The UN estimates that the world population is projected to reach around 9.8 billion in 2050, and perhaps 11.2 billion in 21001. As such, the demand for proper sustenance will continue to climb, and when combined with the continually increasing financial and environmental costs of upkeeping livestock, alternative food products must be explored. Whilst most in the West are struggling with solutions, a ready substitute has already been embraced by other cultures: the role of insects as food sources, otherwise known as entomophagy.
Insects have a versatile capacity for consumption; they may be eaten similar to a piece of meat (fried, boiled, stewed, cured, etc.) or as a plant product (dipped in chocolate, candied, dried and salted). There also exist newer consumption methods, such as grinding them into a powder to be incorporated into other ingredients. Given the numerous options seen with entomophagy, why is it that this has not become commonplace among Western cuisine? Firstly, it may be beneficial to briefly examine geographical differences. The lack of insect biodiversity and prevalence, caused in part by a comparatively colder environment within most of Europe and North America, has led to a general disinterest of insects as a worthwhile food source. Additionally, insects have been traditionally associated with disease and sickness, which isn’t without reason. Many historically significant diseases such as the bubonic plague, as well as current diseases like malaria, find hosts and vectors within different species of insects. Consequentially, most protein consumption is derived from domesticable animals. However, would switching to insect consumption in the global West really bring any benefits?
Focusing on insects as a source of food offers many advantages unexplored by current livestock. Most notably, their cost efficiency cannot be overstated. Cultivating one gram of cricket protein requires 2L of water, which is 56 times less than needed to produce one gram of beef. Additionally, cultivating insects requires much less space and feed; cows consume 8g of food per gram of weight gained, whilst insects require less than 2g of food, a perk granted by their ectothermic nature that minimizes energy used for body warmth. Furthermore, insects can produce large amounts of progeny, have rapid growth rates, and experience short life cycles, making them ideal for farming, production and processing. Their only source of significant costs lies in their limited culinary use in Western countries, which increases their rarity, and as a result, price.
The nutritional benefits of insects are also in a tier of their own. A recent review demonstrated that insects are high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids, fibre, and contain large amounts of micronutrients such as copper, iron, magnesium, and zinc. Large amounts of Vitamin A and multiple types of Vitamin B are also found to be present. Whilst the quality of insect proteins have yet to be assessed, it has been reported that protein content in insects were on average equal to soy protein as an amino acid source, and comparable to conventional meat products. Furthermore, a study by Payne et al also found crickets, mealworms and palm weevil larvae to boast a significantly higher nutrient value score compared to beef and chicken.
In line with population increases, environmental concerns can also be addressed when focusing on insect consumption. Animal production contributes to 18% of greenhouse gases, 65% of nitrous oxide (N2O), 35% of methane (CH4), and 9% carbon dioxide (CO2) emission worldwide. Dr. Nathan Fiala, a professor at the University of Connecticut, estimates 1 kg of beef to cause 14.8 kg of CO2 emission, with pigs and chickens causing 3.8 and 1.1 kg respectively. Insects on the other hand, generate 100 times less CO2 and have the potential to reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions drastically.
Whilst entomophagy displays great potential in addressing these issues, there is also a need to regulate insect consumption with respect to food safety standards. Insects are susceptible to many infectious parasites, pathogens and even chemical exposures that are not commonplace amongst current livestock. These potential food safety hazards mean that quality control of insect farming may be more stringent, although it is unclear if this will significantly alter their cost of production. However, given the rarity of insect farming, there is a lack of certified legislation focusing on their production, and this caveat discourages many farmers from entering the field. Furthermore, given that insects are such a novel food type, there may be unforeseen allergenic responses that must be examined prior to production. One such allergen found in edible insects includes arginine kinase, which is also found in crustaceans. A study conducted by Francis and colleagues demonstrated that 19% of participants were sensitized by skin prick tests prepared with cricket and mealworm samples, which may impede large scale implementation of these insects as food sources.
Finally, while it is clear that financial and environmental complications will be reduced, ethical complications are less clear. There is difficulty in resolving where insects belong within the scope of animal protection legislation, and there is much needed research as to whether or not we should attribute equal moral status to insects as we do domesticated animals, such as cows or pigs. This consideration may also impede the rise of insect farming.
Whilst the insect food industry develops, it is important to appreciate the clear benefits that insect consumption may bring. Despite the aforementioned hurdles that obstruct mainstream insect consumption, the biggest hurdle to the public is the public themselves. Common acceptance of insect consumption is a great challenge, one that some would agree is more difficult than actual regulation of insect farming. Ultimately however, insect consumption is an interesting alternative that many should consider exploring, not only for a source of healthy protein, but also as a novel experience.
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