World meat consumption has increased significantly in the last two decades and is expected to have doubled by 2050. We are running out of agricultural land which can be used for live stock. It is time to look for an environmentally friendly alternative. According to Arnold Van Huis, a tropical entomologist based at Wageningen University, cockroaches, caterpillars and other insects can solve our food crisis.
It wasn’t until recently that the western world realized that we have an alternative source of meat: the creepy crawlers. For people living in the tropics insects are not only common food, they are actually considered a delicacy. Research has shown that they are not inferior to beef, pork, lamb, chicken, or fish, on the contrary insects contain between 30 and 80 percent of protein and are an excellent source of essential fatty acids, vitamins and minerals. One wonders why they have been ignored for so long?
Insects suffer from a bad image; they are considered a nuisance and unsuitable for consumption. This is rather unfair since most insect species have essential ecological functions. In fact, the percentage of all insect species that are harmful to plants, animals and humans is less than 0.5%. 98 percent of pollinators are insects and most pest species in agriculture are kept in check by an army of beneficial insect species.
Including land for pastures and fodder, seventy percent of all agricultural land is used for livestock. Since 1970, world meat consumption has increased almost three-fold, and is expected to have doubled by 2050. We are rapidly running out of available land and a meat crisis is inevitable. In 2010, at a meat congress inArgentina, FAO officials warned that beef is expected to become “an extreme luxury” item by 2050 due to the increase in production costs. The dramatic increase in beef prices will make it “a food product exclusively for the privileged and the rich.” These gloomy prospects prompt us to look for alternative protein sources. Compared to conventional meat, there are numerous advantages about the consumption of insects.
Insects are cold-blooded and do not use energy to maintain a constant high body temperature. For that reason, they convert feed more efficiently to body mass; to produce one kilogram of meat, a cricket needs 1.7 kg. of feed, which is significantly less than for example a cow which needs 7.7 kg. The same counts for water; to produce one kilo of beef you need 40.000 water, whiles for insects this is much less. Additionally, the edible proportion after processing is much higher for insects – it’s 80 percent in crickets, but only 55 percent for beef.
High density animal production systems increase livestock disease incidence, and new often antibiotic-resistant diseases emerge. Animal welfare is often compromised because they are kept in high densities, which isn’t a problem for insects; they are used to live in dense populations, just think of locust swarms. Furthermore livestock is responsible for the acidification of the environment by ammonia emissions. Whereas most edible insect species do not produce methane, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations estimates that 18 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions is derived from livestock.
Insects are eaten mainly in the tropics. Edible species include; beetle larvae, caterpillars, grasshoppers, wasps, termites and three bugs. Researchers have estimated that there are between 1000 and 2000 edible species, which again makes you wonder: why are insects consumed in the tropics and much less in temperate zones? Probably because harvesting in the tropics is easier: insects are bigger and show more crowding behaviour than in colder climates. Insects are incredibly popular in Asia andAfrica. In Japan, wasps need to be imported fromVietnam and Australia to satisfy the huge demand. In southern Africa, the mopane caterpillar is an 80 million dollar business, and more than 90 billion caterpillars are harvested by women annually in an area of 20.000 square km. In Laos local markets show a large variety of insect species, but weaver ant pupae in particular are very popular. The World Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations just started an edible insect project in this country. FAO now takes insect meat seriously, see their website. Will the western world be next?
Nutritionally insects are similar to conventional meat and from an environmental point, they have considerable advantages. Jeffrey Sachs, one of the world’s foremost development economist, already indicated that the world needs “new patterns of food consumption, based on healthier and more sustainable diets”. But is it possible to change our food habits? We have been able to put shrimps, snails and oysters on the menu, so why not insects? As the problem is mainly psychological, we may have to play some tricks like make them unrecognizable: the fish stick or hot dog analogy. We could also involve top cooks in order to invent some delicious dishes. And of course, insects produced for human consumption should be available and safe to eat. Insect growers in the Netherlands have already set up special production lines to market insects for human consumption. An insect snack during a food fair seems to be a convincing experience. We expect that in 2020 it should be possible to take them from the shelves of the supermarkets.
Professor Arnold Van Huis is a tropical entomologist based at the Wageningen University, the Netherlands.