Eating Insects Makes for A “Sustainable” Snack
Last fall, I attended a conference hosted by the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics at MIT. The conference, entitled “Global Systems 2.0,” focused on potential interdisciplinary approaches to the environmental and technological problems of the twenty-first century. Jon Foley, who heads the Institute for the Environment at the University of Minnesota, spoke to the attendees about what he calls “the other inconvenient truth”—the global food crisis. He, along with a growing number of experts, understands that we are at a critical crossroads.
The population of the world increases by 75 million people each year. According to the United Nations Panel on Global Sustainability, the world will need at least 50% more food and 30% more water by 2030. As developing countries modernize and their economies grow, their meat consumption will increase. To meet this growth, we’ll need to triple our food production. With our current agricultural practices, however, this is an impossible goal. We will simply run out of food. This is the inconvenient truth.
Although crops, such as corn, require huge swaths of land and are accompanied by their own issues, reliance on meat is one of the biggest agricultural problems that we will grapple with as we eat our way into the future. Livestock accounts for 70% of all land cleared for agriculture and 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions; far more than cars, planes, and trains combined. Almost half of global water is used to produce animal-based foods.
Essentially, we need a new environmentally friendly, protein-based solution if we hope to feed our ever-more-populated planet. One solution is insects. Accounting for 80% of all known species, insects are the most abundant consumable life form on the planet. They are also exceptionally nutritious. Some insects contain up to 91% protein by dry weight, with amino acid compositions that are superior to most alternative protein sources. They are also high in micronutrients such as iron, calcium, B-vitamins, beta-carotene, and vitamin E.
Most importantly, insects are a potential solution to the currently inefficient food system because of their marginal environmental impact. Insects can live off of agricultural byproducts, such as orange peels and broccoli stalks. Only a tiny fraction of insects even produce methane, and those that do produce very small amounts. Because insects are poikilothermic, meaning their body temperatures vary with the temperatures of their surroundings, they are much more efficient at converting nutrition into protein; crickets, for example, need 12x less feed than cattle to produce the same amount of protein.
Given the obvious benefits of consuming insects—and the fact that over 2 billion people around the globe already include insects in their regular diet—why aren’t Westerners chowing down on chili-fried grasshoppers? The simple answer: squeamishness. This irrational response has created high barriers of entry for anyone wishing to produce insects for human consumption. Furthermore, many countries have neither the governmental guidelines nor the infrastructure to cheaply and systematically bring this food source the market. The Food and Agriculture Organization has recognized this, and recently released a two hundred-page report detailing the myriad benefits of entomophagy (the human consumption of insects), the history and current state of the practice, and ways to increase the number of people who eat insects going forward. They include:
- Funding high-level academic research on the nutritional benefits of insects as a healthy food source and the environmental impacts of insect farming versus traditional agricultural practices. Wageningen University in the Netherlands and Montana State University in the US have already begun developing such programs.
- Documenting, analyzing, and popularizing cultural and historical knowledge of insect raising and consumption to promote sustainable and ethical practices as they are merged with new technologies.
- Creating clear guidelines on which insects are safe to eat, proper sanitation policies, mass-rearing regulations, etc.
- Elevating insects’ status as gourmet food through top-down initiatives, such as the Nordic Food Lab, a non-profit in Copenhagen that uses cutting-edge cooking techniques to reshape people’s perception of food.
Personally, I believe that the first step in convincing people to eat insects is to show them that food products made from insects can taste good. My company, Exo, aims to do this by producing protein bars with flour made from crickets. Once people are comfortable with the idea of eating insects, we can start leveraging them into our diets in a substantial way. This has to come before the other initiatives above, as there is still a stiff resistance to the idea. We need to show people that their current, conditioned negative perspective on insect consumption limits the potential of a highly sustainable food source. Hopefully, Exo, along with other insect-based products that we expect to appear as the concept becomes normalized, will remove the novelty and squeamishness that currently prevents scalability.
It is obvious that insects are superior to conventional livestock in their environmental footprint, and yet can provide an equal or greater level of sustenance. Through the introduction of this delicious, healthy and environmentally-friendly protein source, we can begin to make a slow pivot away from the convenient but destructive agricultural practices that have defined the way we currently eat, towards a more realistic diet that can sustain us well into the future.
Contributed by Greg Sewitz, co-founder of Exo. Photos Courtesy of Subject.