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Now reading Are Insects the Future of Food?

Are Insects the Future of Food?

The only thing stopping us from harvesting the sustainable protein might be squeamishness.

bug

Illustration by Aaron Glasson

This story comes from Lucky Peach #16: The Fantasy Issue. For more great stuff like this, subscribe to the magazine!

Right now, those in the business of feeding us face two monumental hurdles: a skyrocketing population that threatens to outpace our food supply, and climate change, with all its attendant catastrophes. There is no silver bullet that can save us from ourselves, but there are people out there devising solutions that might seem like science fiction. 

In the Fantasy issue (which is now on newsstands!), we explored possible panaceas that are already being floated in discussions about our food future. We offer no definitive verdicts; instead, we encourage you to decide for yourself which dreams seem worth pursuing. This week, Jennifer Billock looks into insects.

What’s the Idea?

Insects are a vitamin- and protein-rich superfood with nutritional value comparable to that of fish, according to Paul Vantomme, coordinator of the insect program for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Crickets in particular are packed full of protein and, if the FAO realizes its dreams, will soon become the solution to one of the world’s biggest food problems, namely the global population outpacing the supply chain’s ability to distribute food.

Two billion people worldwide already eat about two thousand different species of insects. In South Africa, termites are served with maize porridge. You can get spicy grasshopper (chapulìn) tacos in Mexico. In Indonesia, dragonflies boiled in coconut milk are a delicacy. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, caterpillars are traditional eating. And in the U.S., cricket protein is added to supplement energy bars, cookies, desserts, and snacks.

FAO research claims that by replacing all livestock-protein sources and livestock feed with edible bug products, we can reclaim as much as 30 percent of the earth’s land from the traditional livestock-farming industry, global greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced by as much as 18 percent, and food prices in most countries could be slashed by 30 percent. The plan is to start small, initially supplementing meat and feed with bug products until it’s possible to replace everything. Vantomme thinks that within the next twenty years, the U.S. will be able to replace 10 percent of yearly livestock-feed consumption with insect-derived feed.

What do we stand to gain?

Livestock farming is both resource intensive and a huge contributor to climate change. According to the USDA, up to one-third of all grains currently produced worldwide are designated to feed animals in intensive cattle, pig, fish, and chicken farms. Part of the cricket solution is raising animals on bug feed.

“Liberating those grains for direct human consumption while using insects to substitute these grains would free more food for humans,” Vantomme says.

Likewise, teaching humans to appreciate crickets as a direct substitute for beef, pork, fish, and fowl could drastically decrease the impact of livestock on climate change. Human consumption of insects can also mean greater access to nutrition for the poor. A basic home insect farm—a lidded container filled with peat moss, a pack of crickets, cornmeal feed, and a wet sponge to keep the bugs hydrated—would set you back about $40. You can raise insects anywhere and, on a small scale, it requires very little capital or technical knowledge.

In an interview last year with Food Republic, Kyle Connaughton, creator of Exo cricket-flour-based energy bars, asserted that the crickets he raised had “virtually no impact on their surroundings.” Crickets and other bugs feed on organic material and waste—fabric, paper, other insects, decaying plants, human and animal waste, even old cat food—theoretically lessening the amount of garbage going into a landfill every day.

But what are the costs?

The cost of farming crickets for worldwide consumption could be astronomical, according to Dr. Tom Turpin, an entomology professor at Purdue University. Dr. Turpin has yet to see anyone able to tackle insect production on a scale that would match traditional protein production. Moreover, a new study from UC Davis, shows that sustainable cricket harvest may not be entirely scalable. Researchers Dr. Mark Lundy and Dr. Michael Parrella found that the tighter crickets were packed into farms, the less protein they produced. Crickets fed “minimally processed, municipal-scale food waste and diets composed largely of straw” died before harvest about 99 percent of the time.

In addition, feeding livestock a bug-based diet doesn’t really solve the problem of intensive livestock farms, and not enough research has been completed to determine the long-term effects of feeding bugs to animals. Early reports by the FAO show promising results in both realms: black soldier fly larvae grown in pig manure can digest it and ultimately reduce its volume; chicks fed black soldier fly larvae meal gained weight. But the researchers are clear that further study is needed.

Insects are also particularly susceptible to contamination, Dr. Turpin says. Dr. Adrian Charlton, a biochemist at the UK’s Food and Environment Research Agency, says that crickets raised on food scraps and manure could suffer from fungus, bacteria, drug, or metal contamination—and we wouldn’t know until we ate them and got sick ourselves. In the past, the California Department of Public Health and the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services issued advisories about certain crickets from Mexico that were allegedly stored in paint jars and absorbed enough lead into their little bodies to poison consumers.

Plus, crickets have issues all their own. Cricket paralysis virus can wipe out an entire farm’s supply in a matter of weeks, as it did at Top Hat Cricket Farms in Portage, Michigan, stopping all production and profit and forcing the company to lay off all of its employees. A cricket farm in Florida had to file bankruptcy as a result of the virus. Cricket paralysis is also a major issue in European cricket farms, making cricket farming a tenuous proposition.

The outlook

The biggest obstacle to realizing the crickets-as-food fantasy might be convincing non-insect-eaters that things are dire enough to consider trading in their prime rib and Thanksgiving turkey for cricket burgers.

Still, entrepreneurs are forging ahead. The first edible-cricket farm in the U.S. opened in 2014 (Big Cricket Farms in Youngstown, Ohio), and now around thirty companies in North America sell bug-based food. But America’s general suspicion of insect eating, along with the lack of any proven large-scale insect farming operations, has limited the industry so far. Dr. Turpin suggests that in thirty to fifty years, complete protein replacement by bugs might be a possibility, but at this point isn’t feasible.

Jarrod Goldin, acting CEO and co-founder of Next Millennium Farms, a Canadian cricket farm, has no illusions about completely bug-based diets, either. He sees bug protein powder playing a role in fortifying other foods, like pasta and bread, although he is slightly more optimistic than Dr. Turpin. Next Millennium is currently developing cricket-based treats for both humans and dogs.

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