Saturday, May 18, 2024

Are insects the food of the future?

Let them eat insects. No, those aren’t the words of a modern-day Marie Antoinette but advice from the Food and Agricultural Organisation, a UN body, in a 2013 report. The report explores entomophagy (entomon is Greek for ‘insect’ and phagein means ‘to eat’) as a way to ensure food security for a human population that is projected to hit 9.7 billion by 2050.

If you think such a recommendation is gross and insensitive, consider this: high-priced eateries in Tokyo now offer assorted insect-based delicacies as specialties. Insects as food are also entering the mass market in Japan with vending machines that deliver them in fried or dried form.

The FAO report says two billion people already eat insects as part of their normal diet. They can be found in East Asia and central Africa, and also in India. Red-ant chutney, a specialty in parts of Chhattisgarh, is an example. 

“Globally, the most commonly consumed insects are beetles (Coleoptera) at 31%, caterpillars (Lepidoptera) at 18%, and bees, wasps and ants (Hymenoptera) at 14%. Following these are grasshoppers, locusts and crickets (Orthoptera) at 13%, cicadas, leafhoppers, planthoppers, scale insects and true bugs (Hemiptera) at 10%, termites (Isoptera) at 3%, dragonflies (Odonata) at 3% , flies (Diptera) at 2% and others at 5%,” says the report.

There are good reasons to expand the dietary variety of cultures that have shied away from insects till now. They are a good source of protein and fats. “The composition of unsaturated omega-3 and 6 fatty acids in mealworms is comparable with that in fish (and higher than in cattle and pigs), and the protein, vitamin and mineral content of mealworms is similar to that in fish and meat,” the report asserts, drawing on pioneering work on insects as food carried out by Wageningen University of the Netherlands. This should be particularly reassuring to those of us accustomed to assessing the calorie and nutrition value of the food we consume.

But the primary reason to explore insects for future food requirements is climatic. Scientists aren’t taking refuge in insects while fleeing from a Malthusian terror of the human population outstripping its ability to increase the supply of food. Technology allows food production to be increased to cater to any foreseeable population size. The trouble is the environmental impact of such increases in food production.

Additional land would have to be cleared, reducing extant green cover. The growing demand for protein as income levels rise has been met by rearing cattle in larger numbers. This is associated with growing emissions of methane, a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Further, the efficiency of conversion of feed into meat by livestock is not high. To feed animals reared for meat, even larger expanses of land would have to be cultivated.

Sourcing the protein requirements from insects would avoid such environmental depredation. Different species have different levels of efficiency in converting the food they eat into meat. The common fowl is one of the most efficient converters of feed to meat, requiring 2 kg to 5 kg of feed to produce a kg of meat. For pigs, the ratio ranges from 4 kg to 9 kg. For cattle, the figure is anything anywhere from 6 to 25 kg. Crickets, in comparison, require just 2 kg of feed to produce a kilo of body mass.

Insects offer additional benefits, too. They do not necessarily require special feed and can be reared on what the FAO report delicately calls ‘organic sidestreams’, meaning human or animal waste. In the process, they can also reduce environmental contamination — depleted waste would pose a smaller challenge as compared to the full-bodied variety. 

Insects emit far less greenhouse gasses and require less land and water to produce similar quantities of traditional staples. An added benefit, still awaiting full scientific confirmation, could be that insects pose a reduced threat of zoonotic diseases as compared to birds and animals bred for consumption.

Crickets are already farmed in Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. Plant-eating locusts pose a problem of plenty, right in the wild.

For the climate-conscious youth of today, a constructive form of extinction rebellion would be choosing insects over meat in their diet. As the Japanese restaurants show, these culinary adventures could become trendy as well.

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