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Insects: The Future of Protein?

Insects could be the key to meeting food needs of growing global population. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization is taking seriously the farming of creepy-crawlies as nutritious food.

by Damian Carrington


A Chinese woman selling scorpions on stick waits for customers at a stall in Beijing, where the delicacy is fried in cooking oil. (Photograph: Claro Cortes/Reuters)


Saving the planet one plateful at a time does not mean cutting back on meat, according to new research: the trick may be to switch our diet to insects and other creepy-crawlies.

The raising of livestock such as cows, pigs and sheep occupies two-thirds of the world's farmland and generates 20% of all the greenhouse gases driving global warming. As a result, the United Nations and senior figures want to reduce the amount of meat we eat and the search is on for alternatives.

A policy paper on the eating of insects is being formally considered by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The FAO held a meeting on the theme in Thailand in 2008 and there are plans for a world congress in 2013.

Professor Arnold van Huis, an entomologist at Wageningen University in the Netherlands and the author of the UN paper, says eating insects has advantages.

"There is a meat crisis," he said. "The world population will grow from six billion now to nine billion by 2050 and we know people are consuming more meat. Twenty years ago the average was 20kg, it is now 50kg, and will be 80kg in 20 years. If we continue like this we will need another Earth."

Van Huis is an enthusiast for eating insects but given his role as a consultant to the FAO, he can't be dismissed as a crank. "Most of the world already eats insects," he points out. "It is only in the western world that we don't. Psychologically we have a problem with it. I don't know why, as we eat shrimps, which are very comparable."

The advantages of this diet include insects' high levels of protein, vitamin and mineral content. Van Huis's latest research, conducted with colleague Dennis Oonincx, shows that farming insects produces far less greenhouse gas than livestock. Breeding commonly eaten insects such as locusts, crickets and meal worms, emits 10 times less methane than livestock. The insects also produce 300 times less nitrous oxide, also a warming gas, and much less ammonia, a pollutant produced by pig and poultry farming.

Being cold-blooded, insects convert plant matter into protein extremely efficiently, Van Huis says. In addition, he argues, the health risks are lower. He acknowledges that in the west eating insects is a hard sell: "It is very important how you prepare them, you have to do it very nicely, to overcome the yuk factor."

More than 1,000 insects are known to be eaten by choice around the world, in 80% of nations. They are most popular in the tropics, where they grow to large sizes and are easy to harvest.

The FAO's field officer Patrick Durst, based in Bangkok, Thailand, ran the 2008 conference.

Durst helped set up an insect farming project FAO project in Laos which began in April. This involves transferring the skills of the 15,000 household locust farmers in Thailand across the border. "There were some proponents of a bigger dairy industry in Laos to improve a calcium deficiency," says Durst, whose favorite is fried wasp - "very crispy and a nice light snack" - "But this is crazy when most Asians are lactose intolerant." Locusts and crickets are calcium-rich and 90% of people in Laos have eaten insects at some point, he says.Durst says the FAO's priority will be to boost the eating of insects where this is already accepted but has been in decline due to western cultural influence.

He also thinks such a boost can provide livelihoods and protect forests where many wild insects are collected. "I can see a step-by-step process to wider implementation."

First, insects could be used to feed farmed animals such as chicken and fish which eat them naturally. Then, they could be used as ingredients.

Van Huis adds: "We're looking at ways of grinding the meat into some sort of patty, which would be more recognizable to western palates."

One of the few suppliers of insects for human consumption in the UK is Paul Cook, whose business Osgrow is based in Bristol. However, no matter how they are marketed or presented, Cook is not convinced they will ever become more than a novelty. "They are in the fun element ... But I can't see it ever catching on in the UK in a big way."

LOCAL TREATS

  • Thailand Dishes include fried giant red ants, crickets and June beetles
  • Colombia "Fat-bottomed" ants are a popular snack, fried and salted
  • Papua New Guinea Sago grubs in banana leaves are a local delicacy
  • Ghana Winged termites are collected and fried, roasted, or made into bread
  • Japan Dishes include aquatic fly larvae in sugar and candied grasshoppers
  • Mexico The agave worm is eaten on tortillas, and grasshoppers are toasted
  • Cambodia Deep-fried tarantulas are popular with locals and tourists
  • South Africa Locusts lend interest to the staple dish of cornmeal porridge
  • Australia Witchetty grubs are a traditional part of the Aboriginal diet


This post originally appeared on The Guardian.

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Comments

I think there is a flaw in the thinking of insect protein advocates. Yes, meat consumption is going up but the main areas of growth are in developing countries, which are amenable to eating insect protein. If they focused on these developing countries, they could prevent the large increases in green house gas emissions and dedication of large tracts of land to traditional meat farming. Insect protein will probably never catch on the western world but these areas meat consumption is also growing slowly. Additionally, there is scientific research to develop meat in a lab. The cells replicate and create a steak like substance. This may prove another alternative to traditional raised meat.


Posted by: Lance on 4 Aug 10

As Professor van Huis points out, we do eat shrimps which are fairly unattractive to look at, but usually they are prepared in such a way as to bypass the 'yuk' factor, plus we don't really think of them as insects!

If I had to eat one of the scorpions pictured above, or starve - I really think I'd have to starve. I have to admit too, that even if insects were made into a patty, just the knowledge of what the patty was made from would be just too disgusting to allow me to swallow. However, maybe I just have never been hungry enough!

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Posted by: Rae Healy on 7 Aug 10

Interesting read. In the future if everyone or at least most of human beings source of proteins will come from insects, I guess we don't really have much of a choice.

Just hope that it will be prepared in more visually appetising than those in the picture. Anyway, sauteed grasshoppers or crickets to go with warm chocolate sounds ok to me.

Maybe should also look into multi-storey farm which could better use of space?


Posted by: John Smith on 18 Aug 10

Interesting read. In the future if everyone or at least most of human beings source of proteins will come from insects, I guess we don't really have much of a choice.

Just hope that it will be prepared in more visually appetising than those in the picture. Anyway, sauteed grasshoppers or crickets to go with warm chocolate sounds ok to me.

Maybe should also look into multi-storey farm which could better use of space?


Posted by: John Smith on 18 Aug 10

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