Bugged out: are insects the future of food?

Why eating insects could be our only option to stave off world hunger.

Peter Iantorno November 11, 2015

Currently the world’s population stands at around 7.4 billion people and counting. That figure will rise to 8 billion by 2024, and by 2050 the earth’s population is likely to hit at least 9 billion.

So, as the planet is already straining to feeds its population, with an estimated 795 million people in the world unable to eat enough food to lead a healthy active life, how will the world cope with an extra 1.6 billion mouths to feed in the next 35 years?

The answer could well be crawling beneath your feet at this very moment: insects.

Eating insects crickets.jpg Deep-fried crickets.

There are around 40 tonnes of insects for every human being on the planet, and an estimated 2 billion people already count some 2,000 different types of insects as a regular part of their diet.

Rearing insects is up to 20 times more efficient than rearing cattle, when it comes to converting food and water into protein. Plus, insects occupy much less land space and emit far fewer greenhouse gasses than cattle, or any other conventional livestock for that matter.

Yet, despite all the clear benefits and the third of the world’s population that happily guzzle down grasshoppers and all manner of other creepy-crawlies, for the other two-thirds of the world, eating insects (or entomophagy, as it is known) is about as repulsive a thing as we could imagine.

Eating insects skewers.jpg Cicada skewers.

While in Thailand, China, parts of Africa and even aboriginal-inhabited areas of Australia, the locals will think nothing of chomping some deep-friend locusts or chowing down on a plump witchetty grub, for most, irrespective of the nutritional value or environmental factors, the taste, texture and look are just too much of a hurdle to overcome.

And even away from the questionable eating experience, in some quarters even the miraculous protein-building credentials of insects have come under scrutiny. For example, a 2015 study published in scientific journal PLOS ONE claims that insects aren’t as sustainable as many people think.

In order to test the popular claim that insects can be fed on waste and still produce high levels of protein, researchers farmed five different groups of crickets, with one group fed a mixture of corn- soy- and grain-based feed (similar to what is fed to battery hens) and the other four being fed food waste or crop residue. The researchers recorded how large the crickets grew and how much edible protein they produced after two weeks of growth.

Eating insects meal worms.jpg Live meal worms.

The results showed that diet made a huge difference in the crickets’ growth. While the corn- soy- and grain-based food group managed a 35 per cent protein conversion rate, which is just slightly better than your average chicken can produce, almost all of the groups fed on waste died before they could be harvested.

Of course, this is only one study on one species, and any number of factors could have been at play that affected the crickets. Plus, many other authorities – not least the UN in a 2013 paper – actively encourage the consumption of insects, stating that if we are to have any chance of feeding a growing global population, they are a valuable resource that cannot be ignored.

Is eating insects safe?

Safety is always a concern when talking about any source of food, and it is certainly no different with insects. However, according to the European Food Safety Authority, which recently published its initial risk assessment of using insects as protein for human consumption and animal feed, eating insects is just as safe as any other food source.

Eating insects water bugs.jpg Deep-fried giant water bugs.

The report concluded that while there are always risks with any form of food, depending very much on the methods used throughout the whole chain “from farming to the final product”, there is nothing inherently dangerous about eating insects.

"The specific production methods, the substrate used, the stage of harvest, the insect species, as well as the methods used for further processing will all have an impact on the possible presence of biological and chemical contaminants in insect food and feed products," the report observed.

The biggest stumbling block to eating insects – at least in developed countries that don’t have big problems with hunger – will be changing people’s mindset that the dirty, disgusting pests they are almost predisposed to be repulsed by, could, in fact, be a welcome addition to their dining table.