Insects. Some see them as pests, but some are claiming them as a resource of the future. This blog will provide a view of how insects could be the solution to our future crises.
Why are insects a critical resource for our future…?
Insects will be important in the fight against hunger and climate change. They use much fewer resources than farm animals to produce the same amount of protein and can be raised on food waste, making them very cost-effective.
Livestock like cows and pigs need excessive amounts of land and food for the amount of protein they can offer. Animal farming emits 18% of global greenhouse emissions. 80% of agricultural land is used for feeding animals that only provide 20% of the calories in the global diet. Advocates for replacing meat with insects argue that global population increases will mean food production cannot reach demand without drastic changes. Insects are growing in popularity - the demand is predicted to reach 500,000 metric tonnes by 2030, up from 10,000 tonnes in 2021. There are now over 400 insect food related companies and the market is forecasted to grow to $1.2 billion by 2023. Mealworms have recently been approved for market in the EU under the novel food regulation. Research has also rapidly grown. From 1953 to 2005, only 100 papers were published on the topic of insect eating. The figure increased to 500 in 2017 and is now over 1400.
Insects as human food
Eating insects may seem strange or disgusting to those in Europe and North America, but to people in countries like Thailand and China, insects have been part of the diet for hundreds of years. In fact, insect eating is practised by people in 130 countries! As demand for food grows, people have moved from catching wild insects to farming them. Mealworms were approved to be sold in 2021 under the EU Food Safety Authority novel food regulation, which ensures new foods are safe and properly labelled. A panel concluded that the insects did not raise concerns, but noted that they could cause allergic reactions for people with crustacean allergies.
Insects are very nutritious!
Insect protein levels are often higher than chicken, beef, pork and fish. According to a review, some insects (grasshoppers, crickets, mealworms) are high in important minerals like zinc and magnesium. Most insects have iron levels similar to beef and contain vitamins B1, B2, B6, C, D, E, and K.
There’s just one problem…
The main barrier to replacing traditional proteins is the negative image that insects have, dubbed the ‘Yuck factor’. Insects are associated with disease and dirt, and so insect advocates must overcome this to successfully win the public over. One solution has been to disguise the look of the insects, by drying and milling them into powders. Cricket flour is a protein powder gaining popularity as a gluten-free replacement for wheat flour, touted to be a health food. Traditional Ugandan insect flour is extremely nutritious, with a 100 g portion providing 100% of the recommended vitamins B1, B2 and B3.
Insect oils are a developing field, scientists have found them to be highly stable, half-way between vegetable oil and animal fat with essential fatty acids. They have been found to be more sustainable sources of omega-3 than fish. One study found that mealworm oil and cricket oil had characteristics desirable for use as table oils. Scientists have also been looking at substituting butter with insect fat. Another solution to overcome the ‘Yuck factor’ is to introduce insects into sectors where people are less likely to have strong reactions, such as in pet and animal feed.
Insects as animal feed
How insects are the future of pet food
As a sustainable source of protein, insects could be used for pets that only eat meat, and cannot switch to environmentally friendly diets. Companies have already been launched to provide insect pet food, such as Lovebug Cat food and Yora Cat and Dog food. These pet feeds are able to supply all the necessary nutrition for pets but acceptance is still quite low, with surveys showing only 36% of pet food retailers interested in insect food. Fortunately, acceptance is increasing rapidly, as a survey by the pet food company Enterra showed 55% of pet owners were interested compared to 36% two years earlier. As the industry develops, and public acceptance increases, there could be real progress in the field of insect pet food. Insect based pet food gaining prominence could lead to widespread education on the benefits of eating insects and reduce intolerance towards foods for human consumption.
Insects could also replace farm feed…
On top of grazing, livestock are fed with grains, corn or soybean – around 13% of a Cow diet and 60% of chicken's. 80% of the world’s soybean production is destined for animal feed. In the US, nearly half of corn grown is fed to livestock. Growing a large amount of food for inefficient protein production has its effects. The growth in soy production has meant expanding farmland into precious habitats like the Brazilian Cerrado and Amazon rainforest. Around half of the Cerrado, a sweeping 250 million acre savanna, has been converted into grazing lands or farmland for soybeans. Using insects to feed animals could have profound impacts, reducing the need for such vast farmland, reducing water and fertiliser use while supplying as much protein as traditional feed.
Could insects feed farm animals?
Insects are already fed to livestock in places such as Ghana, where termites add protein to the diets of poultry, but they are now being introduced to Europe and America. According to one farmer, using live insect feed increases egg laying, egg quality and bird feather cover. Morrisons has sought to replace its soy-fed chickens with insect fed chickens. Insect diets have been analysed for pigs, chickens and fish: they can provide as much protein and amino acids as soy can. WWF has reported that insect meal could replace half a million tonnes of soy in animal feed by 2050 if there is good investment. EU Regulations on feeding animal products to livestock are being changed to allow insect feed as they aren't a concern for disease transmission.
How insects are the future of farming
Speaking of farms, insects could transform the way farmers use their products. By using their food waste and by-products to grow insects, they can produce a valuable organic fertiliser – frass. Frass contains all the nutrients of regular fertilisers but also a compound called chitin, which improves plant resistance to disease and drought. To learn more about how valuable frass is as a fertiliser read this blog.Using bugs in this way would allow farmers to be less dependent on chemical fertilisers while reducing their waste footprint. Previously the market was limited to fishing bait, but with the edible market, a new income stream can be added.
Insects are a more sustainable form of nutrition than animal meat. They can be completely raised on food waste, they take up less land and use less water. They are better than animals at efficiently converting feed to protein and they could become much cheaper to produce.This makes them the perfect candidates to provide the nutrients needed for a growing earth. Farmers could utilise these benefits to reduce their waste, feed their animals sustainably, create new income streams and become more self-sufficient. Finally, as unsustainable meat consumption reduces, they are the ideal contender for a cheap and ecological protein source for humans.