A bug's life

31st May 2019

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Could insects be the sustainable protein source the world is waiting for? David Burrows investigates

It's 2025 and you're popping out for lunch, excited because it's Friday and that means the cricket Caesar salad is on the menu. Hopefully it's not sold out – again. However, you have a plan B: the mushroom soup with ants' eggs. And a plan C: the mealworm arancini is to die for.

Read the hype about insects and it seems inevitable that this is where we are headed. Current consumption levels of traditional livestock protein are unsustainable, after all, so leave the lamb and bring on the bugs – the sustainable, healthy and ethical alternative. Or at least that's how this alternative protein source has been pitched, making it the hipster food du jour.

Last November, Sainsbury's became the first UK supermarket to stock edible insect products (Eat Grub's Smoky BBQ Crunchy Roasted Crickets). In May, insects appeared for the first time on the regular daily menu at a takeaway food chain (Eat Grub's roasted crickets again, across Abokado's London outlets). The concept might be “quirky“, Abokado managing director Kara Alderin told The Guardian, but crickets are “packed with flavour and protein“ and represent “the way forward in healthy, sustainable snacking“.

Are insects a quick fix to our unsustainable levels of traditional animal consumption, though? Or should we just eat more plants?

Untapped potential

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), insects form part of the traditional diets of at least two billion people. “People throughout the world have been eating insects as a regular part of their diets for millennia,“ the FAO noted in 2013, but there is “huge potential that has essentially not been tapped yet“ – mostly in the West. The FAO has just published a book, Edible Insects: Future prospects for food and feed security, in which the opportunities are unpicked – arguably the point from which the current hype evolved.

Insects, the FAO writes, offer environmental benefits, including their high feed-conversion efficiency (an animal's capacity to convert feed mass into increased body mass, represented as a kilo of feed per kilo of weight gain) and their relatively light greenhouse gas footprint. They also require little water and can be reared on organic side streams (including, in some countries outside the EU, animal waste), reducing environmental contamination while adding value to waste. “The production of greenhouse gases by insect farming would likely be lower than that of livestock,“ the FAO said. “For example, pigs produce 10 to 100 times more greenhouse gases per kilogram than mealworms.“

Overstated claims?

However, it's not as simple as 'beef bad, grubs good'. Take the research published in the journal Plos One in 2015, in which University of California researchers measured the biomass output and feed conversion ratios of house crickets reared on different diets. “I think the sustainability claims on this topic have been overstated given the current state of knowledge,“ Mark Lundy, the study's lead author, told Time. He concluded that feeding crickets the same as chickens showed “little improvement“ in terms of protein conversion efficiency. Feeding the crickets food waste showed promise, and it's possible that other species, such as black soldier fly, could be better suited to that kind of feed. “I am impressed by the amount of innovation that has sprung up around insect cultivation and cuisine in the last few years,“ Lundy said. “However, I also think we need to be clear-eyed about what the sustainability gains are and aren't.“

Other life-cycle analyses show insects as the clear winner. A team led by the University of Edinburgh, for example, has calculated that replacing half the meat eaten worldwide with crickets and mealworms would cut farmland use by a third, substantially reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. However, they noted, more research is needed on the technologies and production systems, and the feed used. Last year, the UK government gave £571,166 to Entomics, a Cambridge firm that is rearing black soldier fly larvae on different 'recipes'. It's even investigating microbial fermentation technology, a technique that reportedly enhances the nutritional quality of the feed with knock-on benefits in terms of animal welfare and reduced antibiotic use.

Comparing feedstocks

This is where it gets interesting – it's not just about what we eat, but what the insects eat, too. “It's so important to look at the nutritional and environmental benefits of different feeds,“ says Alejandro Parodi, a PhD student at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. Parodi is rearing black soldier fly larvae on a range of feedstocks and then comparing the environmental impact with sending the waste for composting or to an anaerobic digestion plant. A handful of companies are hopeful of establishing industrial-scale insect farming systems, but their feedstocks remain a secret. “Insects are the apex of the recycling world. All we are trying to do is mimic that,“ said Keiran Whitaker, CEO and founder of Entocycle, the UK's first insect production facility, in a recent interview with The Grocer. By 2021, he wants six large-scale commercial farms. “Five years ago, when I said humans will be eating insects, people looked at me like I was crazy,“ Whitaker said.

Still, to think insects will become a staple part of our diets remains ridiculous. In a UK poll conducted by Mintel in February 2018, only 11% of respondents were interested, with 37% calling it 'disgusting'. But what about feeding them to our pets, or farmed fish and other livestock? This is where the real market could be, especially given recent changes to animal feed regulations.

In July 2017, the European Commission opened the aquaculture feed market to insect-derived protein. This reduces reliance on fishmeal and soy (a commodity linked to deforestation). Last year, the world's first insect-fed salmon – 'Friendly Salmon' – was launched, and positive talks have taken place to extend the market to pigs and poultry. This will be more complicated, but as Dennis Oonincx, an animal nutrition expert at Wageningen University, explains, insects make “perfect sense“ as poultry feed, as they are part of the birds' natural diet. However, there are topics that require “good science to show whether they are or are not beneficial“, he told me, and “sustainability is one of those topics“.

Knowledge gaps

“It would probably be more efficient to eat a black soldier fly burger than a pork chop“

Another is welfare. The FAO said insects present “few animal welfare issues, although the extent to which insects experience pain is largely unknown“. So, are insects sentient? Phil Brooke from Compassion in World Farming tried to answer this in his chapter for the book Farming, Food and Nature: Respecting Animals, People and the Environment. He found some evidence for this, but in the meantime, insects must be “given the benefit of the doubt“.

What is often forgotten is that the insects in the diets of the two billion people who already eat them are harvested in the wild; we know little about farming them on an industrial scale. There are no European rules on insect welfare. The International Platform of Insects for Food and Feed (IPIFF) has guidelines, but with this sector set to balloon, the lack of data has to be a concern.

IPIFF estimates that 1,900 tonnes of insect protein were produced in Europe in 2018; by next year this could be 194,400 tonnes, and more than 1.2m tonnes come 2025. It's too early to say whether insects represent a truly sustainable protein source, and there is much to learn. As Brooke put it: “It would probably be more efficient to eat a black soldier fly burger than a pork chop or a chicken breast. However, it would be more efficient still to eat the cereals or soya [on which the flies are fed] directly.“

Insect bites

Bug consumption looks set to increase in the West

  • 2 billion - Insects form part of the traditional diet of at least two billion people
  • 1.2m tonnes - Europe's insect protein market could reach 1.2m tonnes by 2025, up from 1,900 tonnes today
  • 1,900 - More than 1,900 insect species have been used as food. Insects consumed:
    • Beetles (Coleoptera) 31%
    • Caterpillars (Lepidoptera) 18%
    • Bees, wasps and ants (Hymenoptera) 14%
    • Grasshoppers, locusts and crickets (Orthoptera) 13%
    • Cicadas, leafhoppers, planthoppers, scale insects and true bugs (Hemiptera) 10%
    • Termites (Isoptera) 3%
    • Dragonflies (Odonata) 3%
    • Flies (Diptera) 2%
    • Other 5%

David Burrows is a freelance journalist

Image credit: iStock


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