Eat Your Bugs

An uptick in entomophagy could offset climate and extinction crises

by Gavin MacRae

A package at the door signalled it was time for my experiment to begin.

I opened the box and emptied bags of barbecued mealworms and roasted chili-lime and honey mustard crickets into bowls, then called over my 4-yr-old for his afternoon snack.

I explained that today we were eating insects. Without skipping a beat, my son started munching. After a moment of trepidation, I joined him.

The mealworms weren’t his favorite; I thought they tasted a little like Hickory Sticks. We both agreed the crickets were tasty, especially the chili-lime. They reminded me of flavoured popcorn.

My kid was still hungry, so I gave him a Bite brand “chocolate chirp energy bar” boasting 20-30 crickets per bar, and he gobbled it down.

For dinner I cooked a pot of vegetarian chili with cricket flour. My wife, steadfast in her rejection of the rest of my insect cornucopia, admitted it was one of my better concoctions.

My experiment was complete. My son’s eagerness and wife’s acceptance showed we could, to a modest degree, integrate entomophagy (eating edible insects) into our diet, something one study found only 12.8% of males and 6.3% of females in Western culture are willing to do.

Achievement unlocked!

Except it’s not much of an achievement. Archaeological evidence suggests that humans evolved as an entomophagous species, which is perhaps not surprising considering edible insects are rich in protein, fats, vitamins, minerals, and fibre. Today, around two billion people in 133 countries consume insects as part of their diets.

A gram of chicken protein takes two to three times more land, 50% more water, and produces 32-167% more CO2-equivalent emissions than farmed mealworms.

Tiny but environmentally mighty…

But insects should be feeding many more. According to the UN Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, industrial agriculture has reached such massive scale it is now a key cause of catastrophic biodiversity declines and climate change. Livestock is a particular concern, using 80% of agricultural land for grazing or feed production and driving 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Three-quarters of the world’s available freshwater resources are also now devoted to crop and livestock production. For all this, by one estimation meat only contributes 15% to the total energy in the global human diet.

Then there’s the threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria from overuse of antibiotics on cattle, the risk of zoonotic spillover of pathogens from industrial-scale hog and chicken farming, manure runoff suffocating wild fish and aquatic species, animal welfare concerns, and the list goes on.

Demand for meat is forecast to rise 75% by 2050. The problems associated with meat production will doubtless grow apace if changes aren’t made to how we get our calories.

Farmed edible insects, while no panacea, take far less land, less water, and produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions than typical livestock. And because insects don’t use energy to maintain a constant body temperature, they are able to convert feed to high-quality protein more efficiently than cattle, pigs, or chickens. A 2012 study by Dutch researchers found that a gram of chicken protein takes two to three times more land, 50% more water, and produces 32-167% more CO2-equivalent emissions than farmed mealworms. Beef cattle were estimated to emit 6-13 times more CO2-equivalent emissions per unit of protein, and use 14 times more land and five times more water than farmed mealworms.

Edible insect farming could also put a dent in the estimated 27% of all agricultural produce that is wasted between field and fork. Rearing crickets, mealworms, or entomophagy’s rising superstar, black soldier fly larvae, on pre-consumer waste streams from the fruit, vegetable, baking, and beer brewing industries diverts low-value waste from landfills, and converts it to high-quality protein.

Economic considerations

There are economic benefits to entomophagy as well, says the UN’s Forestry and Agriculture Organization. Raising “minilivestock” offers a way for people in developing countries to start small businesses that create cash flow quickly with little space, investment, or training.

For commercial-scale insect farming, there are still regulatory and technological hurdles, besides the obvious marketing challenges. But buoyed by increasing acceptance of entomophagy, the market is growing. Pressure to develop sustainably produced animal feeds (especially alternatives to wild-caught fishmeal) and pet food has opened up opportunities too. In Canada, two of the main players are Ontario-based Entomo Farms, which produces cricket and mealworm foodstuffs, and BC-based Enterra, which focuses on black soldier fly larvae for feed and pet food markets.

But the fly in the entomophagy ointment, for the consumer, is price.

The amount of food I received for the price made my order something of a novelty purchase instead of a standing line item on my grocery list. Cricket flour, for example, was over three times more expensive per gram than plant-based protein powder. According to one research paper, this is because commercial-scale insect farming still relies heavily on manual labour, which will keep sticker prices high until automation is developed and implemented.

But I’ll still buy the occasional bag of bugs even if – for now – they’re more of a curiosity than a food staple. They’re tasty, and besides, with the changes in food consumption that will be needed in the decades ahead, gastronomic open-mindedness is a trait I want my son to remember.

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