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.
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.
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