Entomophagy: feeding the 9 Billion

As part of their 21st Century challenges series, the Royal Geographical Society last week hosted a talk which looked at some of the potential solutions to the problem of our ever increasing demand for food.

The global human population is expected to reach 9 billion by the year 2050.With a growing middle class and the westernisation of diet in developing countries, agricultural output is already strained. Across East and South East Asia the amount of meat consumed per capita has more than doubled since 1980, while China has seen per capita meat consumption increase by around 400% across the same period.  It is thought that global agriculture will need to increase output by as much as 70% over the next 30 years to meet this growing demand for meat. Climate change, rising food prices, along with competition for land and water mean even maintaining the current level of output is a serious challenge, so this increase is almost impossible to envision without considerable revision of agricultural and social practices.

At the RGS talk Peter Smithers, an entomologist from Plymouth University, gave a short presentation on the social, health and environmental benefits of entomophagy. Entomophagy, or the eating of insects, is looked upon with disgust or suspicion by many people in the West, but experts now suggest that adopting entomophagy could be one way to ensure future food security for our rapidly increasing population. Earlier this year the FAO released a report describing how entomophagy will become increasingly necessary if the human population follows the predicted trajectory.

Around 2 billion people worldwide regularly consume insects as part of their diet, with a reported 1,900 species commonly consumed. Unlike in the West where insects are viewed as something of a ‘famine food’, many people in Asia, Africa and South America eat insects out of choice. The most commonly eaten insects include beetles, ants, crickets, grasshoppers, butterflies and moths, all of which are rich in protein and good fats and high in calcium, iron and zinc making them a healthy alternative to mainstream livestock species.

The majority of these insects are harvested from the wild, a practice which is becoming increasingly difficult. Over harvesting, pollution and habitat degradation means many edible insect populations are in decline. For entomophagy to be seriously considered as a major component of human diet in the West, the supply of insects will have to reach the levels of consistency seen in mainstream agriculture.

The industrial scale farming of insects for human consumption in the West would be breaking new ground, with established insect farms currently only found in Thailand, Vietnam and Laos. But while the primary aim is to meet the nutritional needs of a growing population, this practise also could provide significant environmental benefits compared with traditional livestock farming. Nearly 1/3 of the grain harvested worldwide is used to feed livestock, the inefficiency of conversion from feed into animal protein (approx. 10 kg of feed = 1  kg of beef) means there is a significant black hole in global food production. Insects possess much higher levels of efficiency (approx. 10 kg of feed = 9 kg of crickets), and unlike cattle and poultry, insects can be fed on organic waste and plant material which would otherwise be discarded, such as rice hull. Insects require much less water and energy to farm and can be cultivated at much higher densities than conventional livestock. These traits make the urban farming of insects a possibility, meaning a reduction in food miles. Some groups such as London’s ENTO are already planning to produce their own insect stock by establishing farms at old industrial sites on the outskirts of central London.

Insect farming is not without its drawbacks, as any large scale single species cultivation will be susceptible to the same issues seen in traditional monoculture farming. Disease can spread rapidly throughout a population, as seen at the Dutch cricket rearing company Kreca in 2000, which lost half its stock within 12 hours due to a virus which infected the crickets and their eggs, despite clean-up efforts this ultimately led to the termination of cricket rearing at the site.

The health and environmental benefits of entomophagy are clear, but the social and cultural roadblock is somewhat more difficult to get past. Peter Smithers suggested that the high nutritional value and palatability, along with the low environmental impact of insects may help contribute to a shift in public perceptions. He commented that feelings of disgust in the West is attributed to the idea that entomophagy in the developing world is prompted by desperation, and drew parallels to lobster and shrimp, once considered poor-man’s food in the West, now expensive delicacies.

The FAO report on Entomophagy released earlier this year suggests three action areas in the development of this practice:

  • Better understanding of the nutritional values of eating insects as a healthy food
  • Clarifying the environmental impacts of farming insects in comparison with traditional livestock
  • Clarification of the socio-economic benefits of insect harvesting and farming

Whether or not these action areas can facilitate the cultural transition to entomophagy remains to be seen, but with the benefits so clear and numerous, it is highly likely that insect based products will be appearing on our shelves in the next 20 years.