Opinion: Bugs can solve food crisis

A tropical entomologist argues that edible insects offer a sustainable alternative for conventional meat

By | September 29, 2010

As early as 1885, the British entomologist Vincent M. Holt wrote a booklet with the title: "Why not eat insects?" It is a good question, as most of the world population does. More than 1000 insect species are eaten in the tropics, including caterpillars, grasshoppers, beetles, termites, ants, bees, wasps, and true bugs. This is probably because insects in warmer climates are bigger and show more crowding behaviour than in temperate zones, making harvesting from nature easier. It is an erroneous Western assumption that people in the tropics eat insects because they are starving. To the contrary, an insect snack is often considered a delicacy.
Insects sold at Laotian markets.
Image: Arnold van Huis
Nutritionally, insects are comparable to conventional meat such as pork, beef, mutton, or fish. Depending on the species, insects contain between 30 and 70 percent protein, and are a good source of essential fatty acids, vitamins (in particular the B vitamins) and minerals (such as iron and zinc). The chitinous exoskeleton comprises only a small part of the total biomass (<10 percent) and can even be partially digested, as chitinase has been found in human gastric juices. The meat crisis may prompt us to look for alternative protein sources. Since 1970, world meat consumption has increased almost three-fold, and is expected to have doubled by 2050. However, already 70 percent of all agricultural land is used for livestock. Further intensification of industrial livestock production could increase health and environmental costs, such as contamination of surface and groundwater with nutrients, heavy metals and pathogens; acidification of ecosystems because of ammonia emissions; and use of huge amounts of fresh water (40,000 liters for one kilogram of beef). Besides, high-density animal production systems increase livestock disease incidence, and new, often antibiotic-resistant diseases emerge. Ruminants also emit large amounts of the greenhouse gas methane by enteric fermentation. Although termites, cockroaches and certain beetle species produce methane, most edible insect species do not. Meanwhile, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations estimates that 18 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions is derived from livestock. An advantage of insects compared to conventional meat is that they are cold-blooded and do not use energy to maintain a constant high body temperature. For that reason, they convert feed more efficiently to body mass. To produce one kilogram of meat, a cricket needs 1.7 kilogram of feed -- significantly less than a chicken (2.2), pig (3.6), sheep (6.3), and cow (7.7). Additionally, the edible proportion after processing is much higher for insects -- it's 80 percent in crickets -- than for pork (70 percent), chicken (65 percent), beef (55 percent), and lamb (35 percent).
Bamboo caterpillars in Laotian markets.
Image: Arnold van Huis
Bees and silk worms have been domesticated because of the honey and silk they produce, but they also serve as food. Some insects like palm weevils are semi-domesticated, where people cut palm trees to promote egg laying. The resulting larvae are considered a delicacy all over the tropics. When collected from nature, the sustainability of harvesting practices becomes an issue. Rearing edible insects under artificial conditions offers another possibility. In Thailand, thousands of households produce crickets either for their own consumption or for the market. In the West, companies produce insects as fish bait and as live feed for domestic and zoo animals such as birds and reptiles. Three insect-rearing companies in The Netherlands since 2008 have been producing locusts and mealworms (Tenebrionid beetle larvae) for human consumption. Mechanized rearing procedures should be capable of achieving high production volumes as insects can be reared under crowded conditions and they have high multiplication and development rates. Only those insects should be reared that are not a threat to the environment, so those cleared by quarantine services. However, house crickets and mealworms are not at threat as they are cosmopolitan. What are the prospects for human entomophagy (the formal term for the practice of eating insects)? In tropical countries, eating insects is already common practice; governments and entrepreneurs should exploit the potential, promote the industry, and develop the entomophagy food chain. Mopane worm production in southern Africa is already a US$85 million business, in which 10 billion caterpillars are harvested annually. Improved preservation procedures (drying, freeze drying, tinning) would alleviate the current irregular supply. In Western countries, it may be difficult to change food habits, although we have learned to eat shrimps, oysters and snails. Could insects be made more acceptable by processing them into something unrecognizable (such as the ever-mysterious fish sticks, or hot dogs)? Or, as Wageningen University in The Netherlands is investigating, could we extract, purify and use insect protein as a significant component of the human diet? So why not eat insects? To convince Western consumers, it would be essential to provide information about the nutritional value, ensure food safety, explain the environmental benefits, develop good recipes, make the product accessible, and establish a regulatory and legislative framework. A taste experience is generally a first step for consumers in crossing the psychological barrier. linkurl:Arnold van Huis;http://www.ent.wur.nl/UK/Personnel/Research+Personnel/Arnold+van+Huis/ is a tropical entomologist based at the Wageningen University, the Netherlands.
**__Related stories:__***linkurl:Food in all its splendor;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/55986/
[18th September 2009]*linkurl:Where's the Super Food?;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/55926/
[September 2009]


Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

September 29, 2010

The problem with selling this idea to Westerners is that our food crisis is obesity, not lack of protein sources or even the environmental fallout from meat production. Meat is cheap and plentiful. What motivation would we have to eat insects? Why not explore the use of insects to supplement livestock and pet foods first?


Posts: 9

September 29, 2010

The problem is the social acceptability of the food. The author states;\n\n"So why not eat insects? To convince Western consumers, it would be essential to provide information about the nutritional value, ensure food safety, explain the environmental benefits, develop good recipes, make the product accessible, and establish a regulatory and legislative framework. A taste experience is generally a first step for consumers in crossing the psychological barrier."\n\nI spent a large amount of my career as a technical director for a national environmental testing company with numerous locations around the U.S. My general perspective was that it would be easier to build a functional mass-spectrometer from dirt than to change the culture of the lab. \n\nFood is an intrinsic part of the sociological fabric, and the acceptability of something significantly outside the norm would be difficult at best. Food choice is impacted by status, regional cultural differences, taste and appearance. \n\nIt may be feasible to utilize insect as a protein supplement in foodstuffs, but it will require significant social change for acceptance of insects as a direct food source within the general western culture.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 2

September 29, 2010

After a plate full of maggots, what's next? Soylent green?
Avatar of: Ting Wang

Ting Wang

Posts: 15

September 29, 2010

In China, especially Shandong Province, people like eating insects, such as cicadaworm, silkworm chrysalis.
Avatar of: Kenneth Pimple

Kenneth Pimple

Posts: 5

September 30, 2010

Along with recipes, etc., we'd need new names for some insects. It worked when rape seed oil was renamed canola; it can work for the mealworm, too. \n\nMy understanding is that meat is plentiful and cheap because it is subsidized, as least in the U.S., and produced using inhumane and wasteful practices. If we let meat prices rise to their actual cost, insects might become a bargain.\n\nIt would take social change, but social change can come quite quickly. I don't know exactly when the tide turned, but sometime between 1979 and 1986 cigarette smokers stopped smoking at parties and in college classrooms - now they almost always go outside. This was a huge change and it happened very rapidly. The same could happen with eating insects in the right circumstances. It won't happen unless it starts somewhere.\n\nKen Pimple
Avatar of: Mark Cannell

Mark Cannell

Posts: 15

September 30, 2010

If there is indeed a meat shortage, then pigs offer a good and traditional solution as they turn biomass into pig with extraordinary efficiency. Fish farming might provide an an even better solution to a 'meat' shortage (if one exists) because it does not require require land. I would also like to know if there are long term health risks associated with an insect diet before embracing this rather unpalatable (to me) idea.
Avatar of: Evelyn Haskins

Evelyn Haskins

Posts: 5

October 1, 2010

If people can eat prawns, then they can eat anything!! Just charge enough and call it a delicacy.\n\nHere we are in Australia moaning and groaning about our on-coming locust plague (always after the breaking of a drought!!) when instead we should be rubbing our hands in glee in anticipation of the bumper crop or large edible and, according to our cats and dogs, really delicious locusts :-)\n\n
Avatar of: Mike Serfas

Mike Serfas

Posts: 35

October 8, 2010

It's hard to believe, but history tells us that lobsters were once viewed by Maine residents as a food used only by the poor. It seems reasonable that some insects will be as well accepted in the future. But the product needs to be developed. The most palatable species need to be identified, which can be farmed sustainably at low cost, and mutants or growth conditions should be worked out that yield an abundance of the most desirable meat.
Avatar of: Steven Pace

Steven Pace

Posts: 22

October 23, 2010

Insects are not the only animals studied, other scientists study humans. My educated guess is that westerners generally do not eat insects because they are "yuck". My suggestion would be to start teaching children that certain insects under certain circumstance are good eating. Teaching adults that they have this or that nutrient will NEVER work. I have know for most of my life of the nutrition of insects. It has made no difference in my mind. Scientists need to learn, when you have a problem, find other scientists with useful insights, rather than start from scratch studying, and making mistakes that where made long ago by the experts in the field.

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