Are edible insects the way forward for sustainability and food security?

In some skeptical quarters, the notion of eating insects has almost become the punchline of a joke. Indeed, insects are more often seen as crop-destroying pests, with people sharing videos on social media of biblical hordes of locusts.

However, to dismiss the concept of edible insects in such terms is to miss the point – this is a truly revolutionary foodstuff with an established history, significant health benefits, a plentiful supply, and considerable environmental advantages.

The Problem with Traditional Food Production

The Problem with Traditional Food Production

For several coinciding reasons, food supply chains globally are under threat. Climate change means that the traditional breadbaskets (the American Midwest, Brazil, China, and other territories) are no longer always the reliable sources of carbohydrates and nutrient-rich grains that they once were. As a recent McKinsey report put it, “In the US Midwest, one of the key corn production regions globally, hotter summer temperatures and higher likelihood of excessive spring rain (as seen in 2019) drive higher likelihood of harvest failures.”

In terms of CO2 emissions, traditional agriculture comes at a cost. According to a recent IPCC report on Climate Change and Land, agriculture is responsible for 8.5% of the planet’s annual CO emissions, with the deleterious effects of forestry clearances for food production adding a further 14.5% annually. Clearly, anything that can be done to produce protein and nutrient-rich food without denuding large tracts of forest is to be pursued.

Animal food production isn’t much better. In September 2021, the Guardian newspaper reported that 60% of the world’s CO2 emissions from food production come from livestock, either directly or indirectly through feed stock production. In comparison, insect farming is extremely energy efficient, and therefore highly sustainable.

Climate volatility is also a major worry. For instance, the weather pattern commonly termed La Niña has for the third consecutive year brought more rain to northern Brazil, while depriving the crop-intensive southern region, as described in a recent article by Investment Monitor. A shortage of rainfall is clearly a significant problem for water-hungry crops, particularly when it recurs year after year.

Finally, insect farming is economical too, as innovators discover unique ways to produce concentrated nutritional products from their food source. For example, one Thai company believes that fruit fly larvae could be a significant contribution to the human diet of the future, producing a protein powder containing 70% protein, 12% minerals, 7% fiber and 8% fat.

As well as environmental and economic pressures, the world’s food-producing regions can experience political instability which threaten supply chains. COVID-19 and the current war in Ukraine have merely exacerbated pre-existing pressures on the highly localized regions which produce much of the world’s grain supplies (and animal feed products too). As the recent fraught negotiation over Ukrainian grain supply have shown, food security is likely to be a continuing concern in a politically unstable world. Insect-based food sources could help mitigate this instability in the coming centuries.

The Myths around Insect Consumption

While many western consumers may recoil in disgust at the thought of eating insects, this has never been the case in much of the world. It’s estimated there are currently two billion regular consumers of insects worldwide, across several continents. For instance, in Africa (including Uganda, Cameroon, Zambia, Nigeria and South Africa) caterpillars, termites and crickets have long been consumed. In southeast Asia, crunchy, protein-rich fried insect snacks such as Thailand’s malang tod (assorted fried insects) are well-known.

National Geographic have an excellent article tracing the consumption of insects by humans back at least ten thousand years with ancient world writers like Aristotle and Pliny (not to mention the writers of the Old Testament) extolling the virtues of entomophagy (insect eating).

Let’s face it, what’s the real difference between a prawn and a cricket, after all? The contrast in eastern and western response to the idea of eating crustaceans, as opposed to insects, is nothing more than the result of custom and prejudice. Insects are neither dirty, unhealthy, or lacking in flavor. In fact, as we’ll see in the next section, the truth is quite to the contrary.

The Benefits of Eating Insects

Before we look at the health benefits of this foodstuff, let’s compare the carbon footprint of insect farming with other forms of food production. Firstly, edible cricket production produces 0.1% of the CO2 emissions of beef production for the same quantity of protein. Furthermore, to produce one gram of insect protein, farmers require less than 20% of the water that one gram of beef protein necessitates, largely due to the huge amount of animal feed a cow consumes.

On top of the significant environmental advantages of eating insects, the food source has these health benefits:

  • Insects have been shown to have macrobiotic and immunity boosting effects, improving the gut’s microbiome.
  • Insects are full of nutrients, including Vitamin B12, zinc, iron, fatty and amino acids, fiber, and antioxidants, making them highly beneficial for heart health,
  • They are also rich in protein and, as previously described, this protein can be produced with reduced CO2 emissions and less water in farming facilities which have a much smaller physical footprint.
  • They are a great source of unsaturated fat (the healthy kind we need for, among other things, regulating cholesterol and easing inflammation).
  • Insects have a comparatively high calorific content. 100 grams of crickets contains 121 calories and 5.1 grams of carbohydrates, making it an efficient food source for providing energy.
The Benefits of Eating Insects

Insect Eating in the West – A Growing Movement

Insect Eating in the West – A Growing Movement

Given all the above advantages, and insects’ long history of human consumption, it makes a lot of sense to persuade western populations to consume more insects in the coming decades. Of course, given the cultural resistance to such an idea, this may prove an uphill struggle. Still, there are companies attempting to do just that, utilizing a range of innovative strategies.

But before we explore those, what insects are currently approved in the west for human consumption? Here are the main varieties you might encounter in Europe in 2022, as cleared by the European Commission:

  • House crickets
  • Yellow mealworms 
  • Grasshoppers

This is almost certainly the beginning of an expanding repertoire of products, with these three species as the vanguard. In China, by comparison, 324 species have been identified as being consumed by humans, although only 10-20 varieties are regularly eaten, according to a recent study.

In America, the FSA has not yet produced any standards for edible insect production, although approved imports are allowed. The UK, by contrast, recently decided to allow insect products currently on sale from ethnic food importers and markets to remain on the market while the engines of regulation slowly grind into motion.

In Europe, insect-based food additives are preferred as a way for getting around the “ick factor” that some consumers experience around the concept of eating insects. This is a great shame since regular insect-eaters describe the taste of their favorites as “meat-like” or similar in taste and texture to shellfish. It’s probably only a matter of time before foodie curiosity overtakes the qualms of ignorance.

While the PR battle to increase human consumption continues, some innovative businesses are already inserting insect protein into the food chain by creating alternative animal feed products.

There are a host of companies currently developing such foodstuffs across the world. Indeed, as this article shows, insect-derived nutrition is one of the fastest growing sectors of biotech, with numerous start-ups entering the field.

The Growth of Novel Foods

In the USA, there’s a growing movement to accept more “novel foods,” a category which includes new food products like algae and insects. Web MD recently published an article listing 13 different edible insects, including ants, bees, grasshoppers, and mealworms.

Such foods are sometimes also known as “new foods.” Edible products derived from insects, or including insects, currently on the US import market include:

Insect Gourmet provides a wide selection of such products. In fact, more and more importers and retailers are getting in on this unusual and growing sector.

You can also find insects in dried snack form, such as a wide range of products from Thailand Unique. This company sells snack packets of whole insects including crickets, cicadas, ands and even an edible black scorpion! They also sell insect-derived products including protein powders, oils, and other goods.

The Growth of Novel Foods
The Growth of Novel Foods - pancakes

Learn More about the Edible Insect Marketplace

To find out more about this fascinating, expanding, and important new food market, you can employ competitive intelligence software to keep on top of commercial and legislative developments by scouring the net for all relevant data. Evalueserve allows you to use AI-based systems which locate potential competitors or collaborators, plus news stories, scientific studies, product launches, articles, and white papers.

Evalueserve can run research programs to derive competitive intelligence data, and we have several unique platforms including Insightloupe to perform complex IP searches to ensure that your ideas are protected.

We have a particular focus upon consumer packaged goods (CPG), and we help companies derive competitive advantage and develop a profitable place within even the busiest sectors.

Prateek Tripathi
Prateek Tripathi
Senior Analyst, CPG Practice Posts

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