By Jodie Hayes
With more scientists saying we should give up meat for the sake of the environment, are insects the answer to food insecurity?
Entomophagy – the consumption of insects – has been gaining popularity in many Western countries as an environmentally friendly alternative to conventional proteins such as chicken, beef and pork. There are already several companies producing insects for human consumption, though sales are generally limited to products containing insect protein powder, such as protein bars or pasta. For insects to become a significant alternative protein source, they will need to be mass-produced as what has been called mini-livestock. Yet, the idea of insects as food is still struggling to gain widespread acceptance in Western countries.
Insects have been a normal part of the diets of many cultures for a long time. Even today, insects are still eaten in over 100 countries, particularly in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. In fact, it is estimated that over 2,000 different species insects are eaten globally. Thailand alone already produces around 7,500 tonnes of insects a year.
However, in the Western world, there is a sense of disgust at the thought of eating insects. This comes from an engrained social norm that says people do not eat insects – that you are what you eat (and insects eat rotting food) or that eating insects makes you uncivilised. Most Westerners are therefore unwilling to consider even trying insects. Studies show that only around one in five are willing to try insects as a protein source to replace conventional meats.
Yet many people are unaware that insects are already found in several commonly consumed products. For example, cochineal (E120) is a red food colouring made from cochineal beetles and is found in many sweets and soft drinks. With many developing nations following the consumption practices of developed countries, there is some concern that countries that already eat insects will move towards a more Western, meat-heavy diet. Somewhat promisingly however, some Western countries, such as Switzerland have been quick to adopt policies supporting the farming and consumption of insects. They believe that if insects are popular and successful in other countries, then why not try them in Switzerland. Despite a deep-seated disgust and opposition to consuming insects, it is not a new concept in the Western world. In 1885, the book “Why Not Eat Insects” described culinary delights showcasing insects. And during World War I, insects were considered as a way to combat food shortages.
Where does this sudden push to start consuming insects come from? It is not new knowledge that conventional livestock systems are bad for the environment. Our current farming techniques are degrading the land and leading to a whole suite of environmental problems including deforestation, soil erosion, loss of plant biodiversity, water pollution and climate change. Livestock farming refers to conventional meats such as chicken, beef and pork, and is responsible for 14-18% of all greenhouse gas emissions. As the largest user of agricultural land, it also occupies around 3360 million hectares. That is about two thirds of all farmable land on earth. More than that, livestock farming is also responsible for 26% of our global water footprint, placing huge pressures on water resources. Though a range of technical solutions have been proposed, these will not be enough to prevent or repair environmental damage. Instead, dietary changes must be made in the form of where we get our protein. One such solution is insects. Commercially growing insects has been shown to produce significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions, use drastically less land and require much less water. For example, the global warming potential of 1kg of mealworm protein is half that of chicken, a third of pork and a whopping nine times less than beef. Insects also use much less feed as they can live off by-products such as food waste, providing the double benefit of reducing the amount of waste going into landfills.
With an ever-increasing population, it is not just the environment we have to consider when rethinking our food habits. We now need to find a way to sustainably feed the whole world. The global population is expected to rise to around 9.5 billion by 2050, with research indicating that we will not be able to feed everyone if we continue eating the way we do. Especially when it comes to meat. An increase in meat consumption is about more than just more people on the planet. As developing countries gain more wealth, people look to Western, meat-heavy diets as a sign of affluence and success. As such meat demand is increasing substantially across the globe, but especially in developing countries. This has been estimated at 50-76% between 2005 and 2050. In fact, some projections have found that some developing regions such as the Middle East and parts of Africa will increase by more than 150% between 2010 and 2050. Consumption in South East Asia alone has been projected to increase by an incredible 272%. This highlights just how unsustainable our diets are. If we continue to eat the same way, there will not be enough food to feed future generations. Not only that, but resultant high intensity farming will produce a whole host of environmental impacts, just a few of which are mentioned above. If we want future generations to have enough food and an inhabitable planet, then we must change our eating habits.
Insects have been proposed as an alternative source of protein because of its significantly lower environmental impact, but is it a healthy alternative? Studies have shown that insects actually have a comparable, if not higher level of protein than current animal sources. Popular considerations for the Western world include mealworms and crickets, which have a protein content of 19-22%. Insects have also been found to be lower in fat, lower in cholesterol, higher in digestibility and meet amino acid requirements when compared to conventional meats and protein rich vegetables. Several species also have higher mineral levels than many vegetables. These higher nutrition levels make them a good way to combat mineral deficiencies in countries with poorer nutrition levels. As they are cheaper to produce, and more easily available, they also make an appropriate alterative for developing and poorer nations.
What about food safety? Insects have a reputation for being dirty and these concerns are reflected in an unwillingness to eat insects. All foods carry some risk of contamination, pathogens or allergies, but these can be managed through regulations such as labelling for allergies and sanitary growing and processing environments. In fact, wild insects harvested for human consumption in tropical countries have shown no significant health problems. With much more stringent controls on commercial production, it can be assured than any insects put on the market, will be safe to eat. We also know that excessive meat consumption is not good for human health, providing yet another reason to switch to insects as a source of protein. Insects can also increase shelf life when baked into consumer products such as crackers, muffins, and sausages. For those still concerned about the safety of eating insects, current legislation allows a chocolate bar to contain up to 80 microscopic insect fragments.
So you have decided that you absolutely cannot bring yourself to eat insects. That is fine. What about using insects for bait when fishing? This is already a commonplace, socially acceptable practice. From there, it’s not a big step to replace commercial animal feed with insects. Livestock, poultry, pigs and fish are currently fed from fishmeal or soymeal, but these are incredible unsustainable and inefficient sources of feed. For example, soymeal production, which peaked at 210.9 million tonnes in 2010, contributes to deforestation and uses large amounts of pesticides, fertiliser and water. Fishmeal is harvested in international waters, where high demands have led to the deterioration of marine environments and an over-exploitation of stocks. Five-to-six million tonnes of catch is turned into fishmeal and fish oil every year. Because of the high nutritional level and ease of digestibility, insects have been found to be a good alternative feed for animals. A further benefit is that unlike fish or soy, insects are part of the natural diet of several animals including chicken. Studies on other animals found that they had no preference between soy, fish or insects and that insects met all of their nutritional requirements. Insects have also proven to have the potential to replace pet food as a viable and nutritious option. There are already some operations commercially producing insects for animal feed, but so far these are still relatively small. Yet with insects shown to have the potential to replace up to 100% of soymeal and fishmeal and the market already worth $460 billion in 2014, there is definitely huge potential.
Whenever the life of an animal is concerned, the issue of ethics is raised. When it comes to consuming insects, the conversation is a little different. The general scientific consensus is that insects are not sentient and therefore cannot feel pain. For many, this means that it may be more ethical to consume insects than say a cow, which has been shown to have concepts of fear and pain. There are also those that would argue that it is wrong to kill anything, regardless of its level of sentience. Because there is little legislation or industry standards on how to treat insects, we refer to animal cruelty legislation that requires no unnecessary harm to be done to any animal (or insect). This can be achieved through measures such as keeping insects in hygienic conditions that are appropriate for the specific species. The biggest concern is how to kill the insect in a way that is fast, non-poisonous and humane. The two best solutions proposed have been fast freezing or boiling.
Since producing insects as food in the Western world is still a relatively new concept, there is not much legislation around how to commercially produce and market insects. As already mentioned, insects have been treated under the same laws as animals. However, as they are not animals, these laws are not entirely appropriate, and it is this lack of legislation that is preventing widespread growth of the sector. In many countries, insects are not even recognised as a food source. For example, the European Union has yet to decide if insect products are considered novel (produced in insignificant amounts). If they are considered novel, then producers will require large amounts of paperwork and certifications to prove that the product is safe for consumers. Similarly, in Canada, any insect not considered a novel food will not be allowed on the market. Although, as they become increasingly multicultural, acceptability increases, resulting in a greater availability of insect products. At the moment, many countries are choosing to follow general health and safety guidelines for conventional foodstuffs. Legislation in countries where eating insects is already common is a little different. Large-scale commercial production is still relatively uncommon, with most insects coming from wild harvest. As such, their legislations tend to focus on different goals, such as prohibiting the harvest of protected species.
With so many benefits to eating insects, the question then becomes how do we convince people to eat them? For a few, learning about how sustainable and nutritious they are compared to conventional meats may be enough. But these are the minority. For most, insects are still considered gross and dirty. Instead, studies have suggested increasing the familiarity of the product by providing information about insects and how to prepare them. Increasing the availability of insect products, including tastings and recipes that are culturally appropriate may also help to normalise insects as a food source. This could also be done by incorporating insects into familiar food items. A common way to achieve this is by using insect flour in baking, such as in the cricket flour protein bars mentioned earlier. In fact, using insects in cooking has already attracted much attention, appearing more and more in restaurants, cooking shows, and festivals.
Perhaps critically, they must taste good. In 2012, Melbourne Museum organised bugs for bunch to highlight the different insects that could be eaten and how they might be cooked. Their ‘menu’ included chocolate chip cookies made of finely ground mealworms and honeycomb, which they described as the part of the bees’ home served with bees’ vomit. As well as trying to normalise the idea of eating insects in daily life, they were also attempting to show how the taste can be normalised. For example, the mealworms featured in the chocolate chip cookies could not be seen or tasted.
New Zealand already has several companies and restaurants offering opportunities to buy and consume insects and insect products. One such company is Eat Crawlers, the first and largest company selling exclusively insect products. Pictured above, their products range from cricket flour through to chocolate coated tarantulas and teriyaki mealworms. Their insects are sustainably and ethically sourced from farms in Asia and prepared in New Zealand. Unfortunately, products such as these are still generally considered novel snacks or treats. In fact, despite supermarkets such as Farro receiving offers to stock insect products, there is still not enough demand to make it economically viable. In a catch-22, for more products to be more available, there needs to be more demand. However, without more products, consumers will not know about them and there will be less demand.
Helping New Zealanders to embrace insects are the many restaurants beginning to cook with them. Auckland’s Inti is one such restaurant. Their latest addition is ants. Their aim is to take away the gimmicky feel of insects. Instead of including them for a shock factor, ants reflect the restaurants Hispanic roots, as pre-Hispanic cultures such as the Mayans and Aztecs used to eat insects regularly. They also taste good and were carefully chosen to suit the dish they are served with. Inti also cite sustainability as a key motivation for choosing to use ants in their cooking. With all these new ventures, are insects already gaining acceptance in New Zealand? The Otago Locusts won the novel food category at the New Zealand Food Awards last year and there is already a Wild Foods Festival in Hokitika.
As a new field, more research is needed on the impacts and consequences of insects as a source of protein. While there are ethical questions such as animal rights that need to be considered, I argue that there are more ethical implications associated with not adopting insects as a food source. In New Zealand alone, would insects not better reflect a clean, green 100% pure New Zealand, when the alternative is environmentally damaging livestock?
This article was prepared as part of a postgraduate course on Ethics and Governance in International Development directed by Professor Andreas Neef of the University of Auckland’s Development Studies programme.
Jodie Hayes is a postgraduate student in Environmental Management at the University of Auckland.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article reflect the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of The Big Q.