Wax moth larvae tacos from Don Bugito Prehispanic Snackeria in San Fran

Harnessing the Power of Insects to Save the World

Scorpion kebabs, teriyaki crickets, mealworm tacos; whether these sound appealing or cringe inducing, you’ll probably have the option to try them sooner than you expect. Entomophagy (the practice of eating insects) might seem bizarre, but the gradual integration of insects into the Western diet mimics the rise of other culinary trends that were once considered unappetizing. Sushi and lobster were both slow to catch on as well. In the ‘70s the idea of eating raw fish was outlandish and back in old-timey Massachusetts lobster were only served to prisoners, as they were considered a mark of poverty. In a globalized world, diets change rapidly. It’s only a matter of time before insects are embraced as well.

For a foodie, getting past what academics refer to as the “ick factor” opens up a realm of delicious possibility. There are more than 2,040 edible insect species according to researchers at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. Not all of these are viable options for the dinner table but imagine the variety with even just a fraction. For nutrition buffs, insects are the ultimate paleo food: lean, high protein and low carb with more iron than steak, more calcium than milk, lots of B vitamins and a full profile of essential amino acids. Depending on the insect species they may be high in other vitamins and minerals as well, including Vitamin A, copper, zinc and magnesium.

Insect farming is vastly more sustainable than conventional meat production. Crickets or mealworms can be produced with a fraction of the water and feed necessary to raise the same weight of cattle, pigs or chicken. This is largely because insects are cold blooded, so they don’t expend energy regulating their body temperature. Since insects convert feed more efficiently, they also produce less waste. The animal agriculture sector generates 18% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, including methane and nitrous oxide, both of which have a higher global warming potential than carbon dioxide. A single pig farm can produce as much waste as the entire population of Manhattan. Insects, however, produce 80 times less methane than cattle and far less waste than their conventional counterparts, according to findings published in a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

In terms of land use, insect farming offers a realm of opportunity. Bugs thrive in ‘teeming’ environments, so there is no ethical dilemma about raising thousands of crickets in a space the size of, say, a closet. This creates the radical possibility of urban farming. In addition to the environmental cost of raising animals for meat, there is the drain on resources from transporting the feed to the farms and the meat to the stores. If insects can be farmed closer to where they will be consumed, it would reduce the food industry dependency on fossil fuels and the amount of carbon dioxide emissions.

The small footprint left by insect farming is not only valuable in a developed urban setting; insects could be the answer to food crises in the developing world and areas experiencing water shortage. The ability of insects to efficiently convert water and feed into nutritionally dense meat is highly valuable. As the world population continues to grow, the UN predicts that 1.8 billion people will live in areas with absolute water scarcity by 2025. Raising livestock is a water-intensive endeavor that these areas will be unable to support. Many developing areas of the world incorporate insects into their diets already and could capitalize on the ease of raising insects to make households and villages capable of raising the protein, vitamins and minerals that they require, even in times of drought.

If you’re keeping score, insects have beat conventional meat sources in every category. It’s still a little early to talk about using insects as an alternative to traditional meat sources, but as they become more accessible this will absolutely become an option. To sum it up in one word, entomophagy is exciting. However fringe an idea it may seem now, insects are poised to make a big impact in years to come.

If this sparks your interest there are a number of startups selling cricket protein bars, cricket flour brownie mixes and cricket tortilla chips. Or you can go all in and order up a couple hundred mealworms to toss in your next stir fry – your call.

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