“Edible insects have huge potential, yet we have not invented anything new. Humans, animals and birds have eaten insects, and insects have been part of ancient natural systems of recycling waste, for the last three million years,” says Paul Vantomme, the recently retired coordinator of the edible insects programme of the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO). He continues: “What is new, however, is the rapid promotion of edible insects within global food and feed systems.”

In the last five years, Paul has witnessed this rapid growth first-hand. In 2010, the FAO published a report entitled Edible Forest Insects as Food: Humans bite back. In 2013, another report was published, Edible Insects: Future prospects for food and feed security, promoting insects as a novel, protein-rich food and a sustainable and resource efficient livestock feed.

Yet, amidst the buzz, can insects really feed the world? In the face of global crises such as resource scarcity, population growth, health epidemics and climate change, are we comforted by this universal solution to our food security? We need to dig a bit deeper to understand the promises of edible insects, and what their role might be in a sustainable, effective global food and feed system.

Insects as feed

“Edible insects as feed is where the greatest potential lies,” says Paul. “Out of 2,000 edible insect species recorded worldwide, only around 20 are mass farmed, and in this group are a ‘golden five’– crickets, mealworms, silkworms, grasshoppers and black soldier flies.” Farmed insects are valued because they are small in size and easily transportable, and when farmed in large quantities, require less energy, water and land inputs than conventional livestock. The 2013 FAO report offers comparable statistics: the mass farming of insects uses 50-90% less land per kilogram of protein; 40-80% less feed per kilogram of edible weight; and would reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the livestock industry by 50% by 2050.

Yet, while potential for insects as a mass-produced feed is there, its viability rests on several important factors.

Insects as livestock feed?

By framing edible insects as an alternative to livestock feed, we foster competition rather than cooperation towards a sustainable global agricultural system. Compared to the current intensive livestock industry, in which livestock are fed on soya and corn – grains they can’t digest – the rearing of insects as a feed source would liberate these edible grains to be fed to humans, increasing the global food supply. This, however, doesn’t address the larger systemic issue of industrial livestock production – it merely offers an alternative feed, albeit with a lower environmental impact, to sustain a system that is inherently damaging to both public health and the environment. Cows are ruminants and insects are no more a natural feed than corn and soy. Feeding cows on grass, will keep meat production within sustainable limits due to the amount of land required to raise them.

Replicable and diverse research into insects as food

Effective progress also relies on diverse, interdisciplinary research into edible insects. Particularly as Western economies start playing a major role in insects as food, there is a tendency to prioritise food safety and technical innovation over food security, conservation and traditional livelihoods. “For an [insect farming] system to be efficient, you can apply technology; for it to be effective and sustainable in rural economies, you must build local capacity and work within the limits of regional conditions,” says Darja Doberman, a PhD researcher from Rothamsted Research and the University of Nottingham. Darja is investigating the use of crickets as fish feed and bio-fortified food for humans in Asia and Africa, and aims to blend tradition with science in her research: “When we do a nutrition trial or process crickets in the lab, we always ask ‘could you do this easily in a village in Africa or Asia?’ If the answer is no, then we don’t do it as it won’t be replicable or viable.”

Eating insects

In Africa, Asia and Central America, insects have been eaten for millennia. Most are wild harvested – globally, over 92% of insects are harvested seasonally from forests and local ecosystems, and often traded at local markets both as a staple food and a revered delicacy. Scaling up from the local level, what would be the benefit of insects as a food source in a global food system?

We have enough food to feed the world, but it is not properly distributed. The result is a paradox: a burgeoning obesity crisis and chronic undernutrition, both due to lack of access to adequate, nutritious food and a prioritisation of industrial, highly processed foods. Edible insects offer a means to tackle these epidemics, framed as a high protein-, vitamin- and essential fat-rich food which can be reared cheaply with minimal energy and processing costs.

Focusing on Western food systems, Paul gives the example of the socially innovative Austrian start-up run by Katharina Unger: “People can farm their own black soldier flies in their kitchens, using food waste such as fruit and vegetable scraps, and then cook the insect larvae as a source of pure protein.” The result is a cheap, safe and nutritious food source.

Despite enthusiastic rhetoric around insects, there are barriers to insects becoming a nutritious, sustainable food for humans in global food systems.

The ‘ick’ factor

First, both rearing our own insects and buying insect products depends on an important factor: what we, as Western consumers, value as ‘tasty’ and ‘edible’. Neophobia, the fear and disgust of unknown foods, is rife when it comes to edible insects. A study comparing consumers in Germany and China found that, unlike Chinese consumers, German consumers were only willing to eat insects if included in familiar foods and tastes, such as confectionary, burgers, breads, and health food products. Lack of consumer acceptance may make insects just another processed food supplement rather than a diverse food in its own right.

Policy and legislation

The use of insects as a food is already occurring in Western economies, yet supportive legislation is still limited. In Europe, the EU Novel Foods Act states that insects can only be sold as human food under strict regulation and safety controls; and the US FDA maintains that insects are not a human food, so they can only be added as a supplement to other foods. Still, entrepreneurs and local production networks in North America and Europe are capitalising on edible insects – small production quantities mean that companies, many of which have previously produced insects for niche pet food markets, can create lucrative businesses that satisfy growing consumer demand for sports and wholefood bars and powders, or gourmet meals made from edible insects.

The question is, however, if insects as human food are marketed as premium health and exotic products in Western economies, can economically vulnerable or food insecure groups access their benefits as well? Also, while rearing your own insect larvae at home may be low energy and require minimal processing, what about the energy costs of this larger-scale processing, including freeze-drying and measures to meet legislative controls? These questions demand further research.

The universally ‘healthy’ food?

Third, alongside energy cost variations, the nutritional benefits of insects are dependent on the species and its production and processing. There is limited research into whether nutritional benefits of insects are still available if processed into a burger or snack bar, rather than remaining in their original form. A paper from the University of Oxford’s Department of Public Health distinguishes that there is no universally ‘healthy’ insect and no insect is significantly healthier than grass-fed meat. For example, a palm weevil is the most nutritious for those suffering from chronic under-nutrition, requiring higher fat, vitamin and protein intake, but high levels of palm weevil consumption would have adverse impacts on already protein- and fat- saturated affluent economies that are trying to reduce obesity. With this in mind, we need to be careful to not frame all insects as a direct, protein replacement to meats and dairy. Instead, they should be a means to reduce overconsumption of cheap, industrial meats and processed foods, and shift to a diet with diverse fat and protein sources, from insects, animal products and plants alike.

With all the above in mind, perhaps instead of ‘are insects the novel solution to feeding the world’, a more pertinent question is ‘should insects be the solution to feeding the world’? They could be – insects are not a new nor alternative solution to global environmental, climate and food challenges but a promising part of an alternative, sustainable food and feed system. As Paul concludes, “This is not rocket science, we just need to mimic nature.” This answer may not provide certainty or clarity, but it should encourage us to research further, cooperate, and explore the great potential for edible insects as food as part of a diverse system that connects ecosystems, culture and nutritious food together.

Photograph: Shankar

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