Edible insects: is eating creepy crawlies as sustainable as it seems?

The media has speculated that insect farming could stand as a sustainable alternative to raising meat, placing them as the new ecological protein. Callum Tyndall finds out what questions need to be asked and answered when it comes to mass rearing insects and its environmental impact.

Long dismissed, at least in Western cuisine, insects have started to gain popularity as a food source in recent years, as consumers become more environmentally conscious about their food and more willing to experiment with the foods of less familiar cultures. A good source of protein, insects also have the advantage of being more environmentally friendly than the meat industry. However, as the market for edible insects continues to grow at an impressive rate, it is important that we ask the same questions of the sector as we do of more traditional food industries. 

The edible insects market was worth more than $55m for 2017 and is predicted to register greater than 40% CAGR by 2023. Various insect-based products are starting to show up in supermarkets, looking to appeal mostly the notion of exotic snacking. There are certainly benefits to consumption (the long-standing tradition of eating insects in other cultures is proof of that) but, while media and industry are busy jumping on the bandwagon to proclaim insects the future of sustainable protein, some have raised concerns that the mass rearing of insects for consumption may not be as sustainable as initially claimed.

Crickets vs cattle: the sustainability showdown

There are somewhere in the region of 2,000 insect species that are edible by humans, a vast pantry that has gone largely unexplored in the world of Anglo cuisine. Packed with protein (some species can be up to 75% protein by dry weight), edible insects offer not only a novel and nutritious alternative to meat but one that is vastly better for the environment. While tempers turn against the likes of the cattle industry and its environmental impact, insects can offer a similarly protein-rich product without any of the ecological guilt.

Research by Chirps, a cricket-based crisp and protein powder maker, found that producing a pound of cricket protein requires just a single gallon of water. Soy protein however, requires 216 gallons and producing a pound of whey protein guzzles a full 1,000 gallons of water. Similarly, while you would need just 1.7lbs of feed to provide a pound of cricket protein, you would need 2.5lbs to produce the same amount of chicken, 5lbs for pork and 10lbs of feed to get just one pound of beef protein. On those numbers alone, it seems like we should have switched to entomophagy a long time ago. 

According to first author Åsa Berggren, a conservation biologist at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, in an opinion article for Trends in Ecology & Evolution, “as the global demand for protein grows, insect mass rearing can play an important role in the future of food. We know that we can’t keep doing what we’re doing in terms of producing food and utilising the land.”

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Insect farming looks good on paper, can it match up in practice?

The answer to sustainable protein seems obvious then: begin rapid downscaling of the rearing of animals such as beef, pork and chicken for slaughter and pivot those efforts into mass scale insect farming. However, setting aside consumer squeamishness and previous reticence from retailers to financially back a move towards edible insects, there is now one big question being raised around why we maybe shouldn’t be hailing insect eating as the magic bullet for sustainable protein: what if insect farming isn’t as sustainable as has been claimed?

As Berggren said in the aforementioned article, “Insects have the potential to be a good, sustainable, useful food source, but it’s not as simple as rearing them and then that’s it. There is a lot of effort that needs to be put in to research.” 

Consider, for starters, that though we may be aware of the edibility of that roughly 2,000 species of insects, that knowledge is a far cry from understanding the full scope of rearing any of them for mass consumption. We have known for centuries that steak is good to eat and yet it is only relatively recently that, on any large scale, we have been aware as consumers of the details of raising cows for slaughter and the impact that said raising can have on the environment. If we are to turn to insects as the future of sustainable food, we first need to admit that we have little idea what production at a truly mass scale would look like. 

Some of this comes with time and practice; we of course can’t know how it will work until we’ve tried it and would hopefully be able to build a system improved upon by the establishment of past lessons, but there is a genuine concern that we may be too quick to grasp at the idea of a miracle fix. Insects could well be a vast improvement on the sustainability of the meat industry  - the question is yet to be answered whether it will be as vast as supposed. 

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Scaling sustainability: growing the market without sacrificing its ecological benefits

Perhaps the greatest threat that the edible insects market poses, if not developed ethically and cautiously, is that the scaling of capitalism can transform almost any industry into a destructive force. From contributing to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria to harbouring potential species-crossing viruses, food industries have often prioritised growth at all costs without paying proper heed to the prospective risk of such growth. Rapidly scaling up the production of edible insects may not have the impact of using that land for cattle for example, but it is essential that manufacturers properly examine the actual impact and not just write it off as ‘more sustainable than cows’.

Consider, for example, the diversity of insect species that could possibly be farmed. While certain species such as crickets seem set to become the dominant source in the market, there is a wide variety of insects that could be drawn upon; a variety that seems to be currently, and worryingly, approached as a homogeny from the perspective of sustainability. Beyond even the general impact of the farming, the sustainability of the feed different insects would require must be taken into account, alongside the sustainability of the methods used to ultimately bring the insects to market.

The review Opportunities and hurdles of edible insects for food and feed states that: “Overall, preliminary results suggest that insects produce far fewer [greenhouse gas emissions] GHGs than standard large livestock and are approximately on par with chickens on a per kilogram (kg) basis. However, studies of larger scale production have reported less optimistic figures and shown that values are largely dependent on the type of feed.”

Moreover, the review continues, “no other data are currently available regarding GHGs from insect production, and concrete statements cannot be made regarding their environmental benefit over other livestock.”

It is entirely probable that a mass-scaled insect farming market will be more sustainable than current models and could significantly contribute to problems of maintaining sufficient supplies of water and arable land. Yet it is important to acknowledge that we do not yet have the scientific foundation on which to say, concretely, that insects are the saviour of sustainable protein that industry and media seem desperate to embrace them as. What improvements they make can be lauded, but the prospect needs to be approached more wholly with forbearance and an awareness of the potential pitfalls.

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