMONOS, from the Japanese word for spider. The substance can be turned into fiber, film, gel, sponge, powder, and nanofiber form, giving it the ability to suit a number of different applications – everything from clothing and manufacturing to nanomedicine.

Spibers says it is building a trial manufacturing research plant, aiming to produce 100 kg (220 lb) of QMONOS fiber per month by November. The pilot plant will be ready by 2015, by which time the company aims to produce 10 metric tons (22,000 lb) of silk per year.

spiber_dressAt the recent TedX talk in Tokyo, company founder Kazuhide Sekiyama unveiled Spiber’s new process by showcasing a dress made of their synthetic silk. It’s shiny blue sheen was quite dazzling and looks admittedly futuristic. Still, company spokesperson Shinya Murata admitted that it was made strictly for show and nobody tried it on.

Murata also suggested that their specialized slik could be valuable in moving toward a post-fossil-fuel future:

We use no petroleum in the production process of Qmonos. But, we know that we need to think about the use of petroleum to produce nutrient source for bacteria, electric power, etc…

Overall, Sekyama lauded the material’s strength and flexibility before the TedX audience, and claimed it could revolutionize everything from wind turbines to medical devices. All that’s needed is some more time to further manipulate the amino acid sequence to create an even lighter, stronger product. Given the expanding use for silks and its impeccable applicability, I’d say he’s correct in that belief.

In the meantime, check out the video from the TedX talk:


Sources:
gizmag.com, fastcoexist.com