There are 1.4 million identified animal species on earth, and a whopping 71% of them are insects. Beyond those 1 million insect species recognized, some estimate that a million or so more have yet to be identified. There are a lot of insects on this earth! Importantly, only 5 thousand of them (or 0.5%) can be considered harmful to crops, livestock, or human beings.
Yet, due to the detrimental impact that these various insects can have on Western agriculture, insects have generally been viewed as a pests.
With exception to many western cultures, insects often make up an important part of many diets and have been a significant food source for tens of thousands of years.
The Food and Ag Organization estimates upwards of 1900 different insect species to be edible.
Presently, insects are consumed in over 80 countries and feed 2 billion people in Asia, Africa, and the Americas.
Despite the length and degree to which entomophagy – or the human consumption of insects – has existed in human societies, it has only been recently that the practice has captured the attention of research institutions, chefs, legislators, and food and fed agencies. Recently, even news sources such as Fox News, the New Yorker, and the Washington Post have all published articles about “ministock” – or insects – as a promising nutrition source.
So what’s the buzz about?
One of the strongest arguments for increasing insect consumption in the US is the potential to redirect consumer’s increasing demand of meat. On average, by 2030, per capita meat consumption in high-income and developed countries is expected to increase by 9%. Considering that this is a per-capita calculation – and world populations are only continuing to rise –
there is an inevitable increasing demand for animal-based protein.
Many edible insects meet the variety of amino acid requirements for the human diet and also contain healthy fats. Additionally, insects are rich in several micronutrients such as iron, magnesium, phosphorus, and zinc. Importantly, regarding protein content, insects can strongly compare to more normalized sources of animal-based protein:
Despite being relatively equivalent in protein content, insects emit significantly less greenhouse gasses (GHGs) than do livestock, making them especially of interest to those who want to lessen the environmental impact of their food consumption without sacrificing the concentrated dietary protein that is associated with livestock.
After all, GHG emissions from livestock production (including the transport of livestock and feed) account for approximately 18% of global human-induced emissions.
Scientists have been working to further quantify the volume of various GHGs emitted by different ministock and livestock protein sources:
|Species||CH4(g/kg mass gain)||N2O (mg/kg mass gain||CO2eq (g/kg mass gain)||NH3 (mg/day/kg mass gain)|
|Mealworms||0.1 +/- 0.03||25.5+/- 7.70||7.58 +/- 2.29||1+/- 2|
|Crickets||0.0 +/- 0.09||5.3+/- 6.05||1.57 +/- 1.80||142 +/- 184.5|
|Locusts||0.0 +/- 0.11||59.5 +/- 104.8||17.72 +/- 31.22||36 +/- 10.8|
The numbers above tell a pretty clear story;
per kilogram of mass gained, insects emit far fewer GHGs and pollutants than pork and beef do.
In addition to decreased outputs, it is possible that inputs for insects are significantly lower. For example, many insects such as meal worms are drought tolerant and require considerably less water than livestock as a result. Because insects are cold blooded, their metabolism does not use inputs to create heat. As a result, they are highly efficient at converting feed into protein.
As the image above shows, not only can you eat a higher proportion of insects, but they take less feed to raise
Another concern associated with the increasing worldwide demand for animal-meat consumption is the inevitable increase in demand of land-use change for pasturing the animals or raising crops for their feed. Alternatively, the rearing of insects takes relatively little space and inputs. Due to their high reproduction rates, low input rates, and small stature, insects can easily be raised in mass with little land use. For example, an established beetle growth facility large enough to provide 100 people with 16.7 grams of animal protein per day only occupies 40 cubic meters of space.
One concern that many people have is that the consumption of insects may be dangerous due to the spread of disease. Yet, it appears that risks may be highly diminished. For one, insects are taxonomically different enough from humans that they won’t transfer zoonotic illness like pigs and birds can.Additionally, some edible insects are known to contain antibacterial peptides. For example, a peptide from the larvae of the common housefly (which is, interestingly, also found in orange juice) has been found to inhibit strains of food pathogens such as E. coli, salmonella, and the bacteria that causes dysentery.
As with any raw animal consumption, there are inherent risks, but statements like “handle raw product with care” – similar to statements for meat products – can appropriately address these risks and inform consumers to take appropriate precaution. In general, the FDA has classified insects as “GRAS”, or Generally Regarded as Safe in sections 201(s) and 409 of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.
Lastly, it is likely that converting from livestock consumption to insect consumption will be a more equitable and just system for both humans and animals. For one, because insects can be raised with very little demand for space, infrastructure, or inputs, they can be raised in poor areas where there is little arable land. This opportunity could help increase the food security and economic opportunity of individuals in those communities. And, while some are concerned with insect welfare, one could argue that ants and mealworms are naturally found in confined and crowded spaces, where-as chickens, pigs, and cattle are not.
Despite the many advantages to increasing entomophagy within the US, there are a reasonable number of barriers and drawbacks to be considered.
For one, the current insect populations within the US would not support wildcrafting – or harvesting from the wild. – In countries that have a high consumption rate of insects, such as in the tropics, a majority of insects are wild-caught. This has been particularly empowering for those with low socioeconomic status as it allows them to take part in the agricultural economy even if they are landless. In the tropics, a variety of edible insect species can be found year-round, are typically larger, and gather in groups – which helps facilitate consistent, abundant, and easier harvest.
In contrast, the US’s climate does not support year-round survival of many insects, therefore strongly eliminating the possibility of wild capture. Though, this may be for the better, as many argue that wild capture of insects is too strongly tied to environmental health to be sustainable. For example, in Mexico 14 species of insects were documented to be threatened either due to over-capture or to environmental degradation. A large cause of overexploitation can be associated to when harvest is completed by nonqualified harvesters. Over-harvesting in the US is not currently a concern because the FDA does not currently allow for any wild insects to be marketed for human consumption. Though, the environmental impacts of wildcrafting would need to be considered if allowed as a result of increased entomophagy.
Regardless of availability, insect consumption does not prove to be a viable protein alternative as long as current western perceptions of insects persist. Compared to tropical regions, where insects are regarded positively and are used for decoration, entertainment, medicine, and in cultural myth and legend, western culture views insects mostly as pests.
Many studies show that western culture tends to view entomophagy with feelings of disgust.
Most are reluctant to even consider eating insects, and, importantly, many perceive the practice to be associated with primitive behavior. Upon personal survey, it seems that many US citizens today only eat insects for three reasons: on a dare, as a bucket list to-do, or on accident. As entomophagy becomes more popular through creatives recipes and exposure from chefs like Gordan Ramsay and Rick Bayless, consumer hesitation to consuming insects regularly could be reduced:
Many argue that entomophagy can be a solution to food waste, since insects can be raised on organic wastes. Though, there are concerns about the safety of eating insects that have been raised on food scraps. Would microbial activity on rotting/molding food be transmitted to humans that eat the insects raised on those food scraps? More scientific study is needed on the food safety of raising animals on organic waste.
While I’ve already discussed various health concerns of insects, one remains to pose concern: allergies. Insects are the largest class of individuals within the phylum of arthropods, making them some of the closest relatives to shellfish such as shrimp or crabs. The exoskeleton of insects contains chitin, a protein that is also found in the exoskeletons of shellfish. In a systematic review of literature, a small amount of reports showed cases where individuals that developed hives after consuming insects (namely crickets) also had a previously known seafood or shellfish allergy. While it appears that there may be a clinical relevance between these allergies, roughly 6% of US households report shellfish allergy, so the potential allergen likely impacts a small number of individuals. Utilizing an allergy warning label has been advised for mitigating this issue.
Lastly, insects currently farmed in the US are not often affordable. Due largely to lack of mechanization and innovation, edible insects have a high cost. As of 2016, frozen crickets cost $4-$10 per pound. Compared to other protein sources, this can be high. According to the USDA, frozen cricket prices must drop to around $1 per pound in order to be competitive. Though, because the rearing of insects is a relatively low-tech, low-capital investment option, entry to the market may be easy. As more individuals become involved in insect upbringing, there is a potential for market saturation and a decrease in unit cost.
In an article by the FAO regarding edible insects, they state
“grasshoppers are the shrimp of the land.”
While I first giggled aloud at the seemingly silly metaphor, I now see their logic behind the claim. Insects have a low trophic level, low inputs, low emissions, high protein content, high purchase cost, and comparable allergen risks. In terms of environmental impact and food security, farmed insects prove to be very promising. But, until their sale is made affordable and the western perception is addressed, it is extremely unlikely that entomophagy within the US will increase.