Can Insects Help Save the World?

The world population is predicted to reach 9.8 billion people by 2050. Try to visualize all those people…and all those mouths. Can we make enough food to feed everyone, especially when we can’t even feed everyone right now (it’s estimated 828 million went hungry in 2021)?

Human-caused climate change is also predicted to cause sea level rise of a foot by 2050. While this doesn’t sound like much, the costs are predicted to be in the billions, not to mention the cost to human lives. And sea level rise is only one of a host of potential causes from climate change, including an even more dire food security situation. And the impacts of climate change impacts will only get worse unless we do something about it NOW.

This could be the world’s coastlines in a few decades. Photo credit: Kelly Sikkema Unsplash.

2050 is not that far off and things can only get worse for the future if we don’t do something about it now. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a way to help solve both problems at once…? 

Surprise, there very well might be 🙂 Insects are an underutilized food source (for both humans and animals) with a ton of potential benefits: environmental, nutritional, economic, and social. 

“Insects as food”, or entomophagy, which literally means  “the eating of insects” (ento = insect, phagy = to eat), is certainly novel to Europe and the U.S. But if you live in countries in Africa, South East Asia or many other places entomophagy is nothing new. If you’re from Thailand or Cambodia, you may be used to chomping on some fried crickets, or if you’re Mexican, chapulines (grasshoppers) may be something that’s familiar (and delicious) to you. It’s estimated that currently some 2 billion people eat insects for food every year, and over 1,900 species have been documented as edible.

Chapulines for sale in Mexico. Photo credit: Wikimedia.

So what’s all the buzz about (don’t worry, plenty more bad bug puns to come lol)? And if eating insects for food is so widespread, why are people just talking about this now? Why do I think insects as food can help save the world?

Insects may be a climate-friendly, healthy, and safe alternative livestock (yup, as in alternative to cows, pigs, chickens, and fish). In 2013, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), entitled “Edible insects: Future prospects for food and feed security.”  In my opinion, this report can be considered one of the most significant efforts to introduce the very real concept of “insects as food and feed” to a global audience. The report is comprehensive of all the research and knowledge on insects as food and for use as animal feed and covers almost all angles from nutritional, economic, environmental, regulatory, and more (there has been a surge of new research in this area since first publication of the report but a lot of the conclusions are still valid).

The cover of the FAO report.

Just a few highlights taken directly from the report and other studies (I’ll spend future posts doing a deeper dive into the evidence behind these issues. This is just an intro after all):

Environmental Benefits

  • Lower environmental impact of raising insects compared to traditional livestock.
    • Lower feed to protein conversion ratio – more weight gain/amount of feed.
      • Insects are cold-blooded and this means that insects are extremely efficient at converting feed to body mass. For example, on average, insects can convert 2 kg of feed into 1 kg of insect mass, whereas cattle require 8 kg of feed to produce 1 kg of body weight gain.
    • Lower green-house gas (GHG) emissions than traditional livestock.
    • Lower water requirements than traditional livestock.
    • Insect farming is less land-dependent – insects can be raised vertically, thus maximizing land use.
  • An important component of a circular economic model.
    • Globally, >1/3 of the food is lost or wasted, resulting in an economic loss of $1 trillion USD, and contributing to 10% of GHG emissions. Food waste ends in landfill rotting and emitting the potent harmful GHG methane. Insects can be raised on plant and food waste and unsafe food/the inedible portion of the food, thus simultaneously reducing the environmental impact of food waste and producing a useful commodity. 
    • For example, black soldier fly (BSF)  larvae  (BSFL) raised on food and other organic waste can then be used as animal feed or processed as food. In 2019, a company in Ecuador produced the largest plant in Latin America to use BSFL larvae to produce animal feed and fertilizer.

Economic Benefits

  • Large potential for growth.
  • Opportunities to strengthen small holder farmers and local supply chains.
    • Insects can be produced locally as animal feed (both for livestock and aquaculture) thus reducing dependence on costly, international supply chains and markets for animal feed. This also creates economic opportunities for smallholder farmers.

Nutritional and Health Benefits

  • Insect protein can be a healthy, cheap alternative to meat.
    • Insects are higher in edible protein by mass than traditional livestock, and they are rich in nutrients and vitamins.
    • For example, cricket protein has higher levels of iron, calcium, zinc, manganese, and B vitamins than most other meat-based protein sources and these are especially essential for women of reproductive age and young children. 
  • Insect protein powder can be produced as a nutritional supplement or added to other low-protein or processed foods.
    • Insects may be particularly important as a food supplement for undernourished children because most insect species are high in fatty acids, fiber, and  micronutrients (copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, selenium and zinc).
  • Insects pose a low risk of transmitting diseases spread from animals to humans.

Social and Livelihoods Benefits

  • Improved livelihoods.
    • Insect farming can provide entrepreneurship opportunities in developed and developing economies. The technical requirements and capacity for starting an insect farm are relatively minimal and can be done in locally, which makes it accessible to many people, including those in agriculture-poor areas.
    • Insect gathering and rearing can offer an important livelihood diversification strategy. For example, insects can be directly and easily collected in the wild and sold to buyers.
  • Creates economic opportunities, both as entrepreneurs and employees, for women, youth, individuals with disabilities  and other marginalized groups.
    • Insect agricultural work is less time and labor-intensive than traditional agriculture which means practically anyone can start an insect startup. This presents opportunities to engage with women and other groups marginalized from formal economic sectors.

Clearly there’s a lot of good to raising insects for food and feed, even in addition to fighting nutrition and climate change! So what do you think about edible insects now? Been bitten by the bug yet? Have I whet your appetite for creepy crawlies enough to want to learn more?

Just to ground-truth things a bit as well. While the pro-insect arguments are compelling, there are a number of outstanding questions that need to be considered. For example, how do we get past the “Yuck!” factor?  How do we efficiently and effectively produce edible insects so that they can have the maximal amount of environmental, health, and economic benefits? Can (or should) we raise insects on an industrial scale and if we do, have we learned from our mistakes with traditional livestock? These (and many others) are important questions that I don’t think we have the answers to yet.

Also the reality is I don’t ever anticipate edible insects completely replacing meat. I personally love meat and fish and wouldn’t want to be deprived of them forever. You can imagine a future dinner in a week being a mix of different protein sources. For example, eating chicken, pork, or beef 2 nights, fish 1 night, lab-based meat substitute 1 night, insect-based protein 1 night, and vegetable or plant-based protein 2 nights. We can still enjoy meat but we need to drastically reduce consumption of it and introduce other more sustainable alternatives, like edible insects. This type of diverse diet is not very common right now but I still think it’s a good idea for a better world!

But back to the title of this post: can insects really help save the world? Maybe, but not definitely not by themselves. When it comes to combating climate change, hunger, poverty, inequality and all the rest of the world’s ills, a silver bullet simply doesn’t exist. What we need is a silver bullet machine gun! Insects as food and feed may just be one of the many silver bullets we use. My next few posts will take a look at why and how in greater detail. Until then, the ants go marching 2 by 2, hurrah, hurrah…