Bugs Are Getting Hungrier and Hungrier

Locusts have traditionally skimmed off the top of the world's food supply. But it may be about to get a lot worse. aaabbbccc/Shutterstock

As the planet heats up, so does the age-old competition between humans and insects for food.

According to most recent studies, insects currently mulch through between 5 and 20 percent of the world’s crops — a problem that's only going to get worse as the human population edges closer to the 10 billion mark.

But new research suggests insects are getting even hungrier.

Published last month in the journal Science, the paper points to climate change as a major factor in stoking insect appetites. The research team looked primarily at rice, maize and wheat, which together account for 42 percent of the calories humans consume.

Their conclusion? The slice of that pie claimed by insects gets bigger — between 10 and 25 percent — for every additional degree Celsius the planet heats up. That's because, as temperatures soar, bugs burn through more calories. Hence, they'll be looking for more and more food to line their bellies.

Hello, rice paddy.

If you consider that, by most scientific accounts, the Earth will be at least 2 degrees warmer by the end of the century, those numbers paint a stark picture for food production.

Specifically, the researchers noted, the bugs of the future will claim 19 million metric tons of wheat, 14 million metric tons of rice, and 14 million metric tons of maize. All of that food will be kept from the dinner plates of hungry humans.

"There's going to be a lot of crop loss, so there won't be as much grain on the table," study co-author Scott Merrill of the University of Vermont explained in The New York Times.

And the thing is, climate change is already doing a number on food production. More frequent extreme weather events, like droughts, floods, and hurricanes, will have that effect on the harvest.

Dried up corn field
Soil depletion has been blamed for making today's vegetables less nutritious than those of the past. nawamin/Shutterstock

To make things worse, the plants we do grow may be losing their nutritional value — becoming little more than empty calories springing from depleted soil.

On a planet where calories are becoming increasingly hard to come by, the last thing we need are hungrier bugs. But make no mistake: we do need bugs. Every ecosystem on the planet relies on them to do everything from transporting pollen to being devoured by birds and bats.

Ironically, we too may have to start eating bugs in a big way — before they literally eat us out of house and home.