Edible Insects; the Future of Sustainable Diets?


Eating insects is by no means a new or unusual concept in the global context. For millennia, human diets have comprised of insects in many parts of the world. These include most regions in Africa, Asia, and South America, where insects are viewed as a delicacies, often sold at higher prices than conventional livestock products due to their high demand. In fact, it has been reported that more than 1900 species of insects have been used as a source of human food (Oonincx et al, 2012). Among them, common species include crickets, beetles, caterpillars, and grasshoppers. Not only do these so-called “mini-livestock” offer a tasty source of food, but can offer high quality nutrition at a fraction of the environmental costs associated with traditional livestock products, such as chicken, dairy, beef, and pork. The livestock sector is responsible for 20-25% of all anthropogenic GHG emissions, and occupies 80% of all agricultural land (van Huis et al., 2017). However, the high consumer demand for meat (mainly due to rising populations and incomes) makes it difficult to lower the environmental impacts associated with meat production. With environmental degradation high on the global agenda, a shift towards meeting consumer demand for protein from traditional meat to insect meat could offer an effective solution.

Insect Market in Thailand

The evidence is clear; recent reports by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations indicate that for almost all relevant environmental parameters (Emissions and land, water, and energy use), insects are favoured over conventional livestock products. Take mealworms as an example, an insect that has been a dominant dietary source in many cultures for a long time. In terms of land, they occupy a negligible amount of space compared to chickens, as they prefer dark and confined spaces to grow. And since they have a significantly higher food conversion ratio (the efficiency of converting feed into edible biomass) than any other livestock meat, land use for the cultivation of feed is also much lower. This doesn’t even take into consideration the land and energy use that could be mitigated if they were to be reared on bio waste, which mealworms are well adapted to. They are capable of turning low grade organic material into high grade nutritional products, which would drastically save on resource use and valorize organic waste, which could incentivize consumers to waste less food. Water use and emissions (mainly GHGs and ammonia) are also significantly lower than conventional meat products. Recent attention towards edible insects has lead to an abundance of research into the environmental viability of insects, which all point in the same direction; insects are an effective (and cheap) solution to the environmental impact of the agricultural sector. The only problem is convincing consumers.

So where are insects in our Western diets? The answer has to do with consumer acceptability, which is a conglomerate of culture, behaviour, social norms and personal associations with insects. The idea of worms on your plate seems like a distant, unpleasant concept to most. However, the environmental benefits that could be gained from a transition of meat supply could dampen many of today’s environmental issues. Land degradation, water security, energy use, and GHG emissions are all big players in the agricultural sector, where food security is becoming a growing global concern. Small steps are being made, with restaurants and stores that sell insect-based food slowly popping up in cities. However, the ‘disgust factor’ of snacking on a handful of fried beetles seems to be a big obstacle to many.

Perhaps the slow transition towards insect consumption in Europe and North America can be explained by food trends in the past. For example, tomatoes in Britain were initially viewed skeptically and dismissed for many decades, similar to lobsters in the US, which were viewed as food for the poor, even used as fertilizer for crops (Arneth et al., 2017). The more recent trend of sushi (particularly the raw fish) was also viewed with suspicion for about 20 years in the West before it established widespread consumer acceptance. Once their tastiness is discovered and people can look beyond the creepy crawly nature of insects, a similar trend for insects might pursue in the near future.

References

A. van Huis and D. G. A. B. Oonincx, “The environmental sustainability of insects as food and feed. A review,” Agron. Sustain. Dev., vol. 37, no. 5, p. 43, Oct. 2017.

A. Arneth et al., “Could consumption of insects, cultured meat or imitation meat reduce global agricultural land use?,” Glob. Food Sec., vol. 15, no. March, pp. 22–32, 2017.

Fao, “Edible Insects – Future prospects for food and feed security.”

M. de Vries and I. J. M. de Boer, “Comparing environmental impacts for livestock products: A review of life cycle assessments,” Livest. Sci., vol. 128, no. 1–3, pp. 1–11, Mar. 2010.

D. G. A. B. Oonincx and I. J. M. De Boer, “Environmental Impact of the Production of Mealworms as a Protein Source for Humans-A Life Cycle Assessment,” PLoS One, vol. 7, no. 12, p. 51145, 2012

7 thoughts on “Edible Insects; the Future of Sustainable Diets?

  1. Hi! I enjoyed your post very much. You mentioned the large-scale farming of insects. Is this more a hypothetical scenario or is it already being done? I was also wondering if insects are necessary to reduce our meat consumption. Are there not better (and more accepted) options to get all your nutrients within a vegetarian diet? Or does eating insects provide extra benefits I am overlooking?

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  2. Thanks for your comment 0LOUIE0. Large-scale insect farming is indeed already being done in a few European countries, but is currently limited to the production of insects for livestock meal and pet food due to EU legislation on insect consumption by humans. The literature indicates that once the risks and benefits of insect production and consumption are better understood, this will change. Regarding your comment about reducing meat consumption, the answer is a bit complicated (also keep in mind insects are animals and so they’re not a vegetarian option). Insects are not necessary to reduce meat consumption since this would obviously be more effective if everyone converted to vegetarianism/veganism. However, the demand for animal protein is rising in the world, and rather than (indirectly) forcing or advising people to switch diets, or waiting for them to do it voluntarily, insects could cater to these demands at much lower environmental costs. In fact, on a 100% organic waste-fed diet, insects could be more effective in producing food than crop cultivation in terms of many of the environmental parameters mentioned in my post. Also, Eating only plant-based nutrients can evidently supply a person with sufficient nutrients, but comes at the expense of having to eat more volume to acquire those nutrients compared to a diet containing meat (due to the much higher protein density of animal products)

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  3. Very interesting blog post! I have a couple of thoughts after reading your blog post and the comments above. First, concerning the debate between converting to an insect-based diet or vegetarian/vegan diet. Given that the latter contains only products that are already socially accepted, it made me wonder whether the efforts to bring about a shift in values and dietary choices towards insects (which seems difficult) is desirable and whether efforts are not better focused on facilitating the shift to non-meat diets? On the other hand, if we assume that people will not easily shift to a meat-less diet, and given that the consumption of insects is not yet socially accepted, wouldn’t it be interesting to see if insects can be used as a source of feed for livestock? After all, insects need less water and land than crops, so using it as an indirect food source could perhaps be another kind of solution.
    Lastly, in the case one wants to stick to insects as an alternative food source for humans, it would perhaps be best to start building social acceptance by producing products that are made of insects but in which the insects cannot be recognised as the main ingredient. I would, for example, be fine with eating an insect burger!

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  4. Thanks for the comment Julia. I’ll try to rephrase my thoughts on the idea of a shift towards more insect-supplemented diets. Consuming insects is by no means the most efficient and environmentally friendly diet out there. However, it is considered the most environmentally friendly meat option out there, and the evidence for this is uncontested. My post does not argue in favour of insects as a single solution to food security and environmental degradation associated with the agricultural sector, but merely provides an alternative to the consumer as an alleviation of the current issue. Demand for meat is rising, and I see insects as more of a stepping stone towards sustainability. I think it’s more effective to slowly transition to environmentally friendlier options than slamming the brakes on meat consumption, which would be a very unpopular move because people don’t like to be told what to do. Marketing insects as a tasty alternative, on the other hand, would cater to the demand of meat consumers while lowering the environmental impact of the agricultural sector. I do agree that introducing insects to the Western market would perhaps go smoother when packaged in a “consumer-friendly” way. I’m not really concerned about the consumer acceptability part of it, although I do believe it will take a while before insect consumption gains traction in the mainstream public. I trust the business incentives of the food industry to market this attractively once it gains enough attention. Also, concerning the use of insects as livestock feed. this is definitely an interesting way to feed livestock, assuming that the insects were indeed fed on a waste based diet (no or low purpose-grown feed use). But there are two main problems with this in my opinion. First of all, considering that cattle (as an example) are vegetarian, there are moral and health concerns of feeding insects to them. Also, why would we feed insects to livestock if humans can directly consume insects and circumvent the loss of energy (and other resource inputs involved with raising livestock) between the [feed –> insects –> livestock –> humans] food chain.

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  5. Thank you for this delicious blog post, I very much enjoyed reading this. However, I was wondering whether we actually need to see the insects in order to eat them. I for one think it could be a real step towards reducing our GHG emissions if we would just only incorporate them in our processed foods more often and introduce them in this way. Substitute a larger amount of the processed meat in with insects. This way you wont have you’re plates crawling with insects which can put people off. Are you aware of any such developments?

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  6. Thanks for your comment Johanne. I agree that introducing insects to the market in a more indirect way (i.e. processing it into more “accepted” foods) would create a smoother transition. However, I also think that once people accept the idea of eating any part of an insect, it’s only a small step towards eating insects in their entirety.

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