They are eaten by more than two billion people in 80% of the world’s nations, but no, they are not on the menu of some famous hamburger chain. If we add that their consumption has been part of our diet for thousands of years, it is clear that we are talking about another type of food. And despite their long history, in Western societies we have dispensed with a source of nutrients that could be the solution to the future of our food supply, just so long as we are able to let go of our aversion to eating bugs.
Before the middle of this century, the Earth will have more than nine billion human mouths to feed, and it is not clear that food production can grow at the same pace. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 26% of the world’s dry land is devoted to pasture for livestock, and 33% of arable land produces crops for livestock. This activity is responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions, and converting more forestland to open spaces for agriculture would increase the problem of climate change.
Under our current system, the numbers do not add up. But today many people think that it is possible to leave this difficult crossroads without giving up animal food—it is simply a matter of varying the menu of the species we eat. In the West we are already accustomed to the consumption of arthropods, but only aquatic ones, such as crabs or lobsters. In contrast, up to 3,000 ethnic groups in Latin America, Africa, Asia and Oceania include insects as part of their diet.
Wageningen University in the Netherlands maintains a list of 2,111 edible species of insects and arachnids, especially beetles, caterpillars, ants, bees, wasps, grasshoppers, locusts and crickets, but also flies, spiders and cockroaches. In the extolment of the nutritional virtues of these animals, a crucial role has been played by the FAO, which has for years promoted entomophagy as a solution to food insecurity.
Rich in nutrients
Analyses reveal that insects are rich in protein, unsaturated fatty acids, amino acids and vitamins, with an amount of iron and other minerals equal to or greater than that of beef sirloin. All this is packaged into small creatures that can be raised with little water, even with garbage, and with a minimal ecological footprint. According to the FAO, pigs produce 10 to 100 times more greenhouse gases per kilo than flour worms (beetle larvae).
A recent study led by Peter Alexander, a socio-ecologist at the University of Edinburgh, finds that insect breeding offers greater efficiency in land use than other animal products to generate the same amount of calories and protein. “The adoption of entomophagy could help reduce environmental impacts from agriculture,” says Alexander to OpenMind. The expert recommends replacing part of the current consumption of animal products with insects. “A mix of smaller changes in consumer behaviour, such as replacing beef with chicken, reducing food waste and potentially introducing insects more commonly into diets, would also achieve land savings and a more sustainable food system,” he says.
Alexander recognizes that it will not be easy to launch Europeans en masse towards the consumption of insects. In his opinion, the greatest barrier will be cultural. “Here in the West, eating insects is not a social norm, and the thought of eating insects for many creates a disgust reaction, and hence their use on reality TV shows.” This scientist believes that the change will be slow, but he is confident that it will happen, just as the consumption of raw fish in the form of sushi has become popular in recent decades. “There are now restaurants and retailers in Europe and the US that specialize in selling insects for human consumption, and even cookbooks,” he says.
The introduction of entomophagy might be facilitated with a presentation of the product that is more appropriate to the Western mentality. Instead of the fried whole insects that are sold in the markets of many Asian cities, some companies have already opted for the ground product, such as cricket flour used to make energy bars. But for Alexander, “the absolute size of the market remains extremely small.”
However, this new crunchy manna may still have some serious obstacles to overcome. According to a study from the University of California, the large-scale production of crickets provides a slightly higher protein conversion rate than chicken only when they eat grain, not waste. Thus, the dream of turning our garbage into tons of delicious insects does not seem so immediate. Sustainability is also a subject of debate in the new book On Eating Insects: Essays, Stories and Recipes (Phaidon, 2017) from the Nordic Food Lab, the research wing of the Danish restaurant Noma. The authors suggest caution, “The idea that every insect species is universally sustainable is deceptive.”
But the ecological impact is not the only obstacle to overcome. Nils Grabowski, an edible insect specialist at the University of Veterinary Medicine Hannover, Foundation in Germany, explains to OpenMind that the legislation on these products lags behind their development. EU regulations do not yet contemplate edible insects, which will enter 2018 as novel food. In Europe, only Switzerland has so far legalized entomophagy, Grabowski says.
This regulation is especially necessary because the consumption of insects may carry risks of microbiological contamination if inadequate processing methods are used. “Belgium and the Netherlands tolerate insect trade and consumption and have published a first attempt to establish microbiological criteria,” says Grabowski. The expert is co-author of a recent study that has analysed the presence of microbes in different samples of edible insects. The results suggest that dry or powdered insects, as opposed to cooked or fried, exceed some limits of bacterial contamination according to the criteria proposed in Belgium and the Netherlands, although no pathogens were found in alarming amounts.
Grabowski points out that the processing method is key. “While deep-frying and cooking usually reduces the bacteria counts, grinding and/or drying increases some levels, especially the spore-forming microbes.” The expert warns that this same thing happens with other foods, and that each product is different. But at least until we have rules and standards to ensure the safety of edible insects, Grabowski recommends consuming them cooked, never raw as some gourmets propose. “We should heed the advice of those who have been consuming insects for millennia,” he concludes.