Insect farming: new food on a global scale

Image description: a brown grasshopper.
Large-scale insect breeding for human consumption is thought to represent a sustainable solution for growing food demand. With climate change, loss of biodiversity, and rising pressure on resources posing a threat to current food supply chains, new systems are needed to ‘future-proof’ meals and address food inequity. In order to achieve this, some scientists suggest that foods such as mealworms and algae will need to be produced and consumed globally.

With a growing world population, increasingly demanding consumers, and limited agricultural land, there is an urgent need to find alternatives to conventional meat products. Livestock production is a leading cause of anthropogenic-induced climate change. In order to reduce our carbon footprint, sustainable diets with reduced meat consumption or alternative protein sources are needed. Insects emit fewer greenhouse gases and less ammonia than cattle or pigs and require significantly less land and water than cattle, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Due to their smaller environmental impact, a growing movement is trying to change the stigma that surrounds eating insects. In some regions, insects are already routinely consumed. In tropical countries, edible insects are harvested from nature, but overexploitation, habitat changes, and environmental contamination threaten this food resource. Therefore, sustainable harvesting and insect farming practices need to be developed and implemented.

Insect farming refers to all processes that produce commodities from bugs, including raising and breeding them. Conducting insect farming in a closed or indoor environment is essential to making food available continuously year-round, since many insects are available in nature only during certain seasons or months. Indoor insect farms are thus crucial to increase the scale, lower costs, and improve the efficiency of insect and insect-based food production and use to improve food supply and reduce environmental impact. This is especially critical for urban populations. Initiatives such as insect farming to safeguard food supplies will become more important in the coming years as certain food sources, many high in vitamin B12 and important for human protein consumption, will decrease, government aid schemes become more restricted, and the human population continues to increase, posing a potential threat to survival. The number of malnourished and underfed people is likely to increase in both rural and urban areas.

Insect farming is starting to become more industrialised, with the applications of new strategies now gearing up. Currently, a few industrial enterprises are in various stages of development for insect farming. Critical elements of such development include research on insect biology, suitable rearing conditions, and diet formulas, which are required for large-scale production. To achieve commercial mass production, current farming systems need to automate critical processes to make them economically competitive with livestock production.

The significant environmental advantages of insect farming compared to livestock production are as follows: 1) less land and water is required,  2) greenhouse gas emissions are lower, 3) insects have high feed conversion efficiencies, 4) insects can transform low-value organic by-products into high-quality food or feed, and 5) certain insect species can be used as animal feed or aqua feed.

In addition to insect farming, measures must also be taken to preserve natural habitats of insects. Most of the approximately 2,100 insect species consumed by humans in the tropics are harvested from nature, including forests, waterways, or agricultural fields. Utilising this food resource requires safeguarding the environment. For example, care should be taken when using pesticides to control forest caterpillars as they are sources of protein, minerals and vitamins for people in Central Africa. Insects contribute significantly to food security and the livelihoods of the poor, especially women and children, who sell insects on the market or use them for personal consumption.

The high environmental impacts connected with meat production and the increase in demand until 2050 require dietary changes. Insect-based meat substitutes are potentially more sustainable but require more advanced cultivation and processing techniques. Such advancement is expected as the whole sector of insects as food and feed are just emerging. Compared to current production practices, this potential abundant food source can contribute to more sustainable food and feed production. Certain insects can be reared on organic side products including manure. However, food and feed safety issues need to be considered. Insect production has excellent potential concerning sustainably providing food for the growing population. Further technological development of this sector and the monitoring of the environmental impact of insect production will help to realise this potential.

Image credit: Karo Kujanpaa on Unsplash