Most of us would cringe at the idea of eating insects but insects as a food could help tackle the rising food insecurity and can significantly contribute to lowering greenhouse gas emission. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report suggests that replacing meat with insects in our diet would largely reduce greenhouse gas emission otherwise produced by livestock and could be one way to help feed the rapidly growing population. Insects are indeed rich source of fat, iron, zinc, as well as protein and could replace mainstream meats such as beef, chicken, and fish, the report argues.
The livestock sector leaves a significant amount of carbon footprint. Of all human induced greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), 14.5% comes from livestock, with beef alone accounting for 41% of emission from this sector.
These GHGs are generated mainly during production of animal feeds, digesting process in ruminants and manure decomposition. With estimates of global meat demand soaring up by 73% by the mid-century, failure to opt for climate-friendly feeding habit will see tremendous amount of GHGs released into the atmosphere in the future. Thus, insects could serve as more climate-friendly, highly-nutritious alternative.
Insects like mealworms, locust and crickets produce ten to hundred folds less GHGs (most of insect groups except termite, cockroaches and scarab beetles do not produce methane at all) than do pigs and cows per unit mass of body. They are highly energy efficient as well, meaning they require less feed to produce unit body mass that do conventional livestock. Crickets, for instance, require around 2 kg of feed to produce unit mass of meat, whereas, cattle require 8 kg to produce the same amount of meat.
Similarly, they require significantly less land and water than traditional agriculture does, thus preventing the need for clearance of additional land that would undercut greenhouse gas emission due to deforestation. Insects are prolific breeders, have shorter life spans and thus can be grown quickly and farmed in large quantities in small areas.
It may come as a surprise to many but the idea of eating insect is as old as traditional agriculture. As many as 1900 species of insects -mostly beetles, caterpillars, wasps, grasshoppers, locusts and crickets- are edible and they make part of traditional diet of at least 2 billion people worldwide.
As human induced climate change already threatens to bring more extreme weather conditions like drought in coming years, insects pose as an alternate source of food for farmers in various part of world. Weru village of eastern Kenya is one such region that has been facing severe drought in recent years devastating crop production. Many farmers have now started rearing insects in their farms that would otherwise be full of maize at this time of year.
“Farming insects has a huge global potential for both animal feed and food production. Development is occurring around the world in order to incorporate insects into menus and processed foods,” Afton Halloran, a consultant for the FAO Edible Insects Program, noted.
Despite the benefits these insects offer to environment as well as human health, it would be difficult getting people, especially in the west, to eat insects, the report admits. “People in most Western countries view entomophagy (insect-eating) with feelings of disgust” the report reads. “It is safe to say that most are reluctant to even consider eating insects and, moreover, that they perceive the practice to be associated with primitive behavior.”
Thus, it is imperative to raise public awareness about the beneficial aspects of integrating insect in our diet.
More recently, Swedish Government agency, Vivonna has been doing exactly the same. It has been promoting insect-derived food at a whole new level. It is awarding half a million kronor (around £42,600) each to fifteen different projects across the country, each of which is tasked with creating an “edible prototype” of a new food. Among the mouth-watering projects being funded are an attempt to produce a “good and healthy product from mealworms which are fed on vegetable food scraps to become a climate friendly source of protein”, “food prototypes” made from “refined mealworms”, and mincemeat made out of “climate smart insects” such as crickets.
With such incentives, we might actually be devouring fancy insect-laden dish in near future while leaving smaller carbon footprint at the same time.