How can insects be a part of future food security?

July 31, 2015

Since the FAO published a report in May 2013 presenting insects as a possible source of food to meet future protein demand, the topic has become quite popular in the mainstream media. I wrote an article about this (Insects on the menu) in May 2010, in which I was giving some of my thoughts. I still think along the same lines.

In the last few weeks, I bumped into the insect story several times, purely by coincidence. I believe insects can play a role but I am getting a bit frustrated by the lack of specifics in all the talk about insects and worms.

Apparently insects would present many performance advantages compared with traditional meat productions. Aaron Dossey did a presentation at the IFT15 symposium organized by the Institute of Food Technologists. Here are the advantages of insects he mentioned as reported in the article from Science Daily of July 14 2015:

  1. Efficiency. They use less land, water, feed, energy and other resources than livestock.
  2. Environmentally friendly/clean. Insects create fewer greenhouse gases and are not contaminated with pesticides. They also do not have any hormones in their bodies.
  3. Prolific. They reproduce quickly so they can replace depleted resources.
  4. Biodiverse. There are millions of insect species, so it is easy to find a match to a location’s need.
  5. Nutritious. They have protein and Omega 3s, a class of essential fatty acids that help lower cholesterol.

All of this is nice but…

  1. How efficient? How much less land, water, feed and energy and other resources?
  2. Environmentally friendly as long as they do not massively invade it. How many fewer greenhouse gases? No hormones at all, really? Of course insects contain hormones. They are necessary for their physiology and development. So which hormones was he referring to?
  3. Yes they are prolific, which raises the issue of what would happen if insects escape from farms in large numbers. They are prolific but they are tiny, so it takes huge numbers to match the weight of a cow or pig or even a chicken. The real question to answer is how many tonnes of insect protein can a farm produce compared with other animal productions? What should be the size of an insect farm and how many farms should there be to meet future demand. Also what feed will the bugs eat to grow?
  4. Biodiversity may be nice, but what species would be production worthy when it comes to the mass production of volumes that would be comparable with other productions?
  5. They are not the only food sources of omega-3

Unless someone can quantify the above, the story remains rhetoric. If insects are to become a large-scale production along the lines of other animal proteins, it is necessary to single out the species that will be the most efficient, technically and economically. It is also necessary to sketch the design and the magnitude of farms. There are a number of companies that have been venturing in the insect business but most of them are tiny, in the grand scheme of world food security. Aaron Dossey’s company produces 25,000 lbs of insect powder per year. That is 12 tonnes, and he does not sell them to the hungry of Asia and Africa. Compared with the world average meat consumption per capita per year, 12 tonnes of meat represents the yearly consumption of 250 to 300 people. If insects represented 1% of the world average meat consumption per person, his production would feed only 25,000 to 30,000 people, or less than 0.0005%! Clearly, even to cover 1% of the average animal protein need as it is on average per today, the magnitude of the challenge to set up a significant production is huge. The other challenge to overcome is to make insect production economically competitive, be it for human consumption of for animal feed purposes. Most businesses offering insect products today are operating in a small niche, just because there is little industrial production. The dominant part of the insects and worms consumed are picked in nature by those who eat them, as those animals are usually consumed when there is a seasonal shortage of other protein sources. The niche businesses sell their insect products at prices that even many people in wealthy country could not afford on a frequent basis. The insect products are offered to consumers at prices reaching several hundreds of dollars per pound.  Presenting such foods as helping the world feeding itself, which means mostly helping the world’s poorest to be able to afford nutritious food is at best delusional if not even plain cynical. Insects and worms can be contributors to future food security only if they are affordable and competitive against the other meat sorts. That cannot happen if they are limited to the treat sector.

Another aspect of insects as food is their attractiveness, or lack of it. Insects and worms are much more common in Asia and Africa, where the largest part of the world population is and will be in the future. In Western countries, insects and worms are perceived as repugnant by most people. In terms of marketing, it would make more sense to focus on the Asian and African markets instead of trying to convince Westerners to eat lots of insects, just because of the respective levels of acceptance.

However, there is communication to do and lessons to learn from the past. I would name two. First, escargots, which are so popular under their French name, are an expensive item on menus. Escargots are never sold as “snails” because that sounds gross for most people. Everything sounds tastier in French. Try presenting insects under a French names and the Anglo-Saxon population might be more tempted. Snails used to be, just like insects and worms in Africa and Asia today, food that the French were going to pick on walls after a rain in times of food shortages. My second example is lobster. Lobster used to be considered a bottom feeder that was only for the poor, and so it was. Clearly, the image of lobster has changed a lot. The other lesson about lobster, and I would add shrimp, langoustine and many other ugly crustaceans, is that there are expensive delicacies that actually look a lot like insects, and they are actually rather close to insects in their body structures.

When it comes to human consumption, I wonder whether people will still be tempted to eat bugs if the economic situation keeps on improving in Asia and Africa. Not that long ago, China was in situation of near famine. Anything that contained protein was food. They were roasted rats for sell. In France, during the privations of World War II, rats – and cats- were used to replace pork in many deli specialties. There is a big difference between having to and wanting to. Has rat meat consumption increased in China since the economic boom? Do the French since WWII ended have been asking their butcher for rat pâté? I may be wrong, but I really think that when people, wherever in the world, have the choice, they will go for a juicy steak or some chicken before looking for bugs.

Then, there is the possibility of using insects and worms for animal feed. The advantage of animals compared with humans is that they eat to satisfy their hunger, but there is no psychological side to what is in animal feed, at least from the animal perspective. A trial to feed live insects to chickens just started in The Netherlands. It will be interesting to see the results. What I am wondering about this trial is why use live insects instead of dead ones. When I worked in animal husbandry, one of the things farmers worked on preventing was the possible invasion of insects in the houses, in particular because of the damage to insulation material. Further, I hope they make sure the insects will not escape, and that at least, should that happen, they are not using species that could cause damage in the neighbourhood. Also, I hope that the insects chosen have been screened on the health safety in terms of passing on diseases. Especially, after all the problems caused over the past years by avian flu and contamination by migratory birds, one can never be too cautious.

So what will be a good production system for large-scale production? I do not know yet, and I cannot find much information on how insect husbandry of the future may look like. However, I remember a TV program I saw some 25-30 years ago on the Dutch channel VPRO. I am not sure about the title of the program, but here is what it was about. The documentary was presenting an old fellow living as a hermit somewhere in the wild. He was using meat offal from his farm animals to attract flies, by storing them in a large tank. The flies were colonising the offal and bones and used them to lay their eggs. Later, the maggots hatched and when he found they were large and ripe enough, the hermit harvested the maggots and boiled them in a large caldron. He used that mass of cooked maggots as feed for his pigs and so he recycled the carcasses leftovers of the previous batch of pigs to produce the next one. I found that it was a pretty smart feeding and recycling system. Perhaps, it could be a solution for the future. In his system there was no waste. Of course, it sounds a bit like a porcine version of the movie Soylent Green.

For as much as I can see potential for insects and worms, I also see a huge lack of number crunching and comparative trials to figure out which species to produce and in which productions systems to provide an abundant and affordable of safe insect and worm food for both consumers and environment worldwide. The generality talk about bugs is cheap and does not help me envision how insects would play a prominent role in feeding the future.