Short answer: Yes, definitely!
Highly nutritious, sustainable and easy to mass produce, insects could play a huge role in food security in the future.
However, there is a long way to go, primarily because changing diets to include insects means changing our perceptions and long established local cultures in Westernised parts of the world. Many of us are repulsed by the thought of eating insects; that’s how we’ve been taught to react due to living in a society which has, for years, ignored insects as a possible food source and instead portrayed insects as ‘pests’ (which they mostly aren’t!).
This distaste inherent to Western society must change if we are to feed a billion more people globally within the next 30 years; entomophagy may be a sustainable way to provide our growing population with a healthy food source. Furthermore, many people across the globe actively choose to eat insects as a large part of their diet, often as a delicacy; the view that insects are mere ‘famine’ food is false, with insects thoroughly embedded in local cultures around the world.
Even worse than refusing to eat insects, some people convey their distaste onto other countries, not realising that this could be detrimental if they then decide to reduce entomophagy as a result. I am by no means an innocent bystander in all of this and have shied away from eating insects whilst travelling, but I am determined to change my perceptions and acknowledge that my innate discomfort surrounding eating insects is largely due to a failing of our society.
Like it or not, most of us already eat insects anyway!
A lot of people ENJOY eating insects
Around 2 billion people eat insects as a key part of their diets, with over 1,900 edible species to choose from. The most popular types of insects consumed include beetles, caterpillars, bees, wasps and ants.
The problem with ‘Westernised’ society
“Westerners should become aware of the fact that their bias against insects as food has an adverse impact, resulting in a gradual reduction in the use of insects without replacement of lost nutrition and other benefits” – DeFoliart (1999)
Western attitudes of disgust towards insect consumption have undoubtedly influenced the preference of people in some tropical countries where insects have traditionally been eaten as part of a healthy diet.
In Malawi, research found that people living in urban areas and devout Christians react with disdain to eating insects (Morris, 2004). Previous research has found that some missionaries have condemned termite eating in the past, stating that it would be ‘non-Christian’ to do so (Silow, 1983). As a result of these Western influences, particularly in Africa, research on the contribution of edible insects to nutrition and economy has been sporadic. Therefore, Western attitudes towards entomophagy have resulted in practices detrimental to the people and fragile environments of West Africa. Next time you’re travelling and see someone consume something that disgusts you, it may be best not to voice that opinion in case it either offends the consumer or alters their perception of what they’re eating.
Why should we give entomophagy a go?
Eating insects is (most likely) more ethical than meat
I find it unsettling that Westernised society is disgusted by the thought of consuming insects, but many of us don’t bat an eyelid at eating sentient mammals. From a welfare standpoint, this is a bit bizarre. If we were to consume insects as part of our diets of course welfare would still need to be a consideration, but (as far as scientists know) they don’t feel pain to the extent that cows, pigs and chickens do.
Regardless, until there is conclusive evidence that insects feel pain, Eisemann et al. (1984) suggested that insects should be granted the benefit of the doubt and should be treated in a fashion that assumes that they do feel pain.
Insects are environmentally friendly and sustainable than meat
- The environmental benefits of rearing insects for food begin with the high feed conversion efficiency of insects; crickets only require 2kg of feed for every 1kg of bodyweight gain; this is because they’re cold-blooded so are very good at converting feed into protein
- Mealworms only produce between 1-10% of the greenhouse gas/kg produced by pigs
- Insects can be reared on organic side-streams (including human and animal waste); this method can help reduce environmental contamination
- Insects are reported to emit less greenhouse gases and ammonia than cattle or pigs, and they require much less land and water
- Compared with mammals and birds, insects may also pose less risk of transmitting zoonotic infections to humans, livestock and wildlife (although further research is needed on this area)
Small but mighty: Insects Are Healthy
Despite being relatively small, insects have a surprising amount of fat, protein, vitamins such as calcium, zinc, and iron, fibre, and mineral content that is often comparable to fish or livestock. Insects do vary dramatically in how much of each nutrient they provide, but generally most are relatively high.
- House crickets contain 205 g/kg protein; beef contains 256 g/kg.
- Termites are also surprisingly protein rich; one Venezuelan species was found to contain 64% protein and reportedly tastes like mint!
- Some insects contain as much as 80% protein by weight
These figures are particularly impressive when you consider the fact that you can consume 100% of many insects, whereas only 40% of a cow can be eaten.
Producing insects makes financial sense
- Because they don’t need much land, insects could be produced almost anywhere, including in urban areas; this will also reduce the carbon footprint if the food supply chain is kept short
- Insect harvesting/rearing can be low-tech, which doesn’t require much capital investment and doesn’t need to become high-tech until better established
How can we make insect consumption more appealing?
I have dabbled in consuming insects but haven’t actually had many opportunities to try them so far; I’ve mostly tried seasoned crickets which I found similar to eating a bag of crisps. I will admit that I did decline the offer of eating a live beetle larvae whilst travelling in Borneo. I think if I had known what I know now (and ideally if it was already dead) I may have reconsidered!
Personally, I think the physical appearance of insects is the biggest barrier facing us. We haven’t grown up associating insects with food, and many people are also scared of insects (which, as someone who loves entomology, I don’t understand!). We almost need to make including insects in our diets ‘fun’ initially, and above all else, taste matters. People won’t buy into eating something they’re unsure of if it doesn’t even taste good. If someone can make something that’s genuinely tasty, healthy and sustainable, I think people may gradually change their perceptions. But so far, this simply hasn’t happened.
Debunking the ‘insects are pests’ delusion
Sadly, negative perceptions surrounding insects are entrenched in Western societies. However, contrary to popular belief, of the 1 million described insect species, only 5000 are considered harmful to crops, livestock or human beings.
Mosquitos and gregarious locusts are arguably the worst offenders, and the press loves to pick up on these. However, there are thousands of other species which we rely on for our survival (e.g. pollinators).
I’m not suggesting that insect consumption is a silver bullet to solve the multitude of issues we’re facing, but alongside other measures, eating insects could make a huge difference in the future. Research is warranted to investigate ways to incorporate more insects into our diets, with consumer acceptance remaining the biggest barrier to overcome; an interdisciplinary collaboration is required with a combination of both natural scientists and social scientists. In the meantime, it’s time for this taboo to end. Insects aren’t on many menus in the UK yet, but until they are, it may be a good idea to consider opening our minds to the prospect of them.
PS. You may have noticed that I never refer to insects as ‘bugs’. As someone who studied a zoology degree, this is one of my biggest ‘bug bears’. All bugs are insects, but not all insects are bugs (in fact, most aren’t!).
Get in touch
Have you had a good/bad experience with eating insects? Are you completely against insect consumption? I’d love to hear from people about their perceptions of entomophagy so please feel free to get in touch if you’d like (comment box below).
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