By Savanna Henderson, Humanitas Global
The association between insects and food security is typically seen as divergent; insects are viewed as pests, threats to crops, human health and overall food security. In the past few years though, more emphasis has been placed on insects as tools in achieving food security. The reason for this emphasis is because insects provide excellent amounts of macro and micronutrients, require fewer resources, and more than 1,900 species of insects have been identified as edible, meaning there are plenty of options to tailor to region and personal taste.
The FAO has reported that over 2 billion people regularly utilize insects in their diets. In Southern African, Central and South American and Southeast Asian countries, edible insects are offered in street stalls and local restaurants with high levels of acceptability. With high concentrations of protein, fat, calcium, iron and zinc it isn’t surprising that it has become a source of regular nutrition in diets around the globe. Meal worms, for example, have 20 grams of protein per 100 grams consumed. Consuming roughly the same serving size as a hamburger would be sufficient for one’s daily intake of protein. Many edible insects also house large amounts of micronutrients, providing needed nutrition in areas where staple foods are low in nutrition and diet diversity is constrained by environmental, climactic and economic resources.
When examined as a farmed species, insects are much more environmentally friendly than poultry, pork and beef. Insects emit fewer greenhouse gases and ammonia than cattle or pigs for example, with only a few species of insects (termites and cockroaches) producing methane. Cattle, for example, not only produce a huge percentage of greenhouse gases, but are also inefficient in converting feed into meat. A study found that for 1 kg of high-quality beef protein it would take 10 kgs of feed. The same study found that for 1 kg of high-quality cricket protein it would take 1.7 kgs of feed. While this alone makes cricket or insect farming more accessible to smallholders, it also contributes to a smaller environmental footprint. It is estimated that producing 1 kg of animal protein requires 5-20 times more water than producing 1 kg of grain protein, not counting the water required to produce forage and grain for livestock. Insects, in comparison, can be raised on organic side-streams like compost or animal waste reducing the need to clear land for a source of feed. Furthermore, insects require much less land than other animals before being “harvested” reducing the loss of forests and other ecosystems. Insect production could even contribute to the local environment if food and habitat sources are planted to support the insect species. This has occurred in Peru, where production of cochineal prompted the planting of its host plant. The plant provides protection from erosion, improved soil conditions and fertility and acts as a carbon sink. Insect production could also easily be implemented in urban and peri-urban settings where space and resources for protein production are limited, providing a reliable and nutritious source of food.
The majority of insects consumed and sold in developing nations are gathered from the wild though there some instances where individuals are raising insects. An FAO supported project in Lao PDR found that small farms raising crickets were able to produce an average of 20 kgs of crickets per harvest cycle (45 days) while large farms were able to produce an average of 100 kgs. Most cricket farms in the region are small scale, requiring little in terms of investment. For a breeding area of 60 square meters containing 61 concrete enclosures, the capital investment was US$760. These concrete enclosures could be substituted for large bowls for a potentially cheaper investment. The annual food and consumables cost was US$1100 though this too could vary depending on type of feed utilized. The net income ended up being US$1250.
In developed nations such as the Untied States and the UK, insects are often sold as novel and exotic snacks and desserts rather than as a protein replacement.
The Path Forward
While many studies have shown the environmental, nutritional and financial impacts edible insects can have, there is still a ways to go before insects will be a globally recognized and accepted food. Edible insects are largely a novelty in the developed world, playing off of the “disgust factor” or exotic nature of such a practice. This disgust factor is also rooted in cultural perceptions that eating insects mimics primitive behavior. To overcome this perception and market insects as an alluring culinary dish, many high-end restaurants are putting insects on their menus and entrepreneurs are selling insects in protein bars, chips, baked goods and more. Many studies show the nutritional benefits of insects but more research needs to be invested to better market insects as a source of food. For instance, protein content can vary widely in a species based on the preparation method. Recognition and dissemination of these important nutritional factors is key to enhancing the role of edible insects in any diet. There is also a need for further research into the sustainability of wild harvesting and raising insects. While their environmental impact seems dramatically more sustainable than conventional livestock, there need to be studies focused on the scaling up of household-level and industrial-level raising of insects. Efforts need to be increased in studying the potential risk of zoonotic disease, a threat in any industrial-style raising of animals, and the spread of pathogens. Finally, there needs to be governmental support in advocating for and creating policy that supports the production and sell of edible insects.