The idea of eating insects can seem a bit unappealing if you’ve been brought up with a Western diet. We do eat them as a novelty or inadvertently as food colouring. However, insect-eating (known as entomophagy) is common in many cultures across the world. Humans have been eating insects from prehistoric times to the present day. If people in the West could get over our knee-jerk aversion to eating insects, there would be many benefits by introducing some crickets into our diet. Indeed, in terms of sustainability, doing so may be necessary.
Choosing Crickets Instead of Beef
A report published by the UK government’s waste agency concluded that insects should become a staple part of everyone’s diet. This is because eating crickets is much more environmentally friendly than eating beef.
Authors said that providing the UK’s population with a nutritional and sustainable protein supply will be one of the biggest challenges in the coming decades. But it is not just a UK-specific problem, since meat is a staple part of most diets around the world. With the global population set to reach 9.7 billion by 2050, that will be a lot more people eating meat. Land and water resources are strained enough as it is from global meat production.
Essentially, we need to look for more sustainable alternatives. And insects may be one of the most sustainable sources of protein out there. All we have to do is get over that ‘yuck factor’.
Insects are extremely healthy. They have a high fat, protein, vitamin, fiber, and mineral content that is comparable to fish and livestock. For example, house crickets contain on average 205g/kg protein, while beef contains 256g/kg protein. Some insects even contain 80% protein by weight.
One reason why insects are more environmentally friendly than meat is that they are cold-blooded, and so require less energy to maintain their internal body temperature. They are very efficient at converting feed into body mass, unlike cattle. Meat is a hugely inefficient way to feed people. It accounts for 17% of global caloric intake but uses 77% of agricultural land. Insects require significantly less land and water than livestock, and reproduce much more quickly. They can also be farmed in large quantities in small areas.
For those concerned about animal welfare, this may also be a plus. While it has long been doubted whether insects are capable of experiencing pain, scientists are still divided on this issue. This is partly because there has not been a serious search for sentience in insects, but also because, based on their more rudimentary nervous system, it is less clear whether they have the biological apparatus to translate a stimulus into the subjective experience of pain. Nonetheless, a recent UK law recognising the sentience of vertebrate animals allows invertebrates to be added at a later time, which makes sense, given that the scientific evidence on animal sentience is moving all the time.
While ethical issues may still surround using insects for human consumption, factory farming insects could result in little (possibly no) suffering when compared to factory farming meat. However, if insects do feel pain, the actual amount of suffering created through farming them could potentially be greater, given that the number of insects required to produce a single meal is orders of magnitude higher than the number of mammals killed for that meal. On the other hand, the quality of a single mammal’s suffering may be of a type that outweighs the accumulated suffering of many more insects.
Given the uncertainty surrounding these questions and insect sentience more generally, many ethical vegans and vegetarians will simply avoid eating insects since arguably nothing is really lost by avoiding their consumption (a vegan diet can already be adequately nutritious and sustainable), but refraining from eating them can at least carry the possibility of avoiding insect suffering. If, over time, ethical veganism becomes more commonplace, and insect sentience is established, then plant-based sources of protein are likely to be a preferable choice for many people over insect protein.
It’s also worth highlighting that insects produce a fraction of greenhouse gases (GHGs), such as methane and ammonia, compared to cattle. Another bonus feature of insects is that they can consume animal waste or plants that people cannot. In this way, they won’t compete with the human food supply (like livestock do), and they could also help cut down on environmental contamination.
The colonists on Mars may be eating silkworms. At least, scientists at Beihang University in Beijing are considering this as a potential Martian food source. This is because they could simultaneously fertilize plants and feed astronauts. In addition, silkworm pupae contain twice the amount of essential amino acids compared to pork, and four times that of egg and milk.
Home Bug Farms
University of Applied Arts Vienna graduate Katharina Unger has built a domestic insect-breeding machine called Farm 432 (see here for more images of the machine). Using just a few food scraps you can convert 1 gram of black soldier fly eggs into 2.4 kilograms of larvae protein. Unger presents some arguments as to why everyone should grow insect larvae at home. She said:
Black soldier flies themselves do not eat, they just drink. And they do not transmit any disease to humans.
It’s about a potential new Western culture of insect eating and breeding. It’s about making people aware that there is a great variety of food on our planet that we rarely consider.
Unger, who is the founder of Livin Farms, the company making the product, says:
Livestock is a key factor for climate change. A large percentage of our diseases originate in animal production houses. Growing your own means knowing exactly what you eat.
One of the key components of sustainable nutrition is following a diet that doesn’t use up a significant amount of the planet’s resources. So while a beef burger might require 74 square feet of land (mostly for growing cattle feed), Unger’s domestic insect hive is tiny.
Currently, edible insects are expensive, with the current wholesale prices for freeze-dried Dutch mealworms, crickets and locusts at around £40, £90 and £160 a kilogram respectively. This means that steak is cheaper than the cheapest bugs. Nick Cooper, the founder of the company Crunchy Critters, states: “Farming crickets here consumes a lot of energy to keep them warm, and that has an environmental cost.” However, this relates to crickets, which might not be the most sustainable kind of insect to farm. Mealworms are more eco-friendly as they can be raised at lower temperatures than crickets.
If you want to eat insects in an affordable way, then home bug farms may allow you to do exactly that, since something like the Open Bug Farm is promoted as being an easy and affordable way to farm insects at home. And the sustainability advantages of home bug farms should be emphasised. Unger underscores:
A pig cannot easily be raised on your balcony, insects can. With their benefits, insects are one part of the solution to make currently inefficient industrial-scale production of meat obsolete.
Moreover, Unger’s hive can grow enough food to supply several meals a week, or around 200 and 500 grams of mealworms a week. Kitchen-style gadgets that people are using to grow vegetables do not match this kind of efficiency.
What About the Taste?
As mentioned previously, insects are eaten all over the world. And chefs have been getting creative and finding ways to make them tasty. A German company has also created a burger made from mealworms. In Mexico, there is a range of insects to choose from. The most popular are chapulines (grasshoppers). They’re nearly always doused in a mild chilli powder and lime juice. Meanwhile, in Cambodia, many people there enjoy eating deep-fried locusts. In Southeast Asia, it’s common to see all types of insects served as street food (I remember seeing heaps of fried crickets being sold in downtown Yangon, Myanmar).
Can We Get Over the ‘Yuck Factor’?
Unger believes one of the main obstacles to widespread entomophagy is the ‘yuck factor’. But she thinks bugs just need some rebranding. After all, other foods have overcome bad reputations in the past, including sushi and tofu. So there will need to be a cultural shift if people are to accept insects as a healthy and sustainable part of nutrition.
Eating insects may be sustainable, morally preferable to consuming mammals, and even healthier than eating meat. But thinking rationally about insect-eating doesn’t mean that someone not used to insects as food will suddenly want to make them a regular part of their diet. The yuck factor – the immediate reaction of disgust – associated with eating insects can be an especially difficult barrier to overcome. This aversion towards insects as food exists for different reasons.
Firstly, entomophobia (the fear of insects) is a common phobia, as is food neophobia (the fear of trying new food) among children and older adults. It would be a challenge to get these types of people to switch over to consuming insects. Moreover, outside the context of actual phobias, fear and disgust reactions to insects are widespread, which may be partly biological (i.e. bugs can carry certain dangers) and partly cultural (we are brought up to find bugs gross). Yet however much our evolution or culture is to blame for our aversion towards bugs, this tendency can still be quite persistent. One way to get around this problem might be to focus on insect-based powders, such as cricket powder (or cricket flour) since these retain the nutritional quality of whole insects and can be easily included in all sorts of meals and snacks.
So will we all be eating insects in the future? Perhaps many more of us will be. But given that alternative, sustainable, and less harmful versions of meat are being produced (e.g. lab-grown meat and plant-based meat), these will likely be the more appealing option for non-insect-eaters. But you never know. Cultural attitudes do change. In the future, it may not be so shocking to see an insect burger sold alongside lab-grown and plant-based ones.