“Europeans must taste insects”

Insects are very nutritious and can be grown much more sustainably than traditional meat. But although they have been eaten for centuries in many parts of the world, it remains largely taboo in Europe, writes Peter Alexander, professor of food safety at the University of Edinburgh.

Insects as food are increasingly discussed, and their consumption is gradually increasing. More than two thousand edible species are already known. But can we include insects in our daily diet and what impact would that have on our footprint?

Insects contain a high concentration of fats, proteins and nutrients. Although concentrations vary among different species and life stages, insects often contain 40 to 60 percent protein. They can also provide all the essential amino acids that humans need.

Protein-rich and effective

By weight, an adult cricket contains 65 percent protein: more than a beef (23 percent) or tofu (8 percent). Insects are also rich in minerals such as copper, iron and magnesium. So it is not surprising that they are eaten in many parts of the world.

Insects convert their food into energy much more efficiently than conventional livestock. Adult grasshoppers or mealworms need five to ten times less food to gain the same weight. Insects are also cold-blooded, so they do not use their metabolism to heat up or cool down. As a result, they require even less energy or food.

The Europeans need to taste insects

On average, 45 percent can be eaten from conventional cattle and 55 percent from a chicken. But insect larvae can be eaten whole, and for a cricket it is 80 per cent. In addition, insects reproduce much faster than vertebrates, which means that several generations can be bred in a year. Therefore, to produce the same nutritional value, insects need a fraction of the land, energy and water compared to traditional cattle farming.

The climate footprint is also much lower. To produce one kilogram of protein, mealworms produce 14 kilograms of CO2 equivalents. It is a fraction of the 500 kilos needed to produce one kilo of protein in beef. Mealworms need seventy times less agricultural land.

Plant-based food

Any food production has an environmental cost, but these can vary widely. For example, the climate footprint of beef is 100 times greater than that of peas. Insect farming falls between these two extremes. Although less harmful than meat production, it is also more harmful than most plant-based foods. Peas emit only about 4 kg of CO2 equivalents per kg, while the production of tofu only requires half as much land as for raising insects.

Insects are for sale at a market in Bangkok, Thailand. (c) Getty

Whether insects are (more) climate-friendly therefore depends on the food they replace. If it is conventional meat, there can be great benefits. But this also applies if the meat is replaced by vegetable alternatives.

Changes in diet can radically change consumers’ footprints. The footprint of the average American diet is ten times larger than the Indian diet, primarily due to the type of food eaten.

Insects in a circular system

Every year, 1.3 billion tonnes of food for human consumption is wasted. There, too, insects can show their value: in the production of food or animal feed from by-products and food waste. For example, the black soldier fly, which feeds on by-products such as almond peels, can act as feed for livestock or fish.

However, feeding insects with residual streams must be done carefully to avoid the risk of chemical and bacterial contamination. Various insect species are able to digest pollutants, but there is a risk of bioaccumulation (accumulation of synthetic substances in living organisms, ed.). It is therefore prohibited in Europe to use manure or feed surplus for breeding.

Is Europe falling for insects?

There is a growing market for edible insects in Europe and the US. While only 10.3 percent of Europeans say they are willing to replace meat with insects, the market is expected to grow to $4.63 billion by 2027.

Food acceptance can change over time. Tomatoes were considered poisonous in Britain for two hundred years. And lobster, now an expensive delicacy, used to be served to prisoners and used as fertilizer. Lobster only really came into vogue in the mid-18th century. Since then, it has rapidly gained popularity, and the market is expected to grow to $11.1 billion by 2027.

The same is possible with insects in Europe. In Western countries, there is an increasing willingness to eat insect-based food. Using insects in familiar foods such as flour may accelerate this acceptance.

Edible insects are not the only solution to improving the food system. But they offer a nutritious and more sustainable alternative to conventional meat. Thanks to their efficient breeding, flexibility and diversity, they will play an increasingly important role in a circular food system.

This article originally appeared on IPS partner The Conversation.

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