Can Eating Insects Save the World?
Can Eating Insects Save the World?
The practice of eating insects, known as entomophagy, may sound extreme, but it’s actually quite common throughout the world – and has been that way for millennia.
There are more than 1,900 documented edible insect species and some are even “farmed” the way cattle or chickens are in the US.
With growing concerns over the unsustainable practices that constitute modern “farming,” and the very real prospects that food shortages and environmental destruction could be an inevitable part of the future if more environmentally friendly farming alternatives aren’t soon embraced, eating insects may prove to be a very wise, and necessary, decision.
In fact, a new report by the Food and Agriculture Organizations of the United Nations (FAO) highlights the many prospects insects offer for the future of food and feed security.1
Eating Insects Is Already Common in Many Parts of the World
Although still considered largely taboo in the Western world, many cultures prize insects as a culinary delicacy. The FAO report notes:
“From ants to beetle larvae – eaten by tribes in Africa and Australia as part of their subsistence diets – to the popular, crispy-fried locusts and beetles enjoyed in Thailand, it is estimated that insect-eating is practiced regularly by at least 2 billion people worldwide.”
The most commonly eaten insect groups include:
Leaf and planthoppers
There are several quite compelling reasons that make a strong case for considering insects as part of a sustainable diet that could end world hunger. For starters, insects are extremely plentiful and are found in nearly all environments.
There are an estimated 6-10 million species of insects, which are thought to represent over 90 percent of the differing animal life forms on Earth, according to FAO. Environmentally, raising insects for food would emit considerably fewer greenhouse gasses than confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) raising livestock. Further:
Insect rearing does not require clearing land to expand production
Insects are very efficient at converting feed into protein (crickets, for instance, need 12 times less feed than cattle and half the feed as pigs and chickens to produce the same amount of protein)
Insect rearing can be low-tech and inexpensive, making it a plausible livelihood in even the poorest sections of the world
Insects have a low risk of transferring diseases to humans, unlike CAFO beef, pork and poultry
Further, perhaps one of the best reasons to consider eating insects is because they’re quite healthy, making them a nutritious alternative to common protein sources like chicken, beef, pork and fish. Insects are:
Rich in protein and fiber
Good sources of healthy fats (some species even have similar levels of omega-3 fats as fish)
High in nutrients such as calcium, iron, B vitamins, selenium and zinc
Think of Insects as ‘Shrimp of the Land’
Dutch entomologist Marcel Dicke has stated that the reason many people are reluctant to eat insects is simply a matter of mindset. His solution? To think of insects as “shrimp of the land.” 2
In the TED video above, Dicke explains that insects are not only eco-friendly and nutritious, but they compete with meat in flavor, too. If you can get past the initial aversion, eating insects may not be entirely different from eating shrimp or other more unique food sources, such as crabs, oysters and mussels. As written in the FAO report:3
“Common prejudice against eating insects is not justified from a nutritional point of view. Insects are not inferior to other protein sources such as fish, chicken and beef. Feelings of disgust in the West towards entomophagy contributes to the common misconception that entomophagy in the developing world is prompted by starvation and is merely a survival mechanism. This is far from the truth. Although it will require considerable convincing to reverse this mentality, it is not an impossible feat.
Arthropods like lobsters and shrimps, once considered poor-man’s food in the West, are now expensive delicacies there. It is hoped that arguments such as the high nutritional value of insects and their low environmental impact, low-risk nature (from a disease standpoint) and palatability may also contribute to a shift in perception.”
Interestingly, at the Nordic Food Lab, a non-profit organization, they’re focusing on the deliciousness factor of wild foods including edible insects. If people begin to accept insects as a delicious dietary addition, they will naturally begin to view them as edible. And this, they believe, is a key factor to getting insects into mainstream Western diets. FAO notes:4
“By exploring the vast range of flavors, the Nordic Food Lab aims to turn ‘inedibles’ into edible ingredients. Seaweed is one such food source: just a few years ago it was considered in the West as either exotic or niche, but now, in certain places, it is celebrated as a new, versatile ingredient – since it was shown to be delicious. The head of the culinary research and development group says that deliciousness is the first and most important factor in developing new gastronomic building blocks.
Mayonnaise from bee larvae works not because of its novelty but rather because of its earthier and more satisfying taste – its unique deliciousness.”
You’re Probably Already Eating Insects…
Chances are more likely than not that you’ve already sampled your first (and then some) insect, albeit probably unintentionally. Insects are a part of nature, and the inevitably end up on a leaf of lettuce or in your box of cereal. This happens not only in the field but also later, as foods sit in storage facilities prior to processing. It’s for this reason that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows certain amounts of bugs in your food. For instance:
Canned tomato juice: two whole maggots per 100 grams
Raisins: FDA won’t take action unless 10 or more whole or equivalent Drosophila flies and 35 of its eggs are found per 8 ounces of raisins
Macaroni: Anything less than 225 insect fragments per 225 grams in six sub-samples is allowed
It’s certainly unsavory to think about insect parts in your food, but the truth is it probably isn’t going to hurt you. In fact, depending on the species, it may actually add some nutrition…
The Future of the World’s Food Supply Depends on Sustainability
Feeding the world in the decades to come is going to depend on broadening our horizons not only of what we think of as food but also of what we accept as “farming.” Insects may very well play a role in this food future. As the FAO report’s foreword reads:
“It is widely accepted that by 2050 the world will host 9 billion people. To accommodate this number, current food production will need to almost double. Land is scarce and expanding the area devoted to farming is rarely a viable or sustainable option. Oceans are overfished and climate change and related water shortages could have profound implications for food production. To meet the food and nutrition challenges of today – there are nearly 1 billion chronically hungry people worldwide – and tomorrow, what we eat and how we produce it needs to be re-evaluated. Inefficiencies need to be rectified and food waste reduced. We need to find new ways of growing food.
Edible insects have always been a part of human diets, but in some societies there is a degree of distaste for their consumption. Although the majority of edible insects are gathered from forest habitats, innovation in mass-rearing systems has begun in many countries. Insects offer a significant opportunity to merge traditional knowledge and modern science in both developed and developing countries.”
The success of using insects as a food source will depend directly on the sustainability with which this new food source is raised. Raising insects on a mass scale may beget many of the same problems already saddling the food system, such as the threat of genetic engineering, unforeseen pollution, disruptions to local ecosystems and risks to native insect, animal and plant species.
Insects must be raised in a sustainable way if they are to become a successful part of the worldwide diet, and this is true of any food source. If agricultural practices such as permaculture, which work with nature instead of against it, are more widely embraced, the food sources you currently enjoy can be sustained and flourish.
For instance, if cattle are rotated across pastures instead of raised in CAFOs, the animals' grazing will cut the blades of grass, spurring new growth, while their trampling helps work manure into the soil, fertilizing it naturally. This healthy soil then helps keep carbon dioxide underground and out of the atmosphere. See, it’s not the raising of cattle… or poultry or fish… that’s the problem; it’s the way in which they’re being raised that is unsustainable and currently trashing the planet and threatening the food supply.
Environmental devastation can even be healed and functional ecosystems rebuilt using the permaculture concept. So while considering insects as a sustainable food source is intriguing, it should not replace the ultimate goal, which is sustainable farming for every species.
- Food and Agriculture Organizations of the United Nations, Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security 2013
- CNN.com May 16, 2013