Mealworm farming project wins Climate Quest competition

February 26, 2015

MIGHTi (Mission to Improve Global Health Through Insects) is the winner of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Climate Quest competition, sponsored by American Family Insurance.

The MIGHTi team, composed of UW-Madison graduate students Rachel Bergmans and Valerie Stull, will receive support to research and pilot mealworm microlivestock farming as an inexpensive and environmentally sustainable food production system.

They are working with women's cooperatives in Zambia to test their prototype mealworm farms in rural areas subject to food insecurity and climate impacts. They also plan to develop risk assessment analyses needed to explore the use of insect protein in developed countries.

A public announcement of the winner was made Feb. 26 at the Sustainability Forum hosted by the UW-Madison Office of Sustainability.

"Climate Quest helped all of us see the tremendous benefit of focusing on positive, practical solutions as we confront complex challenges," says Climate Quest project leader Darin Harris. "A special congratulations to the MIGHTi team for their winning idea - it truly demonstrates the power of the Wisconsin Idea to reach beyond campus and engage partners across the world to develop climate change solutions."

University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate students Rachel Bergmans, left, and Valerie Stull are pictured with a container of mealworms on Feb. 6, 2015
Rachel Bergmans, left, and Valerie Stull, pictured with
a container of mealworms,
 have created a startup business
focused on producing edible mealworm protein powder to
improve food security in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa most
affected by drought and climate change. Photo: Jeff Miller 

The competition was led by the Office of Sustainability in partnership with the Global Health Institute, Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, and Wisconsin Energy Institute.

MIGHTi was selected from five finalist teams that presented at the Climate Quest Finale Jan. 30. A panel of five reviewers evaluated each team's proposal and presentation on factors including clarity, feasibility, scalability, time to implement, expected impact, and ability to obtain needed resources.

"The MIGHTi team delivered an impressive combination of creativity and practicality. These two young women have done an amazing job of designing a solution that has both immediate use in developing communities abroad and intriguing potential right here at home," says Craig Benson, the director of sustainability research and education at UW-Madison and one of the panel members.

Stull is a third-year graduate student in the Nelson Institute. Bergmans is a second-year graduate student in population health sciences in the School of Medicine and Public Health. They discovered common interests shortly after Bergmans arrived on campus in 2013 and the idea for MIGHTi was born. Last year, they won prizes through the Agricultural Innovation Prize and Wisconsin Energy and Sustainability Challenge and have used each competition to further develop the project.

Balancing MIGHTi with their graduate studies has been a challenge, Stull says, but school has always been their priority. "This is a bit off the usual path to graduation, but we didn't want our research to get derailed," she says. "Up until now, MIGHTi has just been layered on top of everything else we're doing. One of the most exciting parts of winning is it allows us to focus on this more and not be spread so thin."

Stull is now using the research elements of the project as the basis of her dissertation work. Bergmans expects to build on the project as well but is still determining the direction of her studies.

Entering the Climate Quest competition pushed them to deepen their goals and develop several additional angles, they say, including climate change adaptation, social and health impacts, environmental benefits, and a business model.

"Even if we hadn't won, going through the stages of Climate Quest inspired us to bring all these pieces together. It really solidified into a more comprehensive product by the final round and helped us make tangible progress on the project, moving it forward and making it more feasible," Bergmans says. 

MIGHTi is planning to launch its pilot in fall 2015 in three or four communities in Zambia where they have already established connections. 

"It allows us to make real collaborations with our partners on the ground," says Stull. "Anyone can talk, but now we can move from conversation into action."

The Climate Quest competition arose in response to interest, especially from students, in how UW-Madison could make a positive statement on the complex issue of climate change, says Benson. "Rather than advocate through protests or divestment, we chose to draw on our greatest strengths - the energy, creativity, and talents of our faculty, staff and students," he says. "Students' passion and drive surrounding these issues really has a powerful influence on the campus."

Harris says Climate Quest's full effects will only become visible over time. "Although we have one winner, Climate Quest seeded many, many ideas, and several teams are still active, moving their ideas into implementation and generating funding. The unanticipated multiplier effect of teams continuing to do their work is extremely exciting," he says.