Climate change and food security advocates want creepy-crawlies hitherto loved mostly by gardeners and photographers to find their way onto the world’s dinner plates. But it may be an uphill battle before steak is replaced by cricket soufflé.
As the world’s population swells to an estimated 9 billion by 2050, some nutritionists see grasshoppers, spiders, crickets, mealworms, bee larvae and silkworm pupae, as well as other edible species, as a way of keeping malnutrition at bay among humans. What’s more, eating insects could help contain global warming if they replace diet staples like beef, pork and chicken.
In a sign of the times, insect dishes such as bee larvae and wax worm tacos will be on sale at two of the world’s biggest insect-food festivals this spring. The organisers of Pestival, to be held in London in April, expect more than 200,000 visitors, while the 27th annual Bug Fair in Los Angeles is expected to draw at least 10,000.
“Insects are basically packets of protein,” says Paul Vantomme, senior forestry officer at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in Rome. As the population grows, “there’s high demand for protein, and traditional sources, such as meat and fish, have problems.”
Vantomme notes that cows require about eight kilos of grain to produce one kilo of meat, making them a big factor in deforestation and methane production, two big contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. The FAO estimates that livestock also consume 15 percent of all water supplied by irrigation.
In those figures, the FAO and a growing number of entrepreneurial food companies see a big opportunity.
People have been eating insects for centuries, and up to 80 percent of the world’s population outside Europe and North America still rely on insects for some part of their diet. But, as Western influence has grown and poverty has forced more people into urban centers, insect harvesting has decreased, says Patrick Durst, a senior forestry officer for Asia and the Pacific with the FAO.
The impact of the decline is evident in Laos, where malnutrition is now the highest in South-East Asia. Fifty percent of children under 5 in rural areas are chronically malnourished because they lack protein. But local governments aren’t keen to encourage insect consumption, wary of appearing “backward” compared to Western cultures, Durst says.
To spur demand and availability, the FAO has funded a three-year insect-farming program in which insect-farming techniques used in Thailand will be taught to 150 farmers in Laos.
Thailand is the model as it is the only country in the region where insect consumption has grown over the past 15 years. Thailand has a thriving insect farming industry with over 20,000 farms, Durst says.
Crickets are the most popular insects to eat as they’re considered one of the tastiest. They’re also the most prevalent because they’re the easiest to farm, he says, and “it’s been possible to rachet up the supply quite easily to meet expanding demand.”
Most crickets are fried and sold as crispy snacks by street vendors and in small shops and markets, he said. Bamboo caterpillars also are eaten.
Meanwhile, a few entrepreneurs are promoting insects in the West as a healthier and more environmentally-friendly protein than meat.
Florence Dunkel, an associate professor of entomology at Montana State University, compares a 100 gram serving of rib roast to “land shrimp," or Lepidoptera – the class of insect that includes moths. She says insects offer seven percent more protein, 35 times more calcium and ten times more iron than the meat, as well as less fat. The problem, she concedes, is that insects have “bad press, more often falling into the category of filth.”
CRICKET BARS GET A KICKSTART
Salt Lake City-based Chapul is among the companies trying to change that perception. Chapul’s founder, Pat Crowley, says “our entire business is focused on overcoming the cultural hurdle of eating bugs.”
The biggest psychological barrier is seeing the whole insect, he says. So, Chapul has instead created protein bars, in flavours like peanut and chocolate or coconut, ginger and lime, using “cricket flour.”
Crowley believes it's working. The cricket bar project brought in $16,000 through Kickstarter, an online crowd-funding platform, in 18 days last year, easily surpassing the company’s $10,000 goal.
But if insects are to make a significant dent in the food system, people will need to eat more than protein bars.
“If you want to introduce a new food, you need to find a place for it in cuisine,” says Ben Reade, head of culinary research and development at the Nordic Food Lab, where he explores the “marginal areas of food and cooking” from a houseboat on Denmark’s coast.
Food scientists can make the perfect protein, Reade says, “but people won't come back for more unless it tastes good.”
He has been working with insects to fine-tune their “deliciousness,” and appeal. Worms and “the crunch” of insects with firm exteriors can repel diners, he says.
So, “gateway foods” - foods people “are inclined to say ‘yes’ to - are required, he says. If insects are inserted into ice cream, beer or candy “most people will say yes,” he claims.
Even if people eventually get comfortable with chocolate-covered crickets, new regulations are needed to ease cross-border trade in insects in order to scale-up their use. Most current laws are focused on weeding insects out of food, not welcoming them as food. And insect farms need to be adapted to churn out protein suitable for human consumption. In most countries, farms harvest insects for pet food, not humans.
In the short-term, feeding insects to animals may have more potential.
Right now, “the majority of protein for (industrially farmed) livestock and fish comes from soybeans and fish meal,” says Vantomme. That contributes to deforestation, fresh water scarcity and declining fish stocks.
Insects are a good alternative, he said. But far more than can be captured in the wild are needed to feed fields of livestock and ponds full of farmed fish.
Glen Courtright, the CEO of EnviroFlight, has one solution.
Courtright, who lives in Yellow Springs, Ohio, has been harvesting soldier flies as a replacement for fishmeal. He feeds the flies on organic waste in the form of brewers’ grains discarded from the beer making process. Twenty million flies can be raised in 1,000 square feet. Once processed, every square foot of enclosure provides one pound per day of food for aquaculture.
The flies consume twice their body weight per day and reproduce quickly, laying up to 900 eggs three days after mating, he says, making them an efficient and abundant feed source.
So successful have the flies been with fish that Courtright is now working with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to develop a similar feed for livestock.
Ben Reade, the Danish entrepreneur, is also testing some new dishes for Pestival. One will likely be made from bee larvae.
“It's delish,” he insists. “All it’s ever eaten is honeycomb.”
Ali Morrow has worked as a strategic planner at an international advertising agency and is now a fellow of global journalism at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.