Amidst the rising threat of climate change and daunting challenge to feed a growing world population, a transition away from standard meat-based diets towards sustainable alternatives, like insects, has sparked global interest. Though a seemingly unconventional concept, this shift in our food system may be necessary to ensure that human and environmental health can be sustained in upcoming years.
Canned bamboo worms, roasted termites, chocolate-covered crickets, silkworm pupae pasta, and grasshopper kebabs: the list goes on, but these are just some of the foods beginning to show up on people’s plates across the globe. Insect-eating, formally known as entomophagy, has been around for thousands of years. Already consumed by a quarter of the world’s population, insects are well-established in many diets across Asia, Africa, and South America. Providing vital proteins, fats, fiber, vitamins, and minerals, not only are insects high in nutritional value, but are inexpensive, convenient, and, most importantly, very sustainable.
Despite these qualities, though, the practice has generally been condemned throughout Western countries, with many viewing it as “dirty”, “primitive”, and “taboo”. These perceptions, however, are beginning to change. With threats of climate change and food insecurity projected to worsen in upcoming years, incorporating alternative sources of protein into our diets could significantly mitigate the global environmental footprint whilst efficiently feeding the world’s growing population.
With threats of climate change and food insecurity projected to worsen in upcoming years, incorporating alternative sources of protein into our diets could significantly mitigate the global environmental footprint whilst efficiently feeding the world’s growing population.
Currently, livestock agriculture accounts for 14.5% of global human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, with roughly 44% released in the form of methane, 29% as nitrous oxide, and 27% as carbon dioxide. This includes emissions released from feed production and processing, as well as fermentation from ruminants. Cattle, in particular, are responsible for over 65% of the livestock sector’s total emission count, and are the predominant source contributing to rising methane levels.
In addition to its effects on climate, animal agriculture is also one of the leading drivers of deforestation, water pollution, and biodiversity loss. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), livestock occupy roughly 26% of the Earth’s total terrestrial surface, while crops grown simply to feed these animals cover one-third of the planet’s total farmable land. Although they require such a vast amount of space, livestock only provide less than 20% of the world’s total supply of calories.
With the world’s population expected to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050, food production must increase by 70%, according to the United Nations. At the same time, in line with the Paris Agreement’s two-degree climate target, the global agriculture sector needs to reduce its emission count from 12 gigatons a year to 4 gigatons a year. Of course, in order to meet this dual challenge, further land conversion needs to be avoided as it will only perpetuate a harmful feedback loop that continuously undermines sustainable development. Accordingly, with livestock being the largest driver of land conversion, it is critical to move away from current animal protein production models and develop alternatives. This is where insect protein comes into play.
As a farm species, insects are significantly more environmentally-friendly than conventional livestock, producing less waste and requiring fewer resources. According to the FAO, one kilogram of beef produces 2,850 grams of greenhouse gas, while one kilogram of insect emits just around 2 grams. Moreover, in terms of land use, one kilogram of beef requires 200 square meters of cultivable land, followed by 50 square meters for pork, and 45 square meters for chicken. In contrast, one kilogram of insect protein requires just 15 square meters of land. The comparisons are also similar for water use. For every kilogram of protein, the water consumption rates for cattle are a shocking 22,000 liters, while those for insects are only one liter. By requiring so little water, insects have very high feed-conversion efficiency rates. In fact, 100 gallons of water can produce 238 grams of cricket protein, with that same amount only enough to produce just 6 grams of beef and 18 grams of chicken. With far less land used, emissions released, and water required, farming insects could very well be the key to cultivating a sustainable food system.
Accordingly, with livestock being the largest driver of land conversion, it is critical to move away from current animal protein production models and develop alternatives. This is where insect protein comes into play.
In addition to their sustainable nature, insects have very high nutritional value. Research has shown that the protein count in 100 grams of crickets is estimated to be roughly the same as in 100 grams of lean ground beef. The fat content of insects is also similar to that of fish, offering high amounts of healthy polyunsaturated fatty acids. Unlike other types of meat, insects also contain dietary fiber. In essentially providing the same amount of nutrients as conventional livestock while using up considerably less land and resources, insects are becoming very promising alternative food sources. In addition, being such nutrient-dense foods, insects may also play a significant role in helping alleviate global issues of under- and malnourishment.
Clearly, insect-based diets offer huge potential in regard to enhancing global food security as well as reducing environmental impacts. Of course, the ‘disgust factor’ prevails, with many people still hesitant to incorporate edible insects into their diets. As a result, rather than convincing people to eat insects themselves, others have taken a step back and begun to explore ways in which insects can be raised specifically as livestock feed.
With the global demand for meat continuing to rise, pressure to grow crops as animal feed has only escalated, especially with regard to soybean cultivation. Currently, 80% of Amazon soy is produced for animal feed. In Brazil, the second largest producer of soybean in the world, an astounding 25 million hectares is currently devoted towards growing the crop, releasing massive amounts of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere whilst severely threatening biodiversity. However, given their sustainable nature, insects are beginning to replace soybeans. While it takes about one hectare of land to produce a ton of soy, the same area could produce up to 150 tons of insect protein. Recent research has also proven that insects have similar protein levels to soy, providing additional fats, vitamins, and minerals as well.
Already, insects are being successfully raised as animal feed throughout many countries. Part of an EU-funded research project, PROteINSECT supplies hundreds of kilos of dried maggots to feed pigs, chickens, and fish across Europe. In the Netherlands, Protix opened up the world’s largest and most advanced insect farm in 2019, focusing specifically on raising black soldier fly larvae – a common insect-based feed source. Similar efforts can be seen in France, where a high-tech start up called Ynsect has successfully bred protein-rich mealworms as feed over the last decade.
Being such small creatures, insects are very easy to raise – either for the purpose of food or animal feed. Recently, many farmers have adopted a vertical farming approach by raising insects in urban warehouses, a technique that aims to maximize the amount of space used whilst minimizing the number of resources. From an animal welfare perspective, raising insects in these tight indoor spaces is also generally a lot more accepted as they are naturally able to live in high densities. Furthermore, insects can also simply live off manure and organic waste, essentially creating a waste-feedback system that could significantly reduce global food loss and waste.
While lab-grown meats and plant-based diets appear to also be steadily growing, the food supply challenge is rising to such an unprecedented scale that multiple protein alternatives will be required to meet high global demand.
Clearly, insect farming offers huge potential when it comes to combating issues of climate change, habitat degradation, and food security. While the demand and production of insects remains low, increasing pressure over the years to replace livestock agriculture with sustainable alternatives may turn this around. While lab-grown meats and plant-based diets appear to also be steadily growing, the food supply challenge is rising to such an unprecedented scale that multiple protein alternatives will be required to meet high global demand. Though cultural tastes may be the largest obstacle to overcome, efforts are clearly being made to incorporate insects into our diets namely by ‘westernizing’ edible insect cuisine. Meanwhile, though it will likely take a few years before insects become a standard part of our diets, the use of insects as animal feed is highly promising. While the environmental payoff of feeding livestock with insects may be slightly lower when compared to directly eating them ourselves, it is nonetheless a significant step towards cultivating a sustainable food system and future.
Art by Tatiana Dickins