Insects as sustainable protein source: what’s the buzz about?

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?


Benefits:

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:

When compared to pork, poultry, and beef, many insects contain similar 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)
Beef 114 NA 2850 NA
Pork 1.92-3.98 106-3457 779.59-1130 1140-1920
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.


Barriers:

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.


As for me, personally?

I think eating insects is pretty fly.

14 thoughts on “Insects as sustainable protein source: what’s the buzz about?”

  1. I was thinking a lot about those spiced mealworms from Rocky Mountain Micro Ranch while reading this…yum!

    The other thing I was considering as you approached the topic of non-tropical production of insect protein (since we’d never be able to wildcraft enough, or sustainably) was the potential energy use of these grow facilities. The FAO article that you reference when speaking about a “relatively low-tech, low-capital investment option” immediately had me picturing an ultra climate-controlled production facility and it seems some of the Energy Use data matches that – less than beef, more than milk and chicken. I also wonder if the GHG emissions data includes the potential indoor growth facilities. The chart on page 64 leads me to believe that the energy use is high enough that it isn’t even something that could be powered by renewables right away… Obviously, this is a novel market and data is probably scarce, but did you find anything relating to the actual energy use of indoor grow facilities?

    (my Grammarly tone meter has this comment labeled ‘Curious’ and that’s exactly right! – great article, just wondering where the pitfalls are lurking…)

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    1. Randy, thank you for your thoughtful and ‘curious’ response! To clarify, while insects rearing can be relatively consumptive in energy use, my statement there of being “low-tech and low capital” was regarding the ease of entering the market. Insects (compared to livestock) can require relatively less infrastructure to raise, especially if being done on a small scale. For example, I used to raise meal worms to feed to birds at a wildlife rehab center, and we raised them in rubbermaid drawers in the closet, haha! Of course, when scaling, insect rearing can become costly, and when growing in domesticated ways, as we would in the US, you are right that indoor growing could be fairly consumptive in energy usage. Of course, I am sure that this is variable. Some insects spend much time underground and likely don’t require much lighting, while others likely need much more. I can imagine the energy demands for the burrowers would be much lower, for example. Though, I did not find an article that compared demands of different species.

      This (https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0051145) article is the one the FAO refers to on page 64, and it states that they have “comparable” energy inputs to dairy, pork, poultry, and beef. When you look at the graphs, you can see some variation, but yes, it is fairly comparable!

      Makes me wonder how they compare to indoor farms of vegetables. Thanks for commenting!

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  2. This is a super interesting topic with so much potential! That is, if Americans and others with Western diets decide to start eating insects. You mentioned that consumers might be more willing to try insects if they’re presented with interesting recipes; do you see other pathways for increasing insect consumption? For example, Rocky Mountain Micro Ranch had more processed insect products like flour and “jerky.” Is there any research that consumers would be more willing to try these kinds of products and then eventually shift to eating more unprocessed insects?

    I’m also curious about how the GHG emissions for insects compares to the emissions for vegetables, legumes, and grains. Are there plant alternatives to meat and insects that provide the same protein and nutrients? If not, is it possible for alternative meat products, like the Impossible Burger, to contain the same dietary profile as meat and insects? While there are definitely people who don’t want to convert to a vegetarian or vegan diet, I feel like they may be more willing to switch to a plant-forward diet than to one that replaces meat with insects.

    I’m interested to see whether or not, as well as how, insects get incorporated into Western food culture!

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    1. Emma,
      Thank you for diving into the social barriers regarding insect consumption. Anecdotally, I’ve noticed that insect powders are a really easy way to incorporate insects into my diet, (ie, in soups). I also eat protein bars that have cricket powder in them. Curious (and knowing) friends have tried them, stating that they would feel comfortable eating the powder, though maybe not the insect whole. I didn’t find any research on the perception of processed insects (chirpy jerky) versus whole-body insects. If you’re curious to learn further about cricket powder and consumer perception, this study https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0950329317300319 analyzed both the intent to consume and the actual consumption of cricket-powder based goods.

      Regarding nutritional content of insects in comparison to plants:
      Let’s first narrow down “nutrition” to just “protein” specifically, since that can be a reason why individuals don’t want to give up meat; concentrated “convenient” protein is highly available in meat. So, when considering whether insects could be a sustainable alternative to meat, I first had to analyze whether they compared in protein content. As shown in this blog, at least crickets do.
      You raise a good question to further this conversation: can plants provide the same protein that both meat and insects do?
      I found a study that looks into this some (specifically comparing meat eating with vegetarianism) and found this:
      Assuming 3533 kcal/day, the average US meat eater received 111.5g of protein per day and vegetarians received 89.3g per day. https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/78/3/660S/4690010#109811463

      To further this, this article https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S030691921100090X looked into the energy inputs and GHG outputs of various foods, meat based and vegetarian, and you can see that grains and produce have less inputs and outputs than meat does per kg unit edible mass. This table doesn’t include insects, but based on the other information provided in my post, you can see that while insects have lower CO2eq/kg edible mass gained than do animals, they are higher emitters of GHGs than crops are.

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  3. I am also curious to know how insect powders might improve the market acceptance of entomophagy; I feel like most people don’t stop to see what kinds of protein powders are used in their nutrition bars anyways. The FAO report that you cite mentions there may be a chance to market insects as “exotic foods” in the United States, but I feel like powders would create a much larger market. Additionally, would manufacturing these powders still prove to be more environmentally friendly and efficient than meat production? I would guess so as all parts of the insect could be used, and as you mentioned, they require less resources to raise.

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    1. Ella,
      What insightful thinking! I too agree that making insects easier to eat (rather than more exotic) is a better way into to the overall lives of individuals. I feel powder is the way to go.

      I currently eat protein bars from Exo Bars, and they PROUDLY state that they use cricket powder in their products. Ha, even the box for delivery is sealed with tape that says “contains crickets” – my delivery man must be amused. – For Exo, it is their selling point, really what founded the company. But I would be curious to see if brands could use it as “just another protein blend” and see if consumers fuss over it. Because of the space we are currently in with western views of entomophagy, I feel it would be risky for a brand to use bugs without shouting it to the world first, even though the FDA views insects as “generally regarded as safe” and may be used in food for humans. This concern stems mostly from the fact that if there was strong social retaliation (ie disgust), it may ruin the brand’s established consumer trust. Though, I don’t see any legal repercussions to quietly using cricket powder in any processed good, as long as general ingredient and labeling rules (ie, allergens) are followed.

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  4. Lauren, what a insectful blogpost! Loved the puns and voice you put into your writing-so fun. You do a nice job at shedding light on the benefits and potential that insects pose as a major food source. Similarly, your “barriers” section offers a helpful counterbalance. While you address many of the ways these barriers could be overcome, I would have appreciated a more formal recommendation for incorporating insects into the food industry. What policies, incentives, or market drivers could propel insects into a more dominant role for protein production? I wonder what role the government could play? Also, I am curious about how insects could be more palatable to Western cultures? Are powders or “blended/mixed” foods an effective first step. This could hide the “gross factor” while making insects more commonplace and begin to grow the industry. Baby steps like these could be effective at growing scale and cutting production costs. Just some thoughts.

    Your post makes me wonder about the environmental trade-offs or benefits of insects. What are the GHG implications? How “growable” are insects in the US-this what’s their ability to become part of the global food trade economy? Overall, nice analysis and compelling writing.

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    1. Hi Bridger! Thank you for returning the pun. !

      As I’ve been elaborating on in comments previous to yours, I think powders are a great first step in “normalizing” insect based protein and nutrition. In my experience with cricket powder, they don’t add much texture, scent, or flavor that is off putting or really even very noticeable!

      Something that I have found interesting lately is that even though I eat insects a few times a week, sometimes I too find them to be off-putting, for no reason other than norms that have been jammed into my head. Our culture is so bug-adverse! I hadn’t really considered the potential that policy work could have in this space. Because there is concern about the safety of eating insects, I support the current rules that insects cannot be fed to humans if they’ve been raised on food scraps or for animals. I feel it brings a level of legitimacy to it that others may feel is missing from cultures that catch theirs from the wild.

      I would find it interesting to incentivize protein-powder based products to switch to insect based powder. Not necessarily because insect based powder is better than pea powder or whey powder (I haven’t analyzed the sustainability of insect rearing in comparison to these other non-meat ingredients), but because putting the powder into a tasty bar (or even a cake, cookie, fruit leather, hummus, etc) could be an interesting way to shift the macros of a product and creatively normalize the consumption of insects.

      Regarding GHGs, since insects are so much lower than meat-based protein sources in their CO2eqs, I do not see their environmental impact to be a limiting factor towards growth. I think your first few questions about palatability more strongly identify what is going to keep this industry from growing.

      Thanks for the comments!

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  5. Nice job Lauren! I found your proposal that insects could be a circular solution to food waste to be very interesting. I was surprised when the main concern around this was the safety of eating insects that were raised on food scraps and the potential for pathogen transmission. I immediately thought of Alice’s pigs that eat food scraps from all around town, and pictured the rotting citrus peels that scattered their pens. Organic waste also has an important role in integrated livestock management for pests and fertilization. I wonder if the argument for transmission of bacteria from consuming insects that consume waste may look different if compared to these other food systems that use waste for feed? I also wonder what role trophic levels may play in the physiology of digesting waste products and bio-accumulation?

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    1. Ashley,
      Thanks for the inquiry!

      Regarding the safety of consuming insects raised on food scraps: To elaborate, I believe the safety concern is regarding the fact that they microbial community that is elevated in rotting/molding foods could come into direct contact with parts of the insect that may be eaten. For example, mealworm larvae are eaten whole. The pigs at The Golden Hoof, on the other hand, have a digestive system to kill/filter out those potential risks before the nutrients enter their bloodstreams and eventually become incorporated into muscle tissue. Hope that helps!

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  6. I loved reading this, Lauren! You did an excellent job discussing all sides of the issue. And if all of those great images of dishes featuring insects doesn’t turn a few entomophagy skeptics, I don’t know what will. The research really does make it hard to see what, besides Western consumer attitudes, could stand in the way of insects making their way into the market as a viable and competitive protein source. However, as far as I understand it, all current insect farming operations are fairly small. I’d be curious to see what insect farming would look like on a large scale. What would the inputs to such a system look like? Would it still produce fewer GHGs for the same amount of other animal proteins? And then there’s the question of animal welfare. It might sound laughable to some, but raising mass quantities of small animals in (I assume) very crowded quarters in a factory setting does have ethical considerations to take into account.
    Altogether, a very enjoyable read! Nicely done.

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    1. Hi Tori,
      Thoughtful insight!
      Regarding environmental impact in relation to scale: I can imagine that some things (such as feed/insect) remain fairly consistent regardless of scale. Other things, such as heat and lighting, may decrease per insect as the scale of the operation grows to put more insects into a given space. Just a thought!
      If you check out page 64 of http://www.fao.org/3/i3253e/i3253e.pdf (and peek at my comments to Randy above), you can see that while GHGs for insects are relatively low, energy demands for rearing them are actually fairly high. The FAO in that document, though, does not specify the scale of farming included in that study.

      I am also curious about how animal welfare will come into play when considering an increase in insect consumption. The article that I referenced in my blog post stated that legislation regarding animal welfare, which is based on Brambell’s Five Freedoms, explicitly excludes invertebrates. Farmers of insects have produced “best practices” but it seems there has been no formal regulation. In the Nederlands, where this study was based, the Animal Act was actually reformed to include various insects and is to be used in large-scale insect rearing. The article did recognize that there hasn’t really been scientific studies conducted to determine what insects need in order to be “well”. At what point is large scale insect rearing comparable to factory farming? In my own experience, insects seem to congregate in crowded places more than chickens, for example, would opt for, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they wouldn’t need standards defined for their diet, safety, health, and welfare.

      Definitely check into this link to this study to see what they have been considering thus far. https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.3920/978-90-8686-784-4_38
      I think much more needs to be studied in this area!

      Thanks for encouraging thoughtfulness!

      Like

  7. Hi Lauren!
    Great article. Your voice really comes through and you cover your topic thoroughly. I share similar sentiment with others when it comes to large scale, non-tropical growing issues concerning GHGs. What would the energy use look like and would it be offset by the huge reduction in land and input use?

    I also found your information on the economic benefits to those in poorer communities interesting. Could it be possible to utilize insect farming in impoverished communities to help create a more robust financial picture and heightened quality of life? While we’re all trying to implement regenerative AG, maybe the answer has been crawling at our feet!!

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    1. Dylan, thank you for inquiring! The FAO document that I referenced (http://www.fao.org/3/i3253e/i3253e.pdf) shows a graph on page 64 that demonstrates energy use for rearing insects. Even though GHGs for insects are relatively low per kg edible mass, the energy requirements to raise them are actually moderately high, comparable to some forms of meat. The study that they reference is not clear what scale of farming they are referring to, though. If energy is high, but GHGs are low, I think that discrepancy likely comes from the feed efficiency that insects express (which decreases land use, feed-energy loss, etc).

      An important thing about rearing insects that I find to be interesting is that starting infrastructure and capital can be fairly low. A family that may not have the land for raising livestock may have the means to raise insects. But, scaling seems to be costly, I can imagine comparable to the demands of indoor farming.

      An important thing to note is that insect consumption is especially empowering to poorer communities that reside in the tropics because they can wildcraft the insects. They may not actually be farming the insects themselves. Wildcrafting here, though, would not be feasible. So, insect consumption is going to inherently cost more than it would in a place where they are produced by nature.

      Thanks for reading!

      Like

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