Published On: Thu, Mar 29th, 2018

Bugs life: Is eating insects the answer to global food shortages?

Tony Wardle from Viva! investigates why insects are now on the menu, and explores the environmental impact of consuming these living creatures…

eating insects

The best way to save the world is by scoffing cockroach cutlets, maggot Milanese and caterpillar crepes, claimed the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organisation (UNFAO) in 2013 when they published the report Edible Insects, Future prospects for food and food security.

Of course, we Brits are no strangers to consuming insect products – honey for example or, less obviously, carmine food colouring from female cochineal beetles or shellac from the lac beetle, used to make apples and jelly beans nice and shiny.

The words ‘protein source’ litter everything that’s said about insects, with the frequency of a nun genuflecting to the Pope. No one bothers to mention that, unlike vegetable protein, the animal variety plays a big part in degenerative diseases such as osteoporosis, kidney and cardiovascular disease. But still, keep on consuming it folks! It’s clearly everyone’s right to stuff animal protein down their throats.

Because we’ve exploited everything else to the point of destruction, the only choice remaining is insects. Florence Dunkel is an entomologist at Montana State University and a champion of insect-eating. In New Yorker magazine, she argues for it with startling clarity: “Response to edible insects is often a good indicator of one’s level of intercultural competency”. Beam me up please, Scotty!

eating insects

But there is a subtext to all this that is disturbing. The UNFAO is the same organisation that a few years ago issued a 660-reference scientific report on why livestock production is devastating the globe (Livestocks’ Long Shadow: environmental issues & options, 2006). Its conclusion was that livestock are at the heart of almost every environmental catastrophe – so it came as a shock to the meat and dairy industries, particularly as it was authored by people who support animal farming.

Potential for feed

One of the authors of the UNFAO’s insect report, Eva Muller, reveals what insect growing is really all about: “We are not saying that people should be eating bugs, we are saying that insects are just one resource provided by forests – and insects are pretty much untapped for their potential for food, and especially for feed.”

And it is this last phrase that’s the give-away “…and especially for feed!” Having ravaged the planet for every other food source to feed livestock, there is now encouragement to breach the final frontier – insects. It’s all about trying to protect livestock industries by finding them a new food source and has nothing to do with feeding a growing world population. Muller goes on: “Recent high demand and consequent high prices for fishmeal/soy, together with increasing aquacultural (fish farming) production, is pushing new research into the development of insect protein. Insect-based feed products could have a similar market.”

It’s almost an exact repeat of what’s happening with our oceans, where the tiny creatures at the bottom of the food chain such as krill, sand eels and capelin are being hauled out to feed farmed animals. These are the very food sources upon which all ocean creatures directly or indirectly depend, but which are described as ‘trash’ or ‘industrial fish.’ The effect on the oceans’ ecology has been devastating, just as it will be if the basis of the land food chain is attacked.

eating insects

Ms Muller seems to forget another part of her own report. “Until recently, insects were a seemingly inexhaustible resource obtainable by harvesting from nature. However, some edible insect species are now in peril… from over-harvesting, pollution, wildfire and habitat degradation.”

Great! So let’s make the situation worse by encouraging everyone to eat more of them and farmers to feed them to their animals! And while we’re at it, we’ll continue to chop down the forests, where most of the insects live, so livestock can graze.

Insects, or ‘mini-livestock’ as the producers refer to them, will be intensively cultivated in massive, indoor industrial units with all the energy and costs entailed in construction, climate control and other support mechanisms, plus the processing into flour, meal or pellets. It places production firmly in the hands of big multinationals.

And, of course, there’ll be no genetic manipulation and no mass escapes to devastate local crops and no subsequent cross-breeding with wild populations, which will weaken their genetic viability! We were given identical promises about salmon farming and, boy, was that wrong!   

Proponents boast that insects convert food better than mammals and poultry and produce less in the way of greenhouse gases (GHGs). They conveniently forget to mention that the main use of insects will be to feed farmed animals and that, of course, makes the situation worse. The GHGs produced by farming insects will be in addition to those produced by the livestock to which they’re fed.

Finger on the pulses

So what could be the answer to global food shortages? The answer is staring is straight in the face – beautiful, wonderful pulses; peas and beans and lentils. All over the world, pulses have always been a vital part of the human diet. Eaten straight from the plant, they have no ‘conversion ratio’ at all and in developing countries produce little in the way of GHGs; even with our industrialised agriculture, they produce a fraction of those from animals.

There are dozens of different types that can be eaten either green and fresh or dried and stored. Greeks love their houmous and gigantes – huge butter beans; French their haricot vert and flageolet; the Japanese their edamame. Chickpeas appear in many forms throughout the Middle East. We have our pease pudding and split peas, broad and runner beans; there’s lupins and lentils from Spain and, of course, the global phenomenon that is the soybean and the extraordinary array of products it can produce. The soybean is so nutrient dense that it could single-handedly solve the ‘protein’ problem on its own. At the moment, 30 million tonnes of soya bean meal is imported into Europe each year – to be fed to animals!

eating insects

Throughout the semi-arid lands of Africa and right across to India, pulses do things no insect ever could. Semi-perennial pigeon peas (toor dhal) are a vital food source and the plants are used for hedges and roofing, as shelter or climbing frames for other plants, to improve soil fertility and even as fuel, and they grow in near drought conditions as well. In fact, pulses are just about the perfect food.

“Pulses have significant nutritional and health advantages for consumers and their cultivation has a positive impact on agriculture and the environment. Therefore the trend in the consumption of pulses could change, especially if publicity about the benefits of pulses is improved and if the food industry and professional organizations take up the challenge to incorporate grain legumes (pulses) in novel, convenient and healthy food products.” (British Journal of Nutrition 2002 Dec;88 Suppl 3:S243-50. Schneider AV).

You can keep the cricket croquettes and battered spiders-on-a-stick, because I’m going to stick with tarka dhal and channa masala, edamame and tofu in black bean sauce, tempeh rashers and proper (from dried) Grimsby mushy peas. And they can just buzz off with their insects!

Tony is a journalist and award-winning documentary filmmaker, who has been involved with Viva! from the start. Viva! is a charity working to promote veganism and to put an end to animal suffering.

www.viva.org.uk

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