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Saturday, June 22, 2024

Entomophagy: Why We Should Eat Insects

In the words of Kevin Bachubar, owner of insect agriculture consulting firm Bachubar Consulting, “We’re fucked.” 

He said, “We could've made different decisions in the seventies and you wouldn’t have to eat f—ing bugs, but our parents didn’t make those decisions, and now you have to eat bugs.” This wisdom is given as he leans against a tower of cricket bins in his Deforest based cricket farm. “That’s my entire pitch. There is an inevitability to it, you might as well get used to it now.”

Bachubar’s interviewer and I burst out laughing. After all, it’s hard to imagine that western countries would transition to eating bugs in our lifetime. However, this inevitability that Bachubar talks about is creeping closer and closer everyday in the form of anthropogenic climate change.

An increase in global greenhouse gas emissions over the past century or so has led to a warming planet, ocean acidification, melting icebergs and an onslaught of increasingly violent natural disasters. Each year, 20 million people are displaced from their homes due to the increasing intensity and frequency of extreme weather events, such as flooding, prolonged drought, wildfires, rising sea levels and desertification. 

Among the key contributors to global greenhouse emissions is agriculture. In 2020, the agricultural sector represented 18.4% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Traditional agriculture predominantly releases methane, nitrous oxide and CO2. The burning and clearing of land for crops releases carbon dioxide while the addition of chemical fertilizers and soil additives to cropland releases nitrous oxide, and livestock produce methane through their digestion and manure. Each year .2 gigatonnes of greenhouse gasses are released from livestock farming alone. 

“Our food system is really broken, if you want to call it a system at all,” remarked Dr. Valerie Stull. 

Dr. Stull is a post-doctoral research associate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and co-founder and director of the Mission to Improve Global Health Through insects (MIGHTi). 

“We’re [producing food] at the expense of the environment. We are essentially optimizing capitalism within food production so that we can grow a lot of food really quickly and make money doing it,” Dr. Stull continued. This optimization of capital and a growing demand for animal products is putting a strain on our agricultural system and the environment. Agriculture accounts for 38% of earth's landmass, two-thirds of that being dedicated to raising livestock. Agriculture is the leading cause of deforestation worldwide, with nearly 3.75 million hectares of forest cleared per year, largely in Brazil, the Americas and Africa.

Without a novel solution, we may not be able to feed our growing population and save our planet. Insect agriculture, however, could be part of the solution.

Most places outside of the west are already eating insects – it’s not a new phenomenon. 

“Humans have been eating insects throughout history,” Dr. Stull stated. 

There is no record of when we first began eating insects, because we’ve been doing so ever since we became humans. Dr. Stull underscored that there is evidence that insects may have contributed to the development of larger brain sizes by being a stable source of proteins and fats.

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Over two billion people regularly consume insects. More than 2,300 unique species of insects are consumed each year, including 344 species of beetles, 239 species of grasshoppers, crickets and cockroaches and 235 species of butterflies. Most edible insects are wild caught, but some species, such as honeybees and silkworms, have been domesticated for several thousand years

Insect farming is appealing for a variety of reasons, but a large part of why insects make such environmentally friendly livestock is their physiology. 

“Insects are poikilothermic,” said Colleen Henegan, a UW-Madison masters student in Environmental Science studying cultural perceptions of insects in sub-saharan Africa. “Which means they are able to metabolize their food more efficiently than endothermic organisms. Most of the livestock we consume, they waste a lot of the energy they consume through heat.”

This quirk in insect physiology makes them less resource intensive and more environmentally friendly. For example, producing one pound of beef requires 10 kilograms of feed and 13,400 gallons of water, whereas producing one pound of crickets only requires one kilogram of feed and 240 gallons of water.

Crickets at Bachubar’s farm are fed agricultural waste such as soy kernels and corn husks, as well as expired or unsellable organic produce. This diet can sustain crickets throughout their life cycle, but Bachubar theorizes that feeding a more biologically appropriate diet may produce a higher quality product. Feeding crickets fresh fruits and vegetables, grasses and seeds may produce a healthier and tastier product. Bachubar even claims that feeding crickets a diet primarily composed of pumpkin will make the crickets taste like pumpkin.  

Insects are also space efficient. A twenty gallon plastic tote can support over 1,000 crickets at a time, and modular insect farming designs that stack insect containers maximize a relatively small amount of space. The compact area and ease of feeding makes insects such as crickets and black soldier flies accessible for the average person to raise at home, either for human consumption or as a supplement for a backyard flock of chickens.

The benefits of insects extend far beyond utility and into the realm of nutrition. “A large swath of this planet is reliant on staple foods. Those are carbohydrate rich but often protein-deficient foods.” Dr. Stull explained. Staple foods include maize, cassava, potatoes and wheat. While these foods are filling, they often contain very few little proteins or vitamins. 

“But if we could just supplement [nutrient deficient diets] with a small amount of insects on a daily or weekly basis we could actually address iron deficiency, zinc deficiency, possibly folate deficiencies [and] B vitamin deficiencies which have huge public health ramification,” Dr. Stull said. 

Worldwide, malnutrition causes half of all deaths of children under five. Additionally, early childhood malnutrition can lead to serious illnesses in adulthood, contributing to stunted growth and impaired cognitive function. Supplementing small amounts of insects into one's diet can greatly reduce the risk of malnutrition. Not only is this a good solution — it comes at a lower cost and is a more accessible alternative to other meat protein sources.

However, initiating insect agriculture isn’t as simple as building an industrial-sized cricket farm in a random location. During her interview, Dr. Stull pointed out that insect agriculture has to be context specific and culturally sensitive — not all insects are equal. An example of the disparity in cultural perceptions of insects can be found in rural Zambia, the study area of both Henegan and Dr. Stull. 

In Zambia, Gonimbrasia belina, the mopane caterpillar, is a very popular insect for human consumption. Henegan’s research also found that, even though mopane caterpillars were seen as a delicious food product, consumers were less willing to eat them if they were farmed. In contrast, Gryllus bimaculatus, the two-spotted field cricket, was seen as a much more appetizing food when farmed as when compared to wild caught. When considering insect agriculture, it cannot be done in a vacuum. While some places in the world may detest eating one species of insect, another may find them a delicacy. An insect is not an insect is not an insect. Just like in the states we wouldn’t say someone who enjoys foie-gras would also enjoy frog legs, we can’t assume that just because someone enjoys mealworms they would enjoy scorpions.

Another concern is scale. Like any large-scale agriculture, there are environmental concerns when you are farming a large amount of organisms in one place. If there was an insect outbreak from a mega facility, such as Warren’s Cricket Farm in North Carolina, there could be massive environmental consequences. Bachubar explains that insect farms should have a nuclear level security plan to prevent environmental destruction due to a massive release of insects. Instead of megafarms, the future of insect agriculture may lie in small or medium sized farming operations, which takes into account the local environments and cultural perceptions of edible insects.

So why don’t people eat insects? Besides the “ick-factor,” there are many reasons why individuals may choose not to, or cannot eat insects. For one, there are dietary restrictions associated with eating insects. Insects are closely related to many species of shellfish, and may trigger an allergic reaction for those with an allergy. Additionally, there are religious reasons for not consuming insects. Locusts are the only type of insect considered kosher or halal

Beyond dietary restrictions, there are financial and legislative restrictions on edible insects. Currently, insect agriculture is a niche market in most western countries. In the U.S., sourcing edible insects can be an expensive and time consuming affair. On popular insect retailers such as Entosense, dried crickets cost $39.99/lb, whereas the average ribeye steak costs $16.49/lb, pork roasts go for $4.09/lb and a whole chicken may retail for $1.28/lb. Additionally, The U.S. market has very little variety in edible insects. It’s relatively easy to order grasshoppers, crickets, mealworms, and some novelty insects such as scorpions domestically, but for a greater variety, a consumer will have to order overseas from farms internationally, such as Thailand Unique, an insect farm based in Thailand. International farms may offer more variety, including giant water bugs, weaver ant eggs and silkworm pupae, but the cost of international shipping pushes the price high above what is affordable for the average person. 

A common argument from insect-ag supporters is that anyone can grow insects at home, thus making them incredibly accessible and affordable. While insects can be easily farmed in a person's home, it’s not as simple a solution as it seems. Between work, school and other responsibilities, many people simply don’t have the energy or resources to maintain an insect farm. Additionally, insect farming can be complicated in a rental situation, and most landlords won’t enjoy their renters keeping black soldier flies under their sink or mealworms in their cupboards. 

In its current form, insect agriculture is not wholly accessible or practical for the average western consumer. An increase in demand and structural changes in our agricultural system could make these products more available to the average consumer. While this seems far off, a similar cultural shift has occurred for popular foods such as lobster and sushi. Sushi, for example, was practically unheard of in the US until the 1950s, and most consumers weren’t keen on eating raw fish. Sushi's popularity, however, exploded in the 1980’s, and you can now find sushi everywhere from high end restaurants to gas stations across the country. This same cultural shift could occur in insects, and we may see roasted crickets alongside tofu and tempeh at Trader Joes.

Adding insects to our diet and developing insect agriculture won’t “fix” climate change, but it is a part of the solution. While agriculture is a major contributor to climate change, it’s not the only thing that needs fixing. To make our planet livable for future generations, we need widespread changes, ranging from how we power our cities to how we produce our consumer goods. Eating insects and investing in insect agriculture, however, is a piece of the puzzle in combating climate change.

Even if it seems scary, you’ll never know if you like something if you don’t try it. If you’re feeling adventurous, grilled mealworm tempeh is a delicious option. If not, roasted crickets are the way to go.

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