Farming edible insects to feed people and livestock could help improve food security and support developing economies and potentially replace conventional animal feed
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Would you eat a mealworm pizza? a grasshopper stir-fry? a cricket curry? a deep-fried tarantula?
This is exactly what two teams of academics propose as the main protein source for livestock — and people.
The first team of scientists, entomologist Arnold van Huis, a Professor Emeritus with Wageningen University, chief editor of the Journal of Insects as Food and Feed, and author or co-author of several books (including cookbooks) about insects-as-food, and food scientist Laura Gasco, a professor of Animal and Veterinary Science at the University of Torino, argue that a strong case can be made for using insects (note that throughout this piece, I refer to all edible arthropods, incorrectly, as “insects” to expedite your reading) as a protein-rich feed for livestock and other food animals, such as farmed fish.
Growing livestock for meat is an astoundingly inefficient rate of return on investment. Professor emeritus van Huis and Professor Gasco note that most livestock feed is made from fishmeal and soybean meal. They also point out that 70% and 80% of all agricultural land is directly or indirectly dedicated to meat production, but in return, only produces a paltry 18% of all calories and 25% of all proteins consumed by humans.
But there is a workable solution: based on extensive research, Professor Emeritus van Huis and Professor Gasco propose that replacing conventional livestock feed with feed made from arthropods would free up large parcels of land now used to grow food for livestock.
Using insects as livestock feed can improve the sustainability of food production because insects can transform low-value organic wastes — fruits, vegetables, and even manure — into high-quality livestock feed. And because what goes in must come out, the insects produce poop — known more properly as “frass” — which makes a superb fertilizer for plants.
Insects-as-food are also a valuable source of nutrition for animals and has many potential health benefits. Despite the growing number of vegetarians and vegans, the global demand for meat is still accelerating, so it is critically important to develop more efficient ways to produce those animals that people are clamoring to consume. Further, farming insects for food is likely to become more feasible as the planet continues to warm and can help support local food production networks.
But maybe we should skip the middle man (or middle cow?) when it comes to food production and consumption? If livestock and the other animals that we raise for food can eat arthropods, then why can’t we?
We can. The truth is that humans have eaten arthropods since before we came down from the trees. And many people in the world today still eat them; although most of the Developed World does not. In most places, people take a really dim view of eating insects because they think it is either disgusting or dirty, or both. So the insects-as-food movement is facing a very steep uphill battle to entice people to willingly eat arthropods.
But this could change, argues a second team of scientists, Arup Kumar Hazarika, an Associate Professor in the Department of Zoology at Cotton University, and ecological economist Unmilan Kalita, who is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Economics at Barnagar College. They argue that eating arthropods can meet the growing demands for food, particularly protein-rich food, for people around the world in the near future. Professor Hazarika and Professor Kalita claim this is especially true if commercial food producers add their support by raising insects-as-food.
Human food producers may get an additional incentive to pursue insects-as-food: global food insecurity due to the effects of climate change, extreme weather events such as prolonged droughts and floods, global food supply chain disruptions, and geopolitical conflicts — all of which we are experiencing right now. Further, the populations of low- and middle-income nations are growing rapidly and require access to affordable and sustainable nutrition, particularly protein. It’s neither economically feasible to rely on traditional agriculture and livestock production to meet these needs, nor is it environmentally sound because food industries only make things worse by actively driving the climate crisis.
Despite the growing popularity of vegetarianism and veganism around the world and a shift to plant-based or lab-grown meat, these solutions may not be practical for every country. But farming edible insects presents a solution to the growing food problem. Insects-as-food require less space and generally far fewer resources than raising animals for meat. Professor Hazarika and Professor Kalita note that eating insects can provide many nutritional benefits — common crickets, for example, are high in protein. The researchers also point out that insects require fewer resources to raise than livestock, making them a prime green alternative.
Interestingly, in both papers, the authors argue that food producers’ reluctance to pursue insects-as-food is the only factor holding back the widespread adoption of arthropods as a food source. But I think an additional factor to this reluctance is cultural: wealthy people in general, will not eat insects, and most people who have grown up in a First World nation will not eat them, either.
Arnold van Huis and LauraGasco (2023). Insects as feed for livestock production, Science 379(6628):138-139 | doi:10.1126/science.adc9165
Arup Kumar Hazarika and Unmilan Kalita (2023). Human consumption of insects, Science 379(6628):140-141 | doi:10.1126/science.abp8819