Edible Insects as a Sustainable Food Alternative

Dried grasshoppers, mealworms and crickets seasoned with spices
•••

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

No matter how unpalatable insects might seem to you, creepy crawlies such as silkworms, caterpillars, and crickets just might be a key source of protein in your food. They also might be an important way to increase sustainability in the food chain.

The notion of insects as food might make your skin crawl, but they have been a common part of the human diet for thousands of years. Today, they are actively consumed in various parts of the world. The farming of insects such as crickets has taken off in many countries including Thailand, India, South Africa, and Kenya.

There are various estimates about how widespread insect-eating is. Many proponents of entomophagy (the technical term for eating insects) claim that insects are eaten in 80% of countries, while the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations said in a 2013 report that 20% of the world’s population eats insects. Here's a closer look at the potential for insects as sustainable food alternatives.

Why Eat Insects?

Insects are cheap, nutritious, and—according to some supporters—delicious. There are over 2,100 edible insect species, which offers a vast array of options for food dishes. FAO states that edible insects contain high-quality protein, amino acids, vitamins, calcium, zinc, and iron for humans.

When you have a healthy source of protein, minerals, and other important nutrients, a Michelin restaurant taste experience might arguably be a secondary priority. Consider that 100 grams of beef contain 29 grams of protein, but also 21 grams of fat. On the other hand, 100 grams of grasshopper contain 20 grams of protein and only 6 grams of fat.

In addition to nutritional value, commercial insect production has a much smaller negative impact on the environment than traditional sources of protein. Rearing conventional livestock, for example, accounts for a staggering 18% of total greenhouse gas emissions. But insect breeding releases much less greenhouse gas, methane, and ammonia than raising cattle and pigs, and requires less water.

History of Insect Consumption

As mentioned above, insects have been consumed by humans for thousands of years, starting from the time of ancient hunters and gatherers. The practice continued to evolve with succeeding civilizations. The Greeks and Romans were known to dine on locusts and beetle larvae. One renowned Greek philosopher and scientist even wrote about harvesting tasty cicadas. The New Testament describes how St. John the Baptist survived on honey and locusts when he lived in the deep desert. The ancient Algerians ate locusts as a cheap and nutritious source of food after boiling them in salt water and drying them in the sun. Australian aboriginals would eat foods made of moths, witchetty grubs, and honeypot ants.

What Countries Eat Insects the Most?

Mexico, Brazil, Ghana, Thailand, China, and the Netherlands are some of the countries where insect-eating is most widely practiced today.

Arguably, Mexico is the country where bug consumption is most popular. You will find many Mexican delicacies such as candy-covered worms, chocolate-covered locusts, and ant eggs soaked in butter. Farther south, Brazilians like to collect ants, remove wings, fry, and eat them. They also like ants dipped in chocolate. To them, ants simply taste like mint. Bug-eating has had a long tradition in many parts of that country.

Surprisingly, insects account for up to 60% of the dietary protein in a rural African diet. Termites are very popular, especially in Ghana. How about snack food? Crickets, grasshoppers, and many varieties of worms fill this role in Thailand. Many Thailand bars also serve fried bugs along with their libations. In China, fried silkworm moth larvae and roasted bee larvae are two common items in food stalls.

Eating Bugs in the United States

With the U.S. edible insect industry already registering $20 million annually in sales, there seems to be an opportunity for growth. While not yet widely popular, many food makers are convincing Americans to eat bugs by educating them about the various health and environmental benefits associated with the practice.

Silkworm soup and grasshopper tacos are available in some San Francisco, New York, and Washington, D.C. restaurants. Recently, Exo, a cricket protein bar, raised more than $4 million from big-name investors. The major insect-based food makers like Exo, Chirap, and Chapul all note on their packaging that their products are gluten-free. Exo and Chapul even specify that their products contain no dairy or soy. Some followers of the Paleo diet in America are already eating cricket powder protein bars. Protein is also a priority for CrossFit devotees and weightlifters, and companies like Exo are finding support from such people.

Sustainability

According to a recent study from the University of Copenhagen, insects are an extremely sustainable source of protein, much more so than meat. And according to the U.N., the worldwide livestock industry accounts for over 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. By comparison, cricket production is 20 times more efficient as a protein source than cattle, and it produces 80 times less methane. Additionally, insects can thrive on organic waste, allowing farmers to cut back on growing the grain used in animal feed, which requires significant energy and water resources.

The rearing of insects requires dramatically less food than raising beef. For example, according to the FAO, insects consume just 2 pounds of feed to produce 1 pound of meat, while cattle require 8 pounds of feed to generate 1 pound of beef. That’s why the U.N. called for swapping burgers for bugs.

Insect farming makes economic sense as well. As insects are cold-blooded, they require less energy to stay warm. This helps explain why they are more efficient at converting feed into protein. Consider that crickets need four times less feed than sheep, 12 times less than cattle, and half as much as broiler chickens and pigs to produce the same amount of protein.

While many people are still aghast at the thought of eating bugs, insects are increasingly recognized as a good protein alternative for the future. Current projections say that, by 2050, the world’s population will reach 9 billion by 2050. The urgency for sustainable food protein alternatives such as those provided by entomophagy will only continue to grow.

Opportunities and Challenges

Sustainability, increasing demand for protein, and low feed-to-protein ratios are some of the reasons startups around the world are keen on establishing insect farming businesses. Ynsect, an insect farming company from France, has raised over $160 million since is started in 2011. AgriProtein, a startup from South Africa, has raised more than $105 million in funding so far.

But the industry is not without its share of challenges. The dislike, disgust, or fear of much of the populace toward eating insects will require a major shift in public perception. Given the resistance in the marketplace, a potential entrepreneur must deal with operational aspects of starting a bug production operation while also trying to educate consumers about the benefits of insect-based food and convince them to try it.

Conclusion

While insects are a sustainable, alternative protein source for the future, it will take time to develop a culture where people feel as comfortable eating insects as other foods. Maybe large-scale production and mass acceptance of insect-eating in other parts of the world—or by some groups in the U.S.—can help insect-based food to become gradually accepted as an everyday protein source for the masses.

There will be a great interest and a sense of urgency to see how the new insect-farming companies perform over the next couple of decades. Perhaps there will be a point of convergence for a growing and increasingly sophisticated industry and a gradually transforming consumer palate.