- Isabelle Gerretsen
- BBC Future
It may take a little time to get used to the idea of biting into a burger made from crushed crickets or mixing mealworms with fried rice.
However, even if the thought of eating insects turns the stomach, some researchers say that insects should be an important part of our diet.
Although there is rejection in many western countries, human beings have been eating them for a long time thousands of years and in many parts of the world the practice is common.
About 2,000 species of insects are consumed in nations in Asia, South America, and Africa.
In Thailand, for example, heaping trays of crispy fried grasshoppers are sold in markets.
And in Japan, wasp larvae, eaten alive, are a delicacy.
Yet in Europe, only 10% of people say they are willing to replace meat with insects, according to a survey by the Brussels-based European Consumer Organization.
For some, this unwillingness is quite a missed opportunity.
A double solution
“Insects are a really important missing piece of the food system,” says Virginia Emery, CEO of Beta Hatch, a US startup that makes cattle feed from mealworms.
The directive maintains that “they are definitely a superfood.”
“A lot of nutrients in a really small package,” he says.
Because of this, cultivated insects could help tackle two of the world’s biggest problems at once: food insecurity and the climate crisis.
Agriculture is the main driver of global biodiversity loss and a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.
Only cattle raising accounts for 14.5% of those global emissions, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
“We are in the midst of a mass extinction of biodiversity, in a climate crisis and at the same time, somehow we need to feed a growing population,” describes entomologist Sarah Beynon, who develops food at the Bug Farm complex in Pembrokeshire, Welsh.
That is why he maintains that “a change must be made, a great change.”
Insect farming uses only a fraction of the land, energy and water required for traditional agriculture and has a significantly lower carbon footprint.
Crickets produce up to a 80% less methane than cows and 8 to 12 times less ammonia than pigs, according to a study by researchers at Wageningen University in the Netherlands.
Methane is a very powerful greenhouse gas that, although it has a relatively short life in the atmosphere, has a global warming impact 84 times greater than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.
Ammonia is a pungent gas and air pollutant that causes soil acidification, groundwater pollution, and damage to ecosystems.
Insect farming around the world would free up large tracts of land that are currently used for animal husbandry and for the production of food for livestock.
Replacing half of the meat consumed worldwide with mealworms and crickets has the potential to reduce the use of these areas dedicated to agriculture by a third, freeing 1.68 billion hectares. Which is equivalent to around 70 times the size of the UK.
This can significantly reduce global gas emissions, according to a study by the University of Edinburgh.
“Insect farming uses around one eighth of the earth compared to beef, “explains lead researcher Peter Alexander, who is responsible for the food safety area of that study center.
Despite these findings, Alexander adds that eating a bean burger is the most sustainable option, as it uses less energy to grow compared to insects.
However, Tilly Collins, a senior researcher at the Center for Environmental Policy at the Imperial School in London, argues that insects can meet some needs that plant-based foods cannot.
“Plant-based diets often carry a significant carbon footprint. Many plants that people want to eat have disastrous environmental consequences,” he says.
And he adds that “it is preferable to grow insects efficiently.”
For Collins, insects can provide an especially important source of nutrition in developing countries.
“We have a very good diet in the UK. We rarely lack good nutrition, but in Africa that’s not the case, “he says.
And he points out that in many countries on that continent the production of insects to feed both humans and animals is rapidly increasing.
In many ways, this crop is an example of efficiency turned into an art.
First is the rate at which insects grow, reaching maturity in days, rather than the months or years it takes for livestock, and can produce thousands of young.
Then there is the fact that they are 12 to 25 times more efficient at converting the food they eat into protein than farm animals, says entomologist Beynon.
Crickets need six times less feed than cattle, four times less than sheep and two times less than pigs, according to the FAO.
One of the main reasons behind this efficiency is that insects are cold-blooded and therefore waste less energy maintaining body heat, Alexander explains, although he adds that some species must be raised in a warm environment.
And also, indicates the researcher, they produce much less waste.
“With animals a lot of meat is wasted. With insects we would eat everything,” he says.
In addition, insects can also live on food and biomass that would otherwise be thrown away, thus contributing to a circular economy where resources are recycled and reuse, says Collins.
Explain that they can feed on agricultural waste, such as plant stems that people do not eat, or food residues.
To complete the recycling chain, their excrement can be used as fertilizer for crops.
Despite the strong sustainability credentials and nutritional value associated with eating insects, there is a long way to go before they make a major appearance in Western diets.
“We associate insects with everything except food,” says researcher Giovanni Sagari.
The expert points out that they are usually more associated with dirt, danger, something disgusting or something that makes us feel unwell.
But attitudes are beginning to change.
By 2027 the market for edible insects is projected to reach US$4.630 millones and European companies make investments in the area after approval issued by the European Food Safety Authority.
“People’s perceptions of food change, but slowly,” says Alexander.
He points to the example of the lobster, which for many years was considered a very undesirable food and was often served in prisons, before it became a luxury meal.
“It was so abundant that there was a law that prohibited feeding lobster to prisoners more than twice a week,” he says.
Sagari, for his part, indicates that the best commercial proposal is to grind insects into powder and include them in processed foods, rather than serving them whole as a snack.
Chef Andy Holcroft, who runs the UK’s first edible insect restaurant at Bug Farm, agrees with this view.
“Rather than sprinkle whole insects on a salad, I thought the best way to get it accepted in mainstream food culture was to incorporate them as a percentage of the whole product,” he says.
And he concludes by noting that “it may be a healthier, more nutritious and more sustainable food, but unless it tastes good and people are willing to accept it, it will be much more difficult to spread the word.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.