How do you feed 9 and half billion people without destroying the planet? According to the Food and Agricultural Organization, part of the answer lies with crickets, maggots, bees, and grasshoppers: edible animals that have been overlooked by much of the world, but could become increasingly important as alternatives to meat and animal feed.
Insects may have a high yuck factor, but many species have terrific credentials as food producers. They’re high in protein, low in harmful fat, and full of minerals like omega-3. They’re efficient: a cricket produces a pound of food for every two pounds of feed (compared to a cow that needs eight pounds of feed). And, they feed on human and animal waste, produce minimal greenhouse gas, and need far less water and land than other livestock.
Several groups are exploring insects-as-food (as we wrote here and here). But the FAO’s 200+ page report is the first comprehensive plan for integrating insects into the global food system at meaningful scale. It looks at which insects might work out best depending on the use, countries that have already explored insect production (including in South East Asia and parts of Africa), and barriers to greater exploitation. Chief among these: cultural unease. The FAO says "tailored media communication strategies and educational programmes" will be needed to address the "disgust factor" in Western countries.
In fact, we may not need insects to replace the steak on your plate--just some of the less visible aspects of the current food system. The report says black soldier fly, the common housefly and yellow mealworm could allow us to cut back on the 800 million tons of feed we give to animals annually (or, at least, supplement soy, maize, grains, and fishmeal). Insects could replace some pet foods. And they could enrich human foods, notably flour-based staples like bread and pasta.
The biggest obstacle is scale. There are examples of modern production methods--including cricket farming in Thailand and Vietnam--but nothing compares to the intense mechanization and research of other agriculture. The report says:
Critical elements for successful rearing include research on biology, rearing condition control and diet formulas for the farmed insect species. Current production systems are expensive, with many patents pending. A major challenge of such industrial-scale rearing is the development of automation processes to make plants economically competitive with the production of meat.
The report says we need to understand the nutritional value of insect species better, improve communication in countries that don’t eat insects currently, clarify the environmental benefits, and develop better regulations. But scale is key to everything else:
Considering the immense quantities of insect biomass needed to replace current protein-rich ingredients such as meal and oil from fish and soybeans, automated mass rearing facilities that produce stable, reliable and safe products need to be developed. The challenge for this new industry will be to ensure the cost-effective, reliable production of an insect biomass of high and consistent quality.