In May this year, a once-in-17- year event began. All along the US east coast and throughout the Midwest, trillions of cicadas emerged and began to emit a deafening mating song. Known as ‘Brood X’, they are the largest of many generations of these periodical insects, which live for around four to six weeks above ground after spending 17 years in a subterranean burrow.
For some, the burst of life presented an opportunity for culinary experimentation. Cicada-based recipes have been circulating online, prompting a swathe of media attention regarding the prospect of using insects to transform the global food system. Plant-based foods have so far dominated the quest for meat alternatives, but in recent years there have been promising signs for the growth of the insect-based food market. (We wrote about insects as a food source in the February 2020 issue of Geographical.) Cricket-based snacks can now be purchased in Britain, mealworm burgers in Germany and supermarket-branded cricket powder in Canada. Dieticians say such critters are high in protein, antioxidants and trace elements including copper, iron, magnesium and zinc.
Research by the International Platform of Insects for Food and Feed (IPIFF) estimates that nine million people in the EU ate insect products in 2019 – just two per cent of the population. But by 2030, it estimates that the annual figure will grow to 390 million consumers.
The research notes that Western consumers have now reached a level of awareness about the environmental impact of our food system that could prompt a definite change in diet. Animal feed production is competing for landscapes and resources. One-quarter of the earth’s land surface is used as pastureland; and beef accounts for one-third of the global water footprint of farm animal production. As global poverty is alleviated, the World Resources Institute predict that demand for animal-based food across the world will rise by 80 per cent by 2050; beef, specifically by 95 per cent. Even after accounting for improvements in beef production efficiency, pastureland will have to expand by 400 million hectares, an area the size of India, to meet projected growth in demand.
‘Insect-based foods perform better when it comes to almost every problem identified with the current food system,’ says Wayne State University’s Julie Lesnik, one of the world’s leading academics on entomophagy – the practice of eating insects. The World Resources Institute estimates that chickens, which are the most efficient livestock for converting feed into protein, require nine calories of soy, oats or corn for a one calorie return. ‘With crickets, it’s not one to one, but it’s darn close. We get almost all of the energy we put into them back as nutrients and proteins.’ Up to 80 per cent of insect mass typically produced as foods is edible, versus 55 per cent for chicken and pigs, and 40 per cent for beef. ‘What’s more, the land used for rearing insects is markedly smaller. You don’t need large concentrated feeding operations – crickets are generally farmed in Rubbermaid containers that can be stacked vertically,’ says Lesnik. While minimising space in this way is often deemed cruel to livestock, it presents less of a problem for insects.
‘Insects overcome some of the ethical problems with protein production as they love the cramped conditions that many have campaigned against with livestock,’ adds Deborah Landau, a conservation ecologist at the Nature Conservancy.
Another reason that IPIFF thinks that the industry will experience huge growth is that regulatory hurdles have recently been axed in the EU. Until 2018, insects weren’t considered foodstuffs and weren’t covered by EU regulations. That changed with the EU’s Novel Food Directive, which now allows makers of insect-based foodstuffs to commercialise their products across the EU. Around 290 start-ups now produce a diverse range of insect-based foods. The news isn’t so good in the UK. The EU’s regulation has been retained in UK law but transitional measures haven’t, leaving insect producers in legal limbo and calling for a clearer position.
The elephant in the room, however, is that most Westerners still perceive insects with disgust. Two billion people worldwide, in 80 per cent of the world’s countries, already eat a selection of 2,000 insects, but Lesnik believes that Westerners still associate their consumption with poverty and disease – wrongly. ‘There’s a view that either a country’s population has outstripped resources, or poverty is so high that other foods aren’t an option,’ she says. ‘But in reality, neither population density, the amount of viable land, or a country’s GDP correlate with their insect consumption.’ A 2017 study conducted by Lesnik shows that only latitude correlates with insect consumption: tropical countries have a broader range of edible insects.
But it’s not all about humans. Even if consumers shun insects, they could prove transformative for animal feed. A fifth of the world’s fish catch currently goes towards livestock feed, contributing to overfishing. Soya production for animal feed drives huge amounts of deforestation each year. Incorporating insects into animal feed is seen as a potential solution. According to Mordor Intelligence, the US market for insects as animal feed was valued at US$687.8 million in 2018. That year, the FDA approved the use of insects in poultry feed and the sector has been growing rapidly since: it’s estimated to reach a value of US$1.4 billion by 2024.
Brood X may have gone largely uneaten in the USA this year, but whether it’s through animal feed, or through direct consumption, insects are already weighing in on the global food system. Many believe that it’s only a matter of time before we see insects on the menu.