Eating Bugs? That’s Buggy!
Have you ever thought about the ants on your kitchen table as anything more than a bunch of obnoxious pests? Have the butterflies in your backyard ever struck you as more than something beautiful to look at? What about the crickets you hear singing late at night? Have you ever thought about what it would be like to utilize the bugs we encounter in our everyday lives as a source of food?
When presented with the thought of popping a moth or beetle into their mouths as a mid-afternoon snack, most people cringe. Realistically, however, insects have played a significant role in the cuisine of many cultures for millennia.
Entomophagy is a term used to describe the consumption of insects. It has been cited that entomophagy was practiced and promoted within Jewish, Christian, and Islamic faiths throughout history, as it was mentioned within the sacred texts of all three religions. To this day entomophagy is common in many countries across the globe, including thirty-six countries in Africa, twenty-three in the Americas, and twenty-nine in Asia. Eating bees and wasps is customary for indigenous peoples of Mexico, larvae is frequently consumed in China, and caterpillars are traded by the ton between Botswana, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. According to a report published by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), more than two billion people worldwide consume insects as a regular part of their diet.
It’s unfortunate that such a strong aversion to insects exists within Western societies, as there are many benefits that result from normalizing and practicing entomophagy. Two major benefits include a significant increase in the sustainability of food systems and the potential to decrease global food insecurity.
As the human population continues to grow, the demand for food access will undoubtedly grow with it. Contemporary methods for mass food production have time and time again been deemed unsustainable as a result of their heavy reliance on finite natural resources. Livestock production requires the expenditure of tremendous amounts of water, land, and energy (typically in the form of fossil fuels) and results in deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions, water and air pollution, and soil degradation.
More than 23 percent of the whole world’s freshwater stores are poured into animal agriculture, either to produce feed crops or as means of hydration for the animals. It’s assumed for a variety of reasons that the water required to cultivate insects is a far lower percentage. For example, some species such as the mealworm have a higher drought tolerance than mammalians do, allowing them to survive for longer periods without water.
The livestock sector also consumes about 30 percent of the earth’s total land mass and accounts for more than 60 percent of the deforestation that has occurred in the Amazon Rainforest. Insect cultivation on the other hand has very low space requirements due to insects’ ability to breed at rapid rates in very small spaces. It’s estimated by the United Nations FAO that “to make the same amount of protein, cows would use ten times the amount of space as mealworms.” This is largely a result of insects’ high proportion of edible weight. The percentage of edible weight for pigs and poultry is only 55 percent and for cattle is an even lower 40 percent. Crickets, on the other hand, have a much higher rate of 80 percent edible weight, meaning less biomass is wasted when they’re consumed. This considered, crickets are up to twice as efficient in producing edible biomass than poultry, four times more efficient than pigs, and up to twelve times more efficient than cattle!
Insects don’t just create less waste though; they can actually reduce it. Unlike livestock, they can be bred sustainably in organic side streams such as animal waste and compost flows. Certain species convert biowaste at extremely efficient rates, creating the potential to reduce landfill masses and serve as a food source simultaneously.
Yet another advantage to entomophagy is lowering the greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change. Out of all global emissions, the animal agriculture sector accounts for 9 percent of carbon dioxide emissions, 35-40 percent of methane emissions, and 65 percent of nitrous oxide emissions, totaling 18 percent of all greenhouse gases emitted globally each year. The greenhouse gas emissions produced by insects, however, are “lower by a factor of about 100,” as asserted by the United Nations FAO.
On top of obtaining a far more sustainable status than livestock, insects have the potential to increase nutritional value and food security, thus leading the way to a more socioeconomically inclusive global food system. Insects, also termed “minilivestock,” can survive and even thrive in a wide variety of climate conditions. This allows individuals and communities to cultivate them even in very rural parts of the world where the effects of climate change are often more apparent. And because of the low resource inputs required for minilivestock production, access to breeding is not limited exclusively to affluent landowners.
Another plus is that the initial investment to begin breed insects is low and, due to their rapid reproductive rates, generates profit shortly afterwards. This provides “an easily accessible source of income in many rural areas, particularly for women and children who are involved in their harvest,” as stated by the United Nations FAO. Minilivestock are also fairly easy to manage. No special training or qualifications are required to produce them, thus opening the door for those without access to education or steady job opportunities.
Entomophagy and food security go hand in hand. By relying on insects as a source of protein as opposed to livestock, the crops being filtrated into the livestock sector could be redirected towards human consumption and increase food availability on a global scale. Insects can typically be harvested from public forests and lands, meaning underprivileged communities without access to land ownership can still rely on them as a source of profit and food. There is also evidence that insects have a higher nutritional value than livestock animals. They contain higher percentages of protein and lower percentages of fat, along with important micronutrients such as iron, zinc, copper, magnesium, and amino acids.
So, although we’ve been conditioned to scrunch up our faces and think “ick” at the mention of eating anything with more than four legs, take time to consider whether the environmental and social advantages of entomophagy outweigh our initial “ew” reflex. Cultivating insects as a primary source of protein results in a plethora of benefits for both the environment and humans, including resource conservation, pollution reduction, food security, and the opportunity to pursue a profitable lifestyle for those living in underprivileged countries around the world. It’s about time we as a Western society overcome our cultural norms and implement a more sustainable, socially inclusive global food system!
Link to United Nations FAO Edible Insects Report: http://www.fao.org/docrep/018/i3253e/i3253e.pdf