Let them eat insects

Science HeaderWith the population of the world expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, it should come as no surprise that efforts are already underway to determine just how humanity will go about feeding so many people. Obviously, agriculture has been a key factor in the development of human civilization and it will continue to be a vital industry. The World Bank even claims that growth in this sector reduces poverty more effectively than growth in any other sector. Unfortunately, given their environmental impact, our current agricultural practices are unsustainable. Farming already poses a more serious threat to biodiversity than any other human practice so the solution to feeding our growing population will not be to simply increase the extent of farming.

Instead, it will be incumbent on us to modify our behaviour and to adapt to alternative food sources. The United Nations have already proposed that we should start replacing the meat in our meals with insects. Admittedly, this sounds like something straight from I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here! but the arguments in favour of the idea are certainly sound. For instance, insects contain more protein per kilogram than any other food as well being great sources of calcium, zinc and iron. Insects are far easier to raise than cattle, requiring only 1/10th as much feed, 1/12th as much water and 1/12th as much land. Their production results in less greenhouse gas emissions and they can be fed using waste products such as animal blood. They might even be acceptable from a gustatory perspective as it is possible to grind them down for use in burgers and sausages. One New York restaurant already offers “Grass-Whoppers” so it’s surely only a matter of time before a “Bug Mac” becomes available.

We have seen that incorporating insects into our diets could allay environmental concerns but it could also assuage ethical worries. Anyone who has watched a video showing the state of factory farming at the moment knows that countless animals around the world are kept in genuinely appalling conditions. In contrast, insects don’t share the same problems with being kept in proximity to one another. It almost sounds like an impossibility but this process could truly be both more efficient and more ethical.

Given all of these advantages, why have we not already started adding larvae to our lunchboxes? Of course, we find the very idea stomach-churning. However, it is important to remember that our revulsion at the notion of chowing down on caterpillars and crickets is largely the result of a Western bias – 2 billion people already consume insects on a regular basis in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The most disgusting food I’ve ever seen myself is a Sardinian cheese known as casu marzu which contains thousands of maggots. I wasn’t brave enough to sample that particular delicacy but if it had been a choice between either the maggot infested cheese or an insect burger then I’d have chosen the burger even faster than my sister would sprint out of a room at the sight of its contents.

Another barrier is the cost. All things being equal, the production of insects for foodstuffs would be far cheaper than the production of meat is today. However, as a consequence of our cultural aversion to insects, there is virtually no infrastructure available to allow us produce them on a large enough scale. This, along with the absence of the same kind of subsidies that are placed on conventional meats, means that insects are actually prohibitively expensive to buy at the moment with one kilogram costing around 120 euro.

In Ireland, as in many other countries, there are also multiple regulations which will have to be overcome before we begin to see bugs intentionally on our supermarket shelves. It is somewhat ironic that many regulators do permit a certain level of insect pieces to make their way into our foods but having insects for dinner is of course another matter entirely.

No matter how much economic and environmental sense it makes for us to swap beef for beetles, it’s fair to say that a pretty strong advertising campaign is called for. People will have to be convinced to eat insects for the taste and parents will have to be reassured that they shouldn’t feel guilty for serving them up to their kids.  There have already been attempts made to rebrand certain insects as “land shrimp” or to refer to them as “mini-livestock”.

Many entomophagists, the term given to those who eat insects as part of their diet, like to make the point that there isn’t much of a rationale for abhorring insects whilst simultaneously treating shrimp, prawns and caviar as delicacies. Some even describe how lobsters and crabs eat faeces and dead animals whereas grasshoppers eat salad. Whether or not this approach will be successful remains to be seen but I would certainly expect that we’ll be hearing a lot more from these entomophagists in the future.