If you found ants or a beetle on your dinner plate, chances are you’d either flip your plate over or calmly dump it in the trash. But what if bugs became a standard part of the human diet? With the growth of entomophagy, or the practice of eating insects, around the world, consumption of bugs may become common enough that you’ll welcome bugs in your breakfast.
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (UN) released a comprehensive report in 2013 entitled, “Edible insects: Future prospects for food and feed security.” In the report, the FAO described in depth everything from the culture, religion, and history of entomophagy to edible insects as a natural resource and source of food, animal feed, environmental protection, and even economic development.
What bugs can be eaten?
With more than 1,900 edible insect species on the planet, you have your choice of bugs to eat, and hundreds are already incorporated in many cultures’ diets around the world. Small grasshoppers are praised as a good source of nutrients, ranked alongside protein sources like lean ground beef but with smaller fat content. Mealworms have recently been made into a tofu-like substance. Insects can also be dehydrated and mashed up into “protein flour,” which can then be put in cereal, energy bars, and other foods.
Even esteemed French culinary school Le Cordon Bleu held an edible insects seminar where bugs were star ingredients in exotic-sounding dishes and beverages, such as ant-infused gin and a cockchafer butter and herb crisp. All the insects were hidden in the foods, "pureed into batters, their juices extracted for essence," according to the Associated Press.
But according to biologist Julieta Ramos-Elorduy’s cookbook "Creepy Crawly Cuisine" as referenced in a National Geographic piece, there are eight groups of edible insects most often consumed across the globe:
- Butterflies and moths
- Bees and wasps
- Grasshoppers, crickets, and locusts
- Flies and mosquitoes
- Water boatmen and backswimmers
While these are some of the most common edible insects, people shouldn’t just go eating bugs they find sitting around. Not all insects are safe to eat. According to the BBC, insects may be drenched in pesticides or other contaminants, may have consumed elevated levels of certain dangerous substances, such as lead or cadmium, or simply have their own pathogens, such as viruses, bacteria, and fungi.
Insects: a necessary food source?
It’s no secret that the world’s population is growing at a steady rate and is predicted to increase to about 9 billion people by 2050. More people means more food, and without the agricultural advances to keep up with the growing population, the more strain there is on food resources.
Edible insects have been in people’s diets worldwide for millennia, including at least 2 billion people today. But in Western cultures, they are still taboo for the most part, save for niche and novelty items. Though insects are not a new concept, they’re also not a focal point for agricultural research and development.
But as the growth of meat and seafood slows over time, alternative proteins must step in to alleviate the strain on food resources. According to Lux Research, by 2054, these alternative proteins, which include insects, may comprise up to one-third of the protein market. Lux Research also reports that insects comprise a group of alternative proteins that “may make up over 50% of the alternative protein market by 2054.”
As the population grows and requires more meat to sustain itself, that also means needing more feed for livestock. That increased demand for grain and protein feed can be alleviated in part by incorporating insects into animals’ feed and diets.
The benefits of eating insects
According to the FAO, edible insects are considered a high-quality source of protein, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and amino acids for humans as well as feedstock for farm animals. Exact values differ based on the insect species, metamorphic stage of the insect, habitat, diet, and the type of preparation and processing it undergoes before being consumed.
Insects also have a high food conversion rate, meaning they can produce the same amount of protein as other animals while consuming less feed. In fact, according to the FAO, to produce the same amount of protein as crickets, cattle call for six times as much feed, sheep four times as much, and pigs and broiler chickens twice as much.
Insects and the environment
In addition to potentially lessening a strain on the global food supply, edible insects are also better for the environment. While their harvests use less food and water than livestock, insects also release fewer greenhouse gases and less ammonia into the atmosphere. Insects can bioconvert waste into feed, which can provide additional environmentally-beneficial revenue for farmers.
Also, while insects are seen as pests, particularly in the agriculture industry, the FAO suggests that, “Manual collection of these pests could not only feed mouths and save crops but also benefit the environment by reducing and mitigating the need for pesticides.”
However, like any other natural resource, insects have to be protected and eaten in moderation. Akin to overfishing, over-harvesting any animal species could offset the delicate ecological balance found in nature and their natural habitats, and that includes insects. For example, insects eat plants and other insects that could grow boundlessly in population, and animals that eat insects may go without food and die off as a species — both of which would unbalance the food chain and upset the circle of life on Earth.
Thus, insect conservation is already a part of the edible insects industry and will have to be even more so if more cultures, such as Western nations, embrace insects as a part of their everyday diet.
Economic impact of insect farming
National Geographic posits that, “Gathering and farming insects can offer new forms of employment and income, especially in developing tropical countries where a lot of ‘edibles’ live.” Gathering, rearing, processing, and selling insects also doesn’t take much more than basic harvesting equipment or knowhow, which makes it easier for a wide range of people to take advantage of this growing industry.
Some people believe that insects’ main benefit may not be becoming food for humans but rather a part of animal feed, as it could help bring down the price of meat, such as beef. This could benefit retailers, who earn less profit from higher meat prices, and lower meat prices means consumers will purchase more of it, which can invigorate the livestock industry and put a little more money back in consumers’ pockets.
Harvesting insects for human and livestock consumption could bear a significant weight for the future of food security and offer another option for alleviating world hunger issues. One proposed solution for ending world hunger, or at least preventing it from worsening in the future, has been to grow genetically-modified crops, but GMO foods have caused an uproar across the world. GMO foods are banned in several countries, and the U.S. has had its own ongoing legal and legislative battles over GMO production and labeling.
Perhaps instead of turning to a controversial, chemical-based option for growing more food — or perhaps in addition to — people could look to insects as a viable alternative for supplementing the meat industry and other food markets and secure the future of the planet’s food resources that way. Western cultures may not be ready to have slugs for breakfast just yet, but that perspective may change — if not must change — in decades to come.