One of the most pressing issues of our time is figuring out how to feed a growing global population while simultaneously upholding sustainability principles. Many of our current food practices are fraught with waste and inefficiencies that leave many people without sufficient food and continue to damage our planet.
One alternative protein source that has gained a lot of attention lately is insects. Insects are already a main protein source for over 2 billion people globally, but here in the US we are still a little squeamish about adding them to our regular diets. Here we are going to explore the potential benefits of replacing some of our current foods with insects to improve our collective ecological footprint. First, here is a list of all the ways they can have a positive impact on our lives.
Insects are a good source of protein and amino acids for many people. Some types of insects have comparable protein content to other traditional sources, such as livestock and fish. Insects are used around the world to supplement diets that are low in certain amino acids, which are often missing from diets made up of cereal grains. Edible insects can also be an important source of essential fatty acids, which are crucial for development in children and overall health of adults. Especially in places that lack access to fish, which are often high in these essential fatty acids, insects may play an important supplementary role. Iron and zinc deficiencies are also common in developing countries, and insects are a great source of both of these minerals. Nutritionally, insects fill some of the same roles as our current protein sources, but are also able to provide minerals and nutrients that might otherwise be lacking.
Recent research has shown that life stage and insect diet are both crucial for determining the nutritional benefit of edible insects. These results open up space for scientists to determine the most efficient combinations of feed and harvest life stage in order to maximize benefit to the consumers.
Insects have a much more efficient edible biomass conversion. This means that for the same amount of feed investment, an insect will produce more edible product. In a cricket, almost 80% of the animal is edible, whereas in cattle only 40% of the animal is eaten. In addition, many insects can be raised on organic side streams, such as manure, compost or other organic waste. This is extremely beneficial because it reduces waste products and the emission of greenhouse gases from the traditional disposal of those waste products while simultaneously producing a high-quality food product that can be used to feed those same livestock. This closed-loop system reduces waste and increases energy efficiency because it eliminates the need for a separate agricultural sector dedicated to the production of grain for livestock feed.
Livestock also require a huge investment of water, which is already seeing shortages around the globe. While data on water use in insect rearing is presently unavailable, there is potential for it to be significantly lower, making insects a good option for drought-prone areas.
Images of livestock crowded into factory farms and feedlots across the US are disturbing for many people, and have pushed some away from eating meat altogether. Insects tend to crowd together naturally, increasing production without compromising ethics. There are many humane ways to kill insects as well, such as using dry ice to force them into hibernation without the use of expensive pharmaceuticals. In addition, many people see insects as a lesser lifeform, and the ethics of using them as a food source are simply less important to them.
Livestock is one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions for many reasons. Rearing livestock requires converting productive, carbon sequestering land into open rangeland. Livestock require feed which was also grown on converted land, reducing the ability of the earth to naturally absorb some of our carbon emissions. Livestock are also a significant source of methane, which is also a greenhouse gas. In order to get the meat from the feedlot to the supermarket, it must be flown and driven from places that are suitable for livestock to the far reaches of the world, burning large amounts of carbon in transport.
Insects, in contrast, require much less space to be grown, preserving green spaces as important carbon sequestration tools. They can be fed a wide variety of feed, including waste products, which helps close the loop on food waste. Insects can also be raised almost anywhere, reducing transportation costs to get them from farm to table. To go one step further, insects can also be raised to feed other livestock and farmed fish, reducing the impact of those industries. When compared to traditional livestock, edible insects have a lower carbon emission by a factor of about 100.
While we should still be cautious about calling insects a miracle food, they are better than many of our current protein sources. Next time you visit your local market, think about what it would take to get you to buy insects for dinner!
Conservation Made Simple
FAO, Edible insects
Future prospects for food and feed security:http://www.fao.org/docrep/018/i3253e/i3253e00.htm
EPA: Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions Data: https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/global-greenhouse-gas-emissions-data
Crik Nutrition, Why Cricket Protein: https://criknutrition.com/pages/why-cricket-protein-powder
Entomarket, Edible Insect Nutrition Information: https://www.edibleinsects.com/insect-nutrition-information/