By Savanna Henderson, Humanitas Global
Prior to World Breastfeeding Week, the results of a study were published identifying cockroach milk as a potential superfood. While cockroaches lack mammary glands, there is one species, the Pacific Beetle Cockroach that produces a form of milk for its young. The ‘milk’ takes the form of protein crystals in the guts of baby cockroaches, fueling growth and development that exceeds that of other cockroach species (no stunting here!) The crystals have high amounts of protein, fat and sugar and four times the energy of an equivalent mass of cow milk. Unfortunately, milking cockroaches is not an option for accessing the latest superfood.
The team of scientists that discovered the nutritional powerhouse also sequenced the genes responsible for producing the crystals to better understand the food. They hope to use the sequence to produce large quantities of the crystals as a source of nourishment for undernourished individuals. Bioengineered yeast was identified as one of the scientists as the most likely vehicle for consuming cockroach milk.
It shouldn’t be surprising that an insect is at the core of this newly identified food powerhouse. Insects offer high concentrations of protein, fat, calcium, iron, zinc, and other micronutrients, and are regularly consumed by over two billion people in more than 80 countries. 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. Insects, as a more regular source of nutrition and food have a potential role in sustainable development.
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. A United Nations report shared that it takes 10 kgs of feed to produce 1 kg of high-quality beef protein while only 1.7 kgs of feed would produce 1 kg of high-quality cricket protein. It should be noted though, that protein concentrations of insects are linked to their diet, with organic-side streams offering little to no nutritional value for protein conversion in crickets.
Insects require much less land than other livestock, reducing the loss of forests and other ecosystems associated with livestock rearing. With today marking the 2016 Earth Overshoot Day, it is important to note sustainable forms of food production. Insect production can also contribute to local biodiversity and environmental conservation 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.
Edible insects are a high-value commodity in low-income countries, making insect farming a reliable and realistic source of income for many individuals. Consumption and receptiveness of insects in developed countries is less than that of developing countries but a market does exist. Chapul and Exo make insect-protein bars and Entomo Farms offers a variety of insect-based snacks and supplements. Restaurants in Africa, Canada, Germany, Hong Kong, Singapore, the Netherlands, United Kingdom and United States offer insects on the menu.
Insects account for 85 percent of all life on Earth. With such a grip on livelihood why not look to insects for human development and well-being? Insect consumption addresses hunger and malnutrition, poverty, climate change, and conservation of terrestrial ecosystems. While more in-depth research on the nutritional benefits and technical aspects of raising insects for human consumption is needed, it is clear that insects offer opportunities in achieving sustainable development.