Insects, Food of the Future

As many of you know from previous posts, I am a big advocate of cultivating insects as a major sustainable food source for the world. Already enjoyed as a staple food by around 2 billion people worldwide, bugs of all kinds offer a cheap, accessible, and nutritional form of sustenance in a world of stress resources. Hence why the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) concluded in its report on the idea that “the consumption of insects … contributes positively to the environment and to health and livelihoods.”

As the L.A. Times reports, the message is even getting across to the United States, albeit ever so slowly. The article covers several businesses that are attempting to make bug food mainstream in a culture not accustomed to the idea. For the sake of brevity, I will highlight the general findings and benefits regarding insects as a food source. 

Mealworms and superworms are rich in protein, amino acids and vitamins and minerals like potassium and iron. Plus, they have less fat and cholesterol than beef.

These and other insects are also considered an environmentally friendly source of protein because they can be raised on a fraction of the land and water required for traditional livestock, like cattle.

That’s clear at Rainbow Mealworms. At its complex of small houses, millions of beetles — in all life stages from larvae to adults — live in trays stacked on 8-foot-tall racks that look like they belong in a bakery. Each tray teems with thousands of insects nestled in a bed of whole wheat bran, which they eat, and fresh baby carrots, which they nibble on for water.

Their flavor, when toasted, is often described as being nutty and crispy, akin to roasted pecans or fried pork rinds. And despite the obvious “yuck” factor, the demand to eat them is growing.

… Compared with cattle, cultivated insects emit far fewer greenhouse gases, require less water, can be grown in a smaller space, can eat foods like vegetable scraps that would otherwise be considered waste, and can grow more protein from less feed, according to the report. For instance, growing mealworms for food requires about one-tenth as much space as raising an equivalent amount of beef protein, the report says.

… Even U.S. government agencies got interested. Since 2013, the Department of Agriculture has invested $550,000 in research projects that aim to develop a shelf-stable insect protein powder. The resulting cricket powder, made from a pasteurized, dehydrated slurry of frozen insects, is now widely used in edible bug snacks.

The article also explores whether insects are truly as sustainable and efficient a food source as widely touted.

A study published in 2015 in the scientific journal PLOS One found that crickets raised on poultry feed required nearly as much food as conventionally raised chickens per unit of protein produced. If crickets aren’t able to convert feed into protein more efficiently than chickens, they really aren’t that much more sustainable, the researchers concluded.

But chickens have been bred for decades to grow big on as little food as possible, said study leader Mark Lundy, an agronomist at the University of California’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources. A similar program to breed edible insects that thrive on food scraps and other waste products could provide the biggest opportunities for sustainability gains, he said.

And compared with cows, crickets are way more efficient eaters. Feedlot cattle require at least 6 pounds of food to put on 1 pound of weight, and only about half of that weight is actual meat, said Dan Shike, an animal sciences researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In contrast, crickets in the 2015 PLOS One study required about 2 pounds of food to put on 1 pound of weight collectively, and the whole insect is edible.

Insects also beat traditional livestock in other measures of sustainability.

Another PLOS One study from 2012 found that the greenhouse gas emissions that result from raising mealworms were up to four times lower than those created in the production of milk, pork or chicken, and up to 12 times lower than the emissions from raising beef.

In general, insect farming is a meticulously clean practice. Edible insects are quite sensitive to chemicals, so they can’t be exposed to artificial food additives.

I would also add that insect farming would be vastly more ethical than livestock raising, given that bugs do not suffer as much, if at all, than the higher lifeforms that we currently consume by the billions.

In any case, bugs seem to be both promising and popular enough to merit recognition by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which has established guidelines on how they are to be cultivated. Given the multitude of current and future challenges facing global agriculture, from soil erosion and lack of arable land, to strain water resources and climate change, insects may serve as more than just a culinary curiosity: they may end up being a vital substitute to livestock.

What are your thoughts?

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