Sustainably feeding the growing global human population is one of the greatest challenges of our time. As climate change advances, and ecosystems are degraded due to unsustainable land use, resource scarcity will rise around the globe.
In terms of diet, the inability to grow fresh and nutritious foods on degraded and desertified lands could have the paradoxical effect of propagating rising hunger rates and rising obesity rates, as food shortages and highly processed foods will become the norm.
In addition to the more than 9 billion humans projected to occupy this planet by the year 2030, billions more domesticated animals (for food and as pets) will also need to be fed. Agriculture itself uses approximately 70% of fresh water withdrawals globally, and cows alone occupy 30% of the planet’s arable land. The current globalized agricultural system, based on intensive cultivation for human food and animal feed, along with a high consumption of meat, is evidently a large part of the problem for maintaining a healthy human populace and planet.
Many proposed solutions to address these multi-dimensional global problems have substantial trade-offs and obstacles for implementation. So it is especially important to recognize and embrace ideas that come along with evident far-reaching positive impacts and minimal negative externalities. One of these integrated solutions to embrace and expand is Entomophagy, which is the consumption and cultivation of insects!
Global Context of Entomophagy
Insects have always been an important part of the varied diets of our species. Despite the biased aversion of “Western civilization” to the consumption of insects, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, more than 2 billion people around the world still eat insects as part of their standard and traditional diets: that represents between a quarter and a third of the entire global population.
Though insects are eaten in all parts of the world, the populations that currently consume the most insects are concentrated in the equatorial “tropics” of Asia, Latin America and Africa. In fact, more than 2,100 edible insect species have been identified. According to the FAO, “the most commonly consumed insects are beetles (Coleoptera) (31 percent), caterpillars (Lepidoptera) (18 percent) and bees, wasps and ants (Hymenoptera) (14 percent). These are followed by grasshoppers, locusts and crickets (Orthoptera) (13 percent), cicadas, leaf and planthoppers, scale insects and true bugs (Hemiptera) (10 percent), termites (Isoptera) (3 percent), dragonflies (Odonata) (3 percent), flies (Diptera) (2 percent) and other orders (5 percent).” Most of these insects are still gathered in the wild, though there is great potential for cultivating them sustainably as a “micro livestock.”
Before digging into the more reductionist health, economic and environmental benefits of eating insects, it is important to mention the biggest reason that insects are still eaten by more than 2 billion people around the world; they are tasty! Many insects are actually considered delicacies.
Examples of delicious six (and eight) legged critters are abundant. Their flavor profiles, preparations, cultural and nutritive uses are also extremely diverse. In Colombia, giant “big-butt ants” (hormigas culonas) are roasted, salted and snacked on like peanuts. In Mexico, Maguey worms (also called Agave worms because they live in the agave plant) and ant eggs called “escamoles” are cherished for their complex flavors. Mojojoy worms live in Aguaje palm trees and are a delicacy in the Amazon river basin, where they are often grilled and eaten with different cassava preparations.
In Cambodia, tarantulas (which are arachnids, not insects, as they have eight legs instead of six), are fried and eaten as a delicacy, along with a plethora of different insects (hexapods, or six-legged) that are consumed throughout Southeast Asia. In Bali, Indonesia, dragonflies, which are referred to as “chapung,” are caught with palmwood sticks soaked in sweet jackfruit-tree sap, and eaten with enthusiasm after being fried in coconut oil. In Japan giant hornets are consumed as part of a special drink, while their larvae are fried with ginger and considered a gourmet treat. In Kenya termites are collected from their nests and eaten live or dried in the sun, and in southern parts of Africa, Mopane caterpillars are a highly sought-after dish for special occasions. In Papua, a special kind of forest grub is the central focus of a yearly festival for the traditional indigenous Kombai tribe that is currently fighting to protect the rich tropical ecosystems of the island. Different species of grasshoppers, crickets and locusts are eaten as an energizing and delicious snack all over the globe.
One could spend a lifetime exploring the thousands of well-documented and obscure traditional and modernized gustatory delights of entomophagy.
Insects: High-Quality Protein and Micronutrient Source
As with any food group, there is large variability in the nutrition profiles of different insects. Nutritional content also depends on the metamorphic stage (stage of life) in which insects are consumed. Generally speaking, according to the FAO, “Insects provide high-quality protein and nutrients comparable with meat and fish…They are also rich in fibre and micronutrients such as copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorous, selenium and zinc.” Many insects, like mealworms, also contain levels of omega 3 fatty acids comparable to oily fish species like salmon.
With strong macro and micronutrient profiles, insects should be an important primary and supplementary food source for integrated health and developmental health for children, as well as a natural component of chronic disease prevention and self management. Definitive research connecting insect consumption to health is limited, and truly holistic health is a result of a wide and interconnected range of physiological, psychological and sociocultural factors. Nonetheless, it is worth noting that in many countries where insects are still an important part of the standard diet, such as Myanmar and Cambodia, there is relatively low incidence of metabolic disorders like obesity, and the related conditions of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Unfortunately nutrition transitions are happening in many of these countries, with insects and other traditional whole foods being replaced by diets high in meat and processed foods. The shift away from traditional diets in favor of “Western diets” is driving the rising global epidemics of obesity and type 2 diabetes.
Socioeconomic Benefits of Growing Entomophagy
The growth of entomophagy will have strong socioeconomic benefits in both developing and developed countries. There is great potential for entrepreneurship, innovation and mechanization in the rearing and processing of insects for human and animal consumption. There are also marketing and distribution opportunities in the consumer cultures of the west in a push to make entomophagy more mainstream.
In developing countries specifically, increased insect demand could help impoverished individuals (even those who are landless), find an important source of income. Both wild gathering of insects and small-scale cultivation requires minimal capital investment. Insects are found almost everywhere in the tropics and they reproduce quickly, so there is substantial space for growth in the artisanal entomophagy market. This point about insects being ubiquitous and having fast reproduction rates is also important for ensuring food security in developing and developed countries that are projected to suffer from extended droughts and other consequences of climate change.
Environmental Benefits of Insects vs. Other Protein Sources
Perhaps the biggest selling point to potential future bug eaters in the west is their ecological sustainability: insects have a minimal footprint compared to other animal protein sources.
Insects are ectothermic (“cold-blooded”). Being ectothermic means that insects do not produce their own body heat, and therefore use much less energy to regulate body temperature. The body heat of insects and other ectotherms comes from sunlight or artificial light. They can therefore convert food they consume into body mass far more efficiently than endothermic species (warm-blooded animals) like cows, pigs, chickens and humans.
The differences in so-called feed conversion efficiency, or feed-to-meat conversion rate, is most pronounced when comparing “micro livestock” like crickets, to pervasive and extremely inefficient macro livestock like cows. Statistics vary widely, but the FAO and other sources agree that crickets and most other insects can on average convert feed to meat at an approximately 2:1 ratio (so two kilograms or pounds of feed becomes one kilogram or pound of insect mass, respectively). Cows on the other hand have a feed-to-meat ratio of around 8:1. For many insects, including crickets, the majority of their body mass (around 80%) is edible and 21% of their weight is protein; this is compared to around 40% of a cow that can be eaten, with beef being approximately 10% protein. So in reality, crickets are at least 20 times more efficient than cows in converting feed into animal protein.
Possibly the world’s most precious and over-exploited resource, fresh water, is also used far more efficiently in the rearing of insects than with traditional livestock. Again there is a wide disparity in exact statistics, but all research is reaching the same conclusion; insects reared as micro livestock require far less water than conventional livestock. One source claims that 238 grams of cricket protein can be produced using 100 gallons of water, while only 6 grams of beef protein and 18 grams of chicken protein can be produced with the same amount of water. This makes cricket protein 40 times more efficient in water use than cow protein and 13 times more efficient than chicken protein. A pro-entomophagy industry source claims that only one gallon of water is required to produce one pound of crickets, as opposed to 2,000 gallons of water required to produce one pound of beef, which is a remarkable disparity. The FAO is a bit more hesitant to make definitive claims, but states that “Insects use significantly less water than conventional livestock. Mealworms, for example, are more drought-resistant than cattle.” This point will become increasingly important around the world in the coming decades, with diminishing groundwater supplies, melting mountain glaciers and extended droughts expected to cause stresses to water and food supplies.
A separate but related point to feed and water efficiency is space efficiency; insects require far less land than conventional livestock to produce comparable amounts of food. Insects can be raised in warehouses, with artificial light, and stacked vertically. So in addition to higher feed conversion efficiency, “cricket farms” and other vertical micro livestock possibilities have a much higher production of protein per unit area than conventional livestock. In a rapidly urbanizing world, insects could be one excellent solution for maintaining health in urban settings while also limiting the negative impacts of global food supply chains. The pervasive long-distance transportation of food around the world accounts for a large portion of modern agriculture’s carbon footprint. Also, if demand for insects grows as much as projected, the ability to cultivate them as micro livestock will help limit any potential strains on wild insect populations.
Many insects can also efficiently consume organic waste and convert it into body mass; so in theory much of our urban waste can be “bioconverted” into high quality protein. Along similar lines, insects may also be able to bioconvert conventional livestock waste into human or animal feed. These are referred to as “closed-loop” processes, and are critical in truly sustainable systems.
As for greenhouse gas emissions, crickets for example directly produce an estimated 80 times less methane than cows. For estimating carbon dioxide emissions one must consider the intricacies of land use in each case and the fact that much cow pasture around the world (especially in the Amazon river basin) used to be carbon-sequestering forest. Regardless, the comparatively low-intensity processes involved in rearing insects in warehouses or collecting them in forests make them many times less carbon-intensive than cows and other livestock. Insects also likely leave less of a carbon footprint than many industrially farmed crops that are reliant on intensive agricultural models of heavy inputs and long transport, but this point is speculative for the time being.
Insects as Animal Feed
Insects can also be used as animal feed, both for pets and reared animals.
Insects as animal feed could be especially beneficial if applied to aquacultures (farmed fish), whose current fishmeal is often derived from the industrial fishing of our already overfished and vulnerable oceans.
A chemical called “chitin,” which is found in the exoskeletons of insects, helps to boost the immune systems of chickens and other poultry. This means that using insects as a substitute feed for chickens, who typically feed on industrially farmed grains, soy and corn, could help minimize the need for potentially harmful and overused antibiotics and be more sustainable.
Entomophagy: An Integrated and Sustainable Solution
There are many ways to combine the above points to form integrated and sustainable solutions to a number of profound problems facing a resource-stressed world in the grips of climate change.
A large increase in entomophagy around the world will lead to new industries and livelihoods in rich and poor countries alike. Increased health from entomophagy will make individuals and societies more productive and resilient to inevitable challenges in the coming decades. Efficient land and water use along with low greenhouse gas emissions, will help to both feed a growing human population and preserve a planet whose resources and ecosystems are being constantly exploited and degraded. Increased demand for different bugs, grubs, worms and arachnids will lend respect to the knowledge acquired over generations by traditional communities, who should be considered strategic partners in preserving cultural diversity, biodiversity, and carbon-sequestering and ecosystem-service-providing forests.
The Western Entomophobia
Considering all of these positive points about entomophagy, there is little explanation for why most “Western” consumers avoid insects beyond cultural biases and food prejudice. Or let’s just call it more appropriately an “Ewww! Factor.”
It is not as simple as claiming that citizens of Western civilization are silly and irrational; there do exist some strong sociocultural, biological, geological and ecological reasons behind why Europeans and their descendants in the United States, Canada, Australia, Argentina, and specific demographics of South Africa and various other countries around the world, lost the taste for insects. For example, as prehistoric humans migrated to more northern latitudes, insects became less ubiquitous and diverse, so naturally they lost their prominent role in many neo-European diets. More specifically, Europe over the past million years or so, has often been covered by ice sheets during extended ice ages, where insects (and other life forms) struggled to survive. These ice ages left a low level of insect biodiversity on the relatively small continent. Even in temperate Europe, insects do not grow as large as in the tropics, so there was and is less incentive for humans to invest the energy in gathering them. A inter-disciplinary explanation of westerners “entomophobia” was promoted by Jeffrey Lockwood in his book “The Infested Mind.”
Compounding these natural limitations to entomophagy for ancient and modern Europeans, there is also the possibility that the spread of monotheism under Judeo-Christian dogmatism helped to vilify the ingestion of insects: a verse in the Book of Leviticus in the Old Testament says, “Every swarming thing that swarms on the ground is detestable; it shall not be eaten.”
Can We Change Our Minds and Palates?
No matter how deep these biases against insects seem to be, there is some strong precedent that suggests humans can quickly adapt and change their dietary patterns and preferences. This includes the United States, where in past epochs lobster and shrimp (close aquatic arthropod cousins of insects) were only fed to the dredges of society. Lobster in fact was formerly referred to as “the cockroach of the sea,” and in Maine they are still referred to colloquially as “bugs.” The idea of eating raw fish was also considered almost universally disgusting in the US until the subtle introduction of the California roll in the 1970’s. Now in cosmopolitan and rural areas alike, lobster, shrimp and sushi are sought-after delicacies and well-accepted food-staples that can even be found in supermarkets.
Let’s also not forget about all of the mysterious food and food-like substances that Americans blindly consume with gusto: Hot dogs and chicken nuggets are two well-documented and terrifying “animal protein” examples. More generally, it is unlikely that many people in the western world think much about the primary source of the food that they are eating; how many people really have an image of a cow in mind when biting into a hamburger?
The cynical way to interpret these points is that people can be convinced to eat just about anything, through marketing and manipulations of flavors. As opposed to questionable food sources, in the case of insects the natural flavors and nutritional profiles are actually agreeable and healthful to the human palate and physiology, and can be collected and cultivated sustainably. So before snarking about how with unprocessed insects, one needs to actually see and often eat the entire gross-looking critter, please reflect on the story of their arthropod cousin, the lobster.
A Growing Acceptance of Entomophagy in the West
In fact awareness and acceptance of insects as a tasty, nutritious and sustainable protein source is already gaining significant ground in the United States and Europe. Base ingredients like cricket powders circumvent the cultural hurdle of having to see the whole insect, and can be the main source of protein in familiar foods like energy bars and shakes. On the other end of the growing Western entomophagy spectrum, a range of creatures are being prepared at progressive high-end restaurants. The market for the open-minded, as well as the socially and environmentally conscious citizens of the Western world, is growing. By 2023 entomophagy is projected to be a 1.2 billion dollar global industry, with great potential for growth in production and consumption in the United States. There are a number of exciting startups taking the lead in insect cultivation, processing and distribution, though prices remain relatively high in the west for insects compared to other protein sources.
A great sign of the shifting times is at Safeco Field, home of the Seattle Mariners; here they have begun selling a traditional snack from Oaxaca, Mexico called “Chapulines,” which are fried grasshoppers flavored with chili and lime juice and eaten whole. From all accounts, baseball fans are loving them, and sales are booming!
Beyond a Niche Market
So what psychological and socioeconomic changes will need to happen in order for insects to move beyond a niche market and claim their rightful place as a major protein source of the future?
What is required is a combination of research and marketing to gain a wider appreciation of the taste, health benefits and low ecological impacts of consuming insects, and the scaling up of investments, production and industry innovations to make insects more cost-competitive as both human and animal feed. As with so many things in a globalized neo-capitalist world, the growth of the entomophagy market will come down to demand through the collection of individual consumer choices, and a full accounting of the true costs to human and planetary health associated with livestock and industrial agriculture. Hopefully in the near future the choice will be for human health and sustainably cultivated food, through the consumption of delicious bugs, grubs, worms and arachnids: Get past the Ewww! Factor and challenge yourself!!
Resources and Further Reading
Kumu, M., Ward, P.J., et al.. “Lost food, wasted resources: Global food supply chain losses and their impacts on freshwater, cropland, and fertiliser use.” Science of the Total Environment. November 2012.