If you can’t warm up to the idea of inviting your family to a feast of sautéed crickets, caterpillar bread, and a grasshopper salad, lucky for you the future of nutrition may lie inside a beetle shell.
As the global population increases, so will our need for high-yield, low-impact sources of protein that are more efficient and cost-effective than current livestock practices. While companies and researchers alike are exploring insect-sourced protein as a viable alternative, will insects really prove to be a more sustainable alternative to animals?
It’s not a matter of taste, and it’s not a matter of stomach – it’s only a matter of time before we contemplate what’s living in our gardens as the real banquet.
Aside from succulent squashes, hot peppers, and leafy greens, the littlest critters that make a home out of your greenhouse may be making an appearance on the menu before you know it.
Although entomophagy, or the practice of eating insects, is not common to most Western palates, increasing global demand for food and increasingly limited space for livestock could see a shift toward insects as a protein source.
The fact that the planet is literally crawling with them is a testament to how abundant insects seem to be as a protein source. With an estimated 30 million different species of beetles alone, Darwin himself concluded that “the creator, if He exists, has an inordinate fondness for beetles.”
Bugs seem to be a nutritional package: readily available, sustainable and cost-effective.
Or, are they?
Forget Big Macs – the Future is for ‘Bug Macs’
Some advocate insect-based protein sources for their nutritional quality and sustainability, while others find it an economically attractive concept.
When compared to livestock, insect-based food production costs and evironmental impact are seem to be minuscule. Take, for instance, that insects are cold-blooded and by weight require much less energy than livestock to maintain a healthy internal body temperature.
“Regardless of the insect, their viability as alternative protein sources depends on the method in which they are farmed.”
According to FAO predictions, demand for animal protein is expected to double by 2050. Thus, baring a shift in mentality toward global vegetarianism, the need for already expensive and environmentally costly protein sources is projected to expand.
Existing farms are water-intensive, require ample space, pose environmental and public health problems through antibiotics use and close keeping conditions.
For example, depending on the scale of the operation, farmers may deforest hundreds of acres to clear pastures for livestock or construct industrial farming complexes or slaughterhouses. Then, there is the question of packaging and transporting goods to market, which adds to operational costs. Given this, bugs have a sizeable advantage.
Kickstart Your Insect Protein Source
Several companies have already begun investing in insect farming or developing insect-based food products. Founded by three friends from Harvard University and funded by a Kickstarter campaign, Six Foods is all about these little beasts. They believe in the food potential of six-legged rather than four-legged creatures and pressed beans, rice, and roasted cricket flour into their first product, Chirp Chips.
“While cricket farms may surely be a more sustainable and cost-effective alternative to larger livestock like cows and pigs, cricket farming specifically may not be that much better than raising chickens.
Before You Make Spaghetti and “Antballs”
Despite enormous potential, University of California researchers say that nutritional and environmental benefits of crickets have been exaggerated.
As it turns out, while cricket farms may surely be a more sustainable and cost-effective alternative to larger livestock like cows and pigs, cricket farming specifically may not be that much better than raising chickens.
The study measured the amount of vegetal material each cricket used to produce a certain quantity of protein. Five crickets groups were tested with five different diets: grains, soy, corn, food waste and crop residues.
The researchers found that the orchestra of crickets fed with the more expensive and superior quality food grew rapidly.
However, crickets in the group subjected to a low-quality, cheaper diet matured too slowly to harvest efficiently.
Maybe an army of caterpillars might make better grubs, but regardless of the insect, their viability as alternative protein sources depends on the method in which they are farmed.
With how abundant they are in nature and how quickly their populations replenish, insect-based protein clearly has promise to alleviate our approaching global food crisis.
The question is: how?