Will we feed the world on insects?

Summary

Entomophagy, or insect consumption, is already feeding people in 80% of the world’s countries, with many nutritional and environmental advantages. But it still does not constitute a real alternative to meat or fish, for cultural reasons and for lack of an industrial approach.

08Nov.
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Will entomophagy soon become just another of our weird culinary habits, along with eating snails, frogs’ legs and offal? Will we soon be serving insects and arachnids at the dinner table? The idea might sound repulsive to most people living in developed countries, but

80% of the world’s nations already consume insects on a regular basis, and this concerns over 1400 species.

In Asia, Africa, South America and Australia, people are meeting some of their nutritional needs with a variety of creepy-crawlies. But this consumption is often linked to local, cultural habits and the production of insects has not yet reached the industrial stage of “minilivestocking”. And soon it might have to. With an ever-increasing world population, an ever-diminishing amount of available arable land and fast-depleting natural resources, feeding everyone with the recipes that we have been predominantly using so far seems completely illusory. This is where insects come into the picture: more and more FAO experts now see entomophagy as a credible, sustainable and safe alternative to meat or fish for providing protein to the world. Insects are also a source of fatty acids and vitamins. And they are far more respectful of the environment than “traditional” farming: they use much less land, much less water, much less food – insects transform food into matter more efficiently than the animals we normally eat –, and produce far fewer greenhouse gases. They also reproduce so fast that production possibilities are wide open. So, why wait? A large-scale fly larvae production factory has recently opened in China, aiming at taking insect consumption to the next level: the mass market. Will many others soon be following this example?

Overcoming disgust

The major obstacle that still keeps bugs out of our daily meals is disgust. While our ancestors most certainly ate insects when they lacked animal protein, and while many of our fellow humans do so under exactly the same circumstances, there is still, in the countries that can “afford” not to resort to them, a strong rejection of insects. The most surprising part of it is that these Western consumers happily eat invertebrates such as molluscs and crustaceans and a variety of foods that could at first sight be labelled “disgusting”. The advocates of entomophagy stress that insect-based recipes are often as delicious as conventional ones: taste would not be abandoned in favour of nutritional and environmental concerns. There is thus a vast task ahead in educating these populations if bugs want to make it big in the world.

But even in countries where eating insects is culturally accepted, a few barriers still exist.

First, an almost technological one: with what do we feed enormous amounts of insects designed to feed humans? In the fly larvae factory in China, it is not yet possible to give them rice bran, and they feed on animal excrement, which makes them suitable only for animal consumption. More widely, the question of diet for all bugs is crucial in guaranteeing the safety of food for human consumers. Then, there is the issue of insects that are captured in their natural habitat: if they live in agricultural areas, it is highly likely that they are contaminated by pesticides and herbicides – some actually argue that there is a slight absurdity in killing so many protein sources just for the sake of saving crops that are less nourishing. The wildlife insect populations should also be managed so as never to let them become extinct, as they are crucial to biodiversity and the preservation of the environment. And finally, in order to create a real economic opportunity for those who wish to develop minilivestocking, the food system will have to include insects in the supply chain, mostly to feed other animals.

These obstacles do not seem insurmountable. They mainly require an educational approach, common sense and sound governance to be overcome. If these conditions are met, we might soon enjoy larvae-, cricket-, ant- and scorpion-based meals. And, just as we got used to eating raw fish in expensive sushi-bar restaurants, we will not find it so disgusting after all.

(Photo from http://raf-photos.blogspot.fr/)