How to Get the World Ready to Eat Insects for a Sustainable Future

How to Get the World Ready to Eat Insects for a Sustainable Future

It took most of us some time to get to this point, but today, our world has ultimately become more eco-conscious than it ever has been. There are concerted efforts to transition to a more sustainable lifestyle, and most of the big business brands we know have begun to re-evaluate their environmental policies and carbon footprints. People are switching what they drive, wear and eat for more sustainable options.

When it comes to food, one of the biggest culprits with regards to environmental impact is meat; beef specifically. Beef production is the biggest cause of deforestation in the Amazon and it is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, livestock rearing often leads to the loss of lands that act as valuable carbon sinks, as well as the contamination of rivers and lakes with animal waste. It comes as no surprise then that various eco-friendly alternatives have been proffered for meat protein some of which include tofu, lentils, lab-grown meat and insect based protein. Yes, you read the insect part right.

Credit: AFP.

Apparently, eating bugs is far more sustainable than traditional meat products, such that the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has been encouraging the consumption of insects since 2003. Insects can provide an equal amount of protein with a much less environmental and carbon footprint. For starters, insects are poikilothermic which means that they don’t require energy to maintain their body heat and consequently are more efficient in converting the food they consume into protein. Then there are the environmental factors to consider. For instance, it takes fourteen times more water to produce a gram of beef protein than it does to produce insect based protein.

The campaign for the adoption of insect-based protein isn’t without certain peculiar challenges though. The data around the production of insect based protein at scale is largely scanty for one. And then there’s the issue of how much energy would be needed to raise insects for food on a large scale.

Insects naturally flourish in humid areas but adopting them for food would certainly require conscious efforts to farm them in larger quantities. To reproduce those exact humid conditions so as to farm them at scale in places such as Europe will require huge energy consumption. In which case, the costs of farming them might begin to outweigh their nutritional benefits. 

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But more than the uncertainties of its production, the biggest challenge for mainstreaming insects as food is of course the question making them palatable for the public. To be clear, I agree with the famous zoologist, Dr. Radomir Jasku?a, that over two billion people worldwide eat insects on a regular basis. I know many people are already eating insects as part of their local cuisines (such as those in Asia and Africa). I have eaten a few insect based meals myself, so the challenge here is not in making insects consumable. The challenge lies in the best ways to market insect-based proteins to the rest of the world, especially to beef-crazy Americans. 

On the plus side, if the introduction of other meat alternatives such as plant burgers is anything to go by, then the prospects ought to be good for insect-based protein as well. This is aided by the fact that with the rise in eco-consciousness, more people are becoming open to eco-friendly alternatives no matter how strange or foreign these alternatives may initially appear. This increased awareness, I hope, will lead more people to very easily overcome the “yuck factor” currently tied to eating bugs and insects. Despite this optimistic view of mine though, I admit freely that the consumption of insects as meat would still need a PR boost of massive proportions.

Credit: Grilo Protein.

As far as I can see, one of the best ways to accomplish this would be for large food companies to see the insect-eating campaign as a viable market. The good news is that this is already shaping up to be the case. According to the Barclays Report, the ‘insect meat industry’ is projected to be worth over $8 billion by the year 2030. Companies such as Nestle have already commenced research and plans towards developing insect-based products but for other companies, the approach has been slower and more circumspect than one would expect.

Pepsi, for instance has not moved into the market directly, but has accepted insect products companies like Jimini’s into their food accelerators program. This shows that although they have a keen eye on the industry, they are more or less still biding their time.

For the food companies whose reluctance to key into the insect industry is based on marketing strategies, I figure a viable model to be adopted here is the sushi model. Just like sushi, by marketing the product as an exotic taste courted by the high and low alike, larger numbers of consumers may get over the ‘yuck factor’ associated with insects more quickly, and I suspect increasing numbers of companies would get on the insect as food bandwagon quicker than expected too. 

I imagine there could be a lot more challenges with the adoption of insect based proteins as an alternative to beef, and frankly I won’t pretend to have all the answers. All I can state though is that the move away from beef consumption is better for our health and our environment and that we all need to work together to implement solutions and transition to eco-friendly beef alternatives.

And sometimes, the most important step is to start. We’ll undoubtedly figure out the rest as we go.

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