The world’s population is expected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050. In a 2013 report, the FAO suggested our current farming and food production practices are unsustainable. We already use 70% of agricultural land to raise livestock, our oceans are overfished and environments are becoming polluted. Reports of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake are becoming more common (USDA), suggesting that global food insecurity is fast approaching. The USDA defines food insecurity as a state in which “consistent access to adequate food is limited by a lack of money and other resources”.
The solution to food insecurity? Insects.
According to the FAO, edible insects are a viable, untapped resource that could help meet the food and water demands of the world’s expanding population. It turns out that insects are actually highly nutritious and more environmentally friendly to raise in comparison to our conventional livestock. Insects like crickets require only a small fraction of land, water and food in comparison to cows, pigs or chickens, and they produce much less greenhouse gases and ammonia.
Many cultures already eat insects, a process known as entomophagy. Fried insects are a popular snack in Thailand, Africa and Australia, and van Huis et al estimate that insects are regularly eaten by almost 2 billion people worldwide. Almost everyone eats insects, on average an individual accidentally ingests one to two pounds of bugs each year. Any foods obtained from plants could contain tiny bits of insect bodies, you’ll never know when there is a graveyard of insect fragments in your fig jam. The FDA’s Defect Levels Handbook shows just how many creepy crawlies you might be eating.
Benefits of eating insects
Insects are abundant on Earth. They can be farmed, they produce many offspring and they have a high reproductive rate. The video below describes exactly why we should be eating insects.
Video source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iM8s1ch5TRw
Less greenhouse gasses (GHG)
Livestock rearing is responsible for 18% of the GHG emissions. Crickets only produce 2g of carbon dioxide per 1kg, while cattle produce a whopping 2850g. Figure 1 illustrates how much water and feed goes into raising a cow and how many more emissions it produces, in comparison to a cricket. Unsurprisingly, insects also emit one hundred times less methane. Livestock waste also contributes to environmental pollution such as ammonia that can lead to nitrification and soil acidification, which leads to poorer quality soil.
Feeding insects is much easier and cheaper compared to raising traditional stock. Bugs are cold-blooded and can easily reproduce their feed into the protein required to feed humans. While it takes a lot of land and resources to feed a cow or a fish, insects require far less. For example, crickets can be raised in compact, multi-storey farms with comparatively little water and are 12 times more efficient than cattle in converting feed to edible meat. Nagakagi and DeFoliart estimated that up to 80% of a cricket is edible compared with 55% for chicken and pigs and 40% for cattle. This means that crickets are twice as efficient in converting feed to meat as chicken, at least four times more efficient than pigs, and 12 times more efficient than cattle (see Figure 2).
Insects can also be reared on our waste products. The black soldier fly and the yellow mealworm are very efficient at bio-converting organic waste and could collectively convert 1.3 billion tonnes of bio-waste per year. This is environmentally friendly and growing insects for food could actually clean up the mess we made by growing other food. However, the possibility of raising insects on organic waste for human consumption is still being explored, given the unknown risks of pathogens and contaminants (Livestock Research Wageningen).
Agriculture consumes so much of Earth’s water, almost 70% of water goes towards feeding the cattle, and the production of animal protein needs 100 more times more water than protein from grain. Pimentel et al assert that 1kg of chicken requires 3500 litres of water and 1kg of beef requires 22,000-43,000 litres of water, while insects require much less. At the moment, estimates of the volume of water required to raise an equivalent weight of insects are unavailable but could be considerably lower.
However, despite their value and efficiency, eating insects is still hard to sell. Westerners are naturally disgusted by the thought of consuming insects. This is due to the ‘yuck factor’, a feeling of disgust or revulsion generated by an aspect of an idea or action. In this case, it is the stigma and aversion that many people in the West feel towards the idea of eating insects. Daniella Martin, a US advocate for insects consumption calls this “the biggest obstacle” to Western acceptance of insects as food.
Feeding a growing population with more demanding consumers will require an increase in food production. If agricultural production remains in its present form, environmental degradation is set to continue. Insects are a much more sustainable food source, they are nutritious and much better for the environment than the livestock we currently use. Not only would it help food security, by expanding the resources but up to 30% of Earth’s land could be reclaimed from the livestock industry and used elsewhere. Resources could go into saving lives or saving money which could pay for health or education.
Even though there is still room to grow in processing techniques, insect farming is the way forward if we wish to continue eating meat while simultaneously conserving the quality of soil, water and air. This way, we might come close to succeeding in overcoming ‘the challenge’ to producing 40% less food, using less energy, fertiliser and pesticide by 2030, while decreasing the global levels of GHG emissions. Insects might not be yucky, but they could be the key to global food security and the solution to a more sustainable future.