Would you take a serving of bugs? Before you cringe, you might be surprised to learn that we already unknowingly consume insects regularly – as stray fragments which often end up in our processed foods.
Insect protein is a fascinating scene to explore. Insects are (mostly) small and often regarded as pests, but they hold the key to potentially avoiding the global protein shortage that is set to hit us hard eventually. With an exploding global population and shortages of land, the already climate-intensive meat industry will struggle to meet rising demands.
Insects bring forth a whole new spin to protein production, being able to be farmed on much less land and produce less emissions than conventional sources of protein. This makes it both economical and sustainable. Insect protein has two main applications; human consumption and animal feed. In this article, we will look into how they might end up directly on our plates.
It was recently announced that the EU’s European Food Safety Authority is set to make a landmark endorsement of insect protein's safety for human consumption. This is exciting news for insect farmers and sustainability advocates. Insects are nutritious alternatives to mainstream protein staples such as chicken, pork, beef and fish. Over 1900 species of insects have been used as food and form part of the traditional diets of at least 2 billion people. The two most popular commercially produced insects are cricket and meal worms, often eaten whole or grounded into protein flour.
What is so great about insect protein?
1. There’s a huge environmental benefit. Insects have an efficient feed conversion rate compared to other farmed animals with little management needed for rearing and husbandry. This results in less resources required to grow the same amount of protein.
They are also reported to emit 80 times less methane than cattle and 10 times less ammonia than pigs in addition to requiring less land and water. In addition, some insects can be reared on food side streams, helping to reduce food wastage.
2. There’s a huge health benefit. The majority of insects are known to be rich in protein, healthy fats, iron and calcium while bring low in carbohydrates.
It also helps that most insects, such as crickets, are rather tasteless. This makes them an easy addition to a variety of food, such as cookies, sausages and muffins, helping to increase the nutritional value of the products.
Why are people so excited about the new European regulations?
Insects are currently considered novel food under the EU regulations, which has resulted in complete bans in some EU countries like France and Italy (other countries like the UK and Netherlands still allow the sale of insect-based products) and hence many untapped markets. Outside of the EU, there are much less regulations. For instance, insects can be sold as human food in the US as long as they meet the FDA requirements. In many South East Asian countries, a long tradition of food entomophagy have led to little need for regulations on the breeding, sale and export of insects.
Indeed, there has always been great social apprehension in the Global North about consuming insects. Insects are much less common (Europe is home to only 2% of the world’s edible insects) and smaller in size there and hence have always been seen as dirty creepy crawlies. Being given the “blessing” of the European Union opens up doors and allows a snowballing effect. People who were wary but adventurous now have the opportunity to try them and there is now a chance to convince the apprehensive. Insect companies can now move into previously closed off markets, and several companies have been ramping up their production in reaction to this news.
Sounds great! So what’s happening in the scene?
According to a report by Barclays, edible insects are set to become an $8 billion business by 2030 from the less than 1 billion it was worth last year in 2019. There are many insect farms globally that cater to various types of protein needs but there are a few large leading players in the industry such as Entomo Farms, a Canadian company, which currently produces 250,000 pounds of crickets annually and has received over US$4.6 million in funding. Another player is Protifarm, a Dutch company, which has the capacity at its 3000 metres sq. facility to rear enough buffalo beetles to meet the daily protein requirements of 90,000 people.
It can’t be all that great though?
One large criticism of insect farming is the supposed sustainability claims by insect farming companies. As a nascent research field, there is limited research on the environmental footprint of insects. For instance, the environmental footprint may not actually be as small if they are fed cultivated grains. There is also a massive possibility of significant energy usage in the processing (grinding, freeze-drying, etc.) and heating/cooling of the farms.
Insect protein also faces resistance from the plant-based community. Depending on the reasoning behind a consumer’s decision to adopt a plant-based diet, insect protein may not be something they can include into their diet. For instance, someone who turned vegan for environmental reasoning may be comfortable consuming insect protein as it is more sustainable (even more so than some plant-based proteins!). However, someone who turned vegan for ethical reasons may not. This is particularly highlighted by the big question of how we can measure animal welfare for insects.
Insects = The Future of Food?
Insects have great potential to be sustainable and economic sources of protein, but a huge barrier standing in its way is consumer perception. How do we convince consumers that something they usually view as a creepy crawly can also be a delicacy. As such, despite great education and marketing efforts, insect protein is more likely to be part of a grander platter of alternative proteins such as plant-based and cellular meat which are also slowly entering into supermarkets and dinner plates.