In 2013, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization issued a report urging people to begin incorporating insects into their daily meals, not only because they have an exceptional nutritional value, but also because the little critters may be one of the keys to solving the impending global food crisis.
It's now nearing the end of 2017, and though restaurants offering crickets, silkworms or beetles have yet to adorn metropolitan streets, the food crisis is looming ever closer (and according to Sara Menker, founder of Gro Intelligence, it's actually due in 2027, not in 2050). It's time that we bring up the controversial topic of entomophagy (the consumption of insects) and how exactly it has the potential to make a dent on the incoming global food shortage.
Since we're talking about food, let's talk about calories and nutrients. In reality, some insects that are largely seen as crop pests could have more nutritional value than the crops themselves (as noted by Szent-Ivany in 1958). The same can go for most livestock. They're not completely disgusting either - according to the UN, around 2 billion people already regularly include insects in their diets. Still unconvinced? Here are some quick facts (TIME Magazine):
- Per 3.5 ounces, mealworms have 95 more calories than chicken.
- By weight, bee larvae have 850% more iron than beef.
- Weevil bugs have 2x more fat than pork.
- 3.5 ounces of mopane caterpillars offer 10,000% more calcium than pork.
If mopane caterpillars and bee larvae seem too risqué, researchers from the School of Marine Sciences at Ningbo University in China have also analyzed the nutritional value of the four most commonly consumed insects worldwide (namely crickets, grasshoppers, buffalo worms, and mealworms). The results were promising: crickets had levels of iron that could surpass beef, and the minerals in crickets, grasshoppers and mealworms were shown to be more available for absorption than those in beef as well.
Hence, we see that insects can hold their nutritional ground when it comes to traditional meats. But is edible insect farming truly as sustainable as most claim?
Insect Farming vs. Traditional Livestock
Insect farming, whether for agricultural purposes or for human consumption, has proven to be much less resource-intensive than raising cattle, poultry or swine. Therefore, it may be able to solve some of the fundamental issues with traditional agriculture:
Agriculture takes up 50% of our habitable land - which is only about 70% of all the land on Earth. Addressing the obvious, insects are much smaller than cattle, poultry or swine and most are able to be bred vertically as well. If the edible insect industry grows and replaces a portion of traditional protein sources for good, it can allow for less space to be taken up by protein sources, and more space for our rapidly growing population.
Water and Feed
Currently, it takes two Olympic sized swimming pools worth of water to raise one cow, and we are able to retain only 3% of the protein fed to them. Even though so much clean water is invested to produce feed and raise livestock, there is not much nutritional yield. This can be solved with the energy efficiency of insects. For example, crickets require 12 times less feed than cattle and half the feed required by poultry and swine to produce the same amount of protein.
Presently, the insect farming industry would have to compete for the same feed types as traditional livestock such as grain to maintain their efficiency, but more research can be made to discover alternate feed types that can allow insect farming to sit in an even more sustainable niche.
Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Livestock are responsible for 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the world. This is a statistic people rarely address, and it can be greatly diminished by integrating insects into our daily regimes. Compared to livestock, specifically cattle, insects release very little greenhouse gas emissions, and no methane at all. This is a major factor contributing to the sustainability of insect farming, whether for feed or for human consumption.
The Disgust Factor
The Big Question: now that we know how much insect farming and entomophagy can contribute to our society, how do we get people to accept it? Though it's already a common practice in many countries, there is still a general sense of disgust associated with entomophagy because we tend to relate it to primitive practices and last-ditch survival methods. However, times change fast, and here are some ways we can boost that change:
Presentation is everything when it comes to selling something uncommon. Think of sushi: how it won over people's hearts despite its intimidatingly raw texture by presenting the fish as if they were shining jewels on a bed of pristine sushi rice. If it were simply laid out in front of diners as a sheet of raw fish, no doubt it would have taken much longer for the western palate to adjust.
The same goes for insects: Ento Box (pictured above), a startup run by four graduates from the Royal College of Art, has been working with chefs from Le Cordon Bleu to create a more visually and gustatorily appealing product. The elegant bento-style packaging and the clean design makes one immediately intrigued and eager to get a taste. Companies like these are paving the way for a future where eating insects becomes commonplace.
How many flash trends have there been in food in the past five years? Avocado toast, chia pudding, açai bowls, raw sea urchin (uni), poké... the list goes on. These obscure foods would have never been able to skyrocket to western mainstream popularity if it weren't for their extensive promotion across social media health circles. By touting insects as superfoods (which they are), we can generate more excitement for a food that was never even considered to become a part of our daily regimes before.
Many companies are already doing this. For example, Chapul is pushing cricket protein powder and protein bars into the market, boasting the superior digestibility of cricket protein. Seek Food sells cricket-based snack bites and granola, celebrating the insects' "nutty flavor" and their abundance in minerals. Many of these companies have already been able to sell their products in high-visibility specialized food stores like MOM's Organic Market. The future of insect eating is closer than we think!
Making the Unfamiliar Familiar
It's important to create a gateway for consumers to gently guide them into entomophagy. To do this, we can combine insects with their favourite foods in a subtle manner, and convince them that it's far from being as terrible as they thought they would be. Bugsolutely is playing this game well with their cricket meal-based pasta, using 80% wheat and 20% cricket meal. They make sure to remind consumers that their taste is similar to that of whole wheat pasta and strongly emphasize its sustainability and nutritional value.
Entomophagy isn't just a possible solution for the food crisis, it's a path we must take in order to solve our protein problem. Luckily for us, it can be both sustainable anddelectable. With solutions to appeal to the mass market by hyping its nutritional value, improving presentation and implementing it into our favourite foods, we're not far off from that kind of future.
I don't know about you guys, but I'll be keeping my eyes peeled for a cricket aisle in my local Whole Foods. Why not? It's good for you too!