Insects: the future of Christmas dinners?

There’s a buzz about eating insects. Is it really a viable option? GFS Strategy and Policy Officer Emma Rivers reports.

Emma Rivers

Insects are hailed as a cheap, sustainable source of protein and other micronutrients which have minimal greenhouse gas emissions and can be fed on waste.

They are much better at converting their food into protein and body mass – feed conversion (PDF) – than poultry and other livestock, meaning that they could be a much more efficient source of protein for animal and human consumption.

Compare that to the production of meat that is responsible for 18% of the 36 billion tons of ‘CO2-equivalent’ greenhouse gases (GHGs) the world produces every year. Livestock use 30% of the earth’s entire land surface and it takes 33% of all the arable land to produce enough feed for them. Hence the increasing interest in insects to meet growing demands for protein in the diet.

Bowled over yet? Swap the soup for Silkworm larvae.

But would this motivate you to replace a ‘corn-fed’ with ‘meal worm-fed’ turkey this Christmas? Or go straight for the creepy crawly dinner?

Buzzfeed

Currently, over two billion people (PDF) worldwide have insects as part of their diet and have been for centuries. Thailand already produces 7500 tons of edible insects per year – that’s over two trillion insects!

Insects may have many beneficial uses in by-products (honey, silk) and ecosystem services (pollination), but there are still a lot of unanswered, somewhat fundamental, questions about food safety, mass-production and regulation for consumption.

Insects have superior feed conversion efficiencies to other animals.

For instance, current EU regulation (PDF) does not include insects on the official list of 14 allergens so producers are not required to label them on packaging. There are risks of humans becoming allergic to insects as we do to shellfish, but there is no collated evidence of human or animal trials to prove this either way.

The EU is calling on experts to evolve current regulation to control insect products for animal feed and human food, but is there enough evidence yet to support this? There are no definitive answers on how animal and human gut microbiomes will react to a radical change in diet.

For example, humans who haven’t eaten insects for generations; chickens that have been bred to feed on corn/soy bean meal; and ruminants such as cows that have always fed on grass or a grain-based mix. How will they cope with a diet change and what is the likelihood that they will become allergic?

Culturing the evidence

I would like to know to what extent insect production is more sustainable than traditional livestock systems. True, they don’t use a lot of land and don’t emit a lot of GHGs themselves but most of the 1,900 edible insects are tropical and would need houses to be heated to around 30°C. I can see self-sustaining systems on farms, such as farmers using chicken waste to heat insect houses for animal feed, but this would take a significant investment from the farmer which would be a big barrier to uptake.

Small fry: cultivating insects on an industrial scale for use as animal feed may present challenges.

It is claimed that insects can be fed waste products, but what types? But, other than just pre-consumer and household fruit and veg waste, rearing insects on waste comes with associated risks: is it safe or fair to feed chickens insects reared on chicken poo? Is it safe to feed other manure-based waste products to insects reared for human or animal consumption, even if they only selectively eat the nutritious parts? And to what extent does diet affect the nutritional value of the harvested adult insect?

For the insect industry to be sustainable, best practice production methods would have to be created and shared to ensure best resource use and good yield. However, there are currently no standardised farming methods, and the economic viability of insect farming has not yet been proven in terms of optimum habitat, diet and harvest. There are also processing methods for extraction and added value insect products that need to be determined. (See also the GFS post ‘ The protein problem.)

The ‘yuck’ factor

I’m all for the integration of insects into animal feed – that’s what poultry ate before being industrially farmed and there’s a strong interest in using more natural ingredients in our food.

But one of the biggest challenges to insect consumption, more than that of new regulation and economic farming methods, is public perception. Would you eat roast termites, bug-ful sprouts and cricket cake at Christmas?

Grub’s up! Eating insects isn’t a big deal in some countries.

One way to get over this would be to extract the proteins and micronutrients for use as additives in energy bars and other protein products akin to our current use of whey.

This would mean that food products would taste the same as we’re used to and remove the need to see the insect in the food, because even if the environmental, socio-economic and agricultural advantages were proved to be an overwhelming no-brainer – they’re still creepy-crawlies to me!

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About Emma Rivers

Emma Rivers is Strategy and Policy Officer for the Global Food Security programme. She studied Chemistry at University of Reading before working with green charities, including WinACC, Frontier and green energy company GoodEnergy, and travelling in South East Asia and Australia. Through this, and her work with Australian food and green tech businesses, her passion for sustainable living and the overwhelming need for everyone to have access to a healthy diet lead her to join the Global Food Security programme in November 2014.

6 thoughts on “Insects: the future of Christmas dinners?

  1. What a fascinating insight into a potential food source.

    I am certainly prone to the yuck factor – but not so upset by it that i would stand in the way of such a necessary change.

    It’s certainly food for thought.

  2. Such a great and comprehensive insight! Thank you so much!
    I have one more consideration about including insects into human diet and perhaps this is something for us to think about as well. It is the issue of justice. What lead me to this thought is actually the movie “Snowpiercer” where the poor people were fed protein bars made from insects and the rich people were eating sushi and chicken. And I started to think that this might not be so far from the reality as with the growing regulations of meat production due to our realization of its real costs, meat will be more and more expensive, so then all those who can’t afford it would be eating insects? Even though it is yacky and has risks we might not be aware of? So how fair is that? Would be interesting to hear your thoughts.

  3. Thanks for your comments and I’m glad you enjoyed the blog. My first thought is that insect protein will most likely be used in animal feed and as a more nutritious protein source in processed foods (for humans!). The biggest challenge is getting consumers to eat less meat full stop as part of a balanced diet,so maybe insect protein could replace a meat based meal once a week for example.

  4. Emma, Thanks for posting this article! Good to get more people interested. I am struck by the point about insects being just for the poor while the wealthy continue to dine on steaks. I have tasted some genuinely delicious insect-based dishes (of Thai origin) and believe there is scope for insects to cut across social groups. Also as they are more nutritious, in many ways, than steak, there is not necessarily a problem. The Snowpiercer film worked because of the association we have of cockroaches and poverty – that association is, at least in part a social construct which means it can be challenged and changed by different consumption patterns.
    Finally, most foods used to be basic subsistence food in some cultures/periods that become desirable, gourmet dishes.

  5. I’ve had my eye on the topic of edible insects for over a year now, and I consider myself a supporter of the idea. Truth be told, I’ve mostly come across articles discussing the benefits of it (and there are thousands – sustainability, lack of transportation waste and resources, protein, etc), while yours is the first one I read so far that really makes me think about all the factors that would need to be considered.

    You are right. Yes, the people in Thailand eat insects – so have they been doing for decades. We haven’t, and given that there are so many people here in the west displaying peanut and lactose related allergies, who’s to say the same wouldn’t happen with insects?

    Another point you made, which made an impression on me – “Is it safe or fair to feed chickens insects reared on chicken poo?”. This sentence alone sounds a bit like a playful anecdote, but it sure makes a lot of sense to ask this question.

    However, I do know that it is a practice in certain corporations, like the Entera Feed Corporation, to use black soldier fly larvae to maintain a sustainable production process. They do this by feeding the fly larvae food waste like vegetables, fruits, and grain. Basically, stuff that would otherwise end up in a landfill. After separating the insects from their excrement, they make for a wonderful protein-rich meal.

    In the end, it would definitely be a struggle but the possibilities are so great and the risk factor so low, that it’s worth a shot. That would, of course, involve all government officials and leaders to join the project and invest in it.

  6. Hi @EzraStacks,
    Thanks so much for your comment, it’s great to hear that you are interested in the field, and have thought so much about it. I am a supporter too and agree with you in that there are so many perceived benefits to feeding insects to animals and humans (environmental sustainability, decreased land use, reduced waste, secure supply etc) but I still want to know some answers to the many questions insects as a food source raise. With so many feed trials, pop-up restaurants and small-scale industrial farms popping up around the EU, the biggest question now is can the new EU regulations possibly collect enough evidence to regulate before full-scale manufacturing is already happening?

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