Sarah Ku, a PhD candidate at Georgia State’s Robinson College of Business, has her own vision of how to deal with the earth’s environmental challenges.
Be they how to feed 8.5 billion people by 2030, or how to clean the pollution coagulating in the oceans or the mountainous ranges of landfills circling the world’s great cities.
She told Global Atlanta that her interest in the earth’s sustainability jives with a lifelong interest in insects and their prospects for improving human life.
“The business of insects can be broadly organized into three main industries,” she said citing food for human consumption, feed for animals and waste management,”
“I have interest in all three, as well as others. However my attention shifted towards waste management due to its reduced stigma when sharing my interests with western audiences.”
Apparently her eclectic interests have the support of her department and professors, notably, among others, that of Tamer Cavusgil, who occupies the Fuller E. Callaway Professorial chair at Robinson. “Sarah is a very bright and thoughtful young scholar. She will have a good future,” he told Global Atlanta.
She traces her interest in insects to her mother’s work as an entomological illustrator and founder of a “Bug Lovers Club.” “We were a household that tried to catch and release bugs rather than kill them,” she said, taking their side in the stand-off with humans.
“Growing up, I spent many summers collecting fireflies and caterpillars in jars to watch them…Sure, I’ve been stung by yellow jackets and fire ants and have been creeped out by cockroaches who have crawled on me. Yet, these events have not made me resent insects at all. Bugs exist in this world, just like humans do, and I believe that we are even more to blame for invading their space rather than them invading ours.”
It wasn’t until she traveled to China for the first time on a study abroad trip in 2009 as a marketing undergraduate student at the University of West Georgia that her general interest fit into an academic setting.
“I went to a food market known as “Snack Street” in Beijing full of silkworms, crickets, scorpions and any other bugs on bamboo skewers sold as novelty street food. But instead of immediately chowing down, she heeded the comment of her guide that “these were mostly offered as a tourist gimmick and not typically consumed by locals.”
As a self-professed foodie, it wasn’t until half a dozen years later that she returned to China where she spent several weeks volunteering on an aquaponics farm south of Shanghai fascinated with alternative agriculture. It was at this point that she began to see the possibility of finding new means of food production to help alleviate malnutrition, starvation and poverty globally.
It took another five years for her interest to lead her to enroll in Robinson’s international business doctoral program. “The increase in global consumption, with the help of online shopping and increasing disposal incomes, has also increased the amount of global waste,” she says, justifying her enrollment.
“My interests in food, waste and insects has shaped the context of my research interests of sustainability in international business, and I feel extremely fortunate to have support from my department and professors at Georgia State University.”
Through her graduate work, she has become focused on food and organic waste. With her global mindset and her commitment to business marketing, she seeks out opportunities “to take something that has little or no value and sell it for a profit.”
Plugging “seemingly-worthless resources” like food waste and insects into the same equation, she claims that so doing “shifts their value but also shifts the processes and business models surrounding them to be more sustainability-oriented.”
With 10 quintillion insects in the world (that’s 10 plus eighteen zeroes), according to the Smithsonian, which breaks down to 200 million insects for every human, she thinks along with others who have done research into new sources of food, that increasingly insects will help sustain human life as well as provide an undeveloped workforce.
There’s no doubt that she’s now on a mission. “…what’s so exciting about the business opportunities of bugs,” she says, is “the sheer varieties of industries in which they can shift systems and operations have overlapping and lasting potentials. The planet’s temperature is going to rise no matter what. But what we can try to do is reduce the amount that it rises.”
Encouraging insects to transform landfills and organic waste as a means of curbing the earth’s emissions of methane gas is an example of the kind of initiative she supports.
But everyone isn’t convinced. One academic Global Atlanta queried challenged her thesis that insects could become mankind’s partners in combating the earth’s challenges.
Requesting anonymity, he said that he had grown up watching too many movies where bugs got out of control. “They are not the friends of human beings.”
But Ms. Ku is undeterred. “Only a very small percentage are harmful to humans.The way I see it, humans are far more detrimental to this planet than are insects. Insects do a much better job of repairing the environment in response to the damage that we create.”
And she is relieved that she is not alone in her views. “Companies that are forming these days are commonly building their business models around sustainable values. In this sense, they are born-sustainable. In contrast, existing companies that are not already sustainably-oriented can reactively shift their practice in a sustainable direction, especially when encouraged by consumers, regulations or both.”
As a positive example in Atlanta’s backyard, she points to Goodr, a company that uses mobile app technology to connect companies with excess food to organizations that provide food to those in need.