Dry roasted crickets. A snack that would currently make most of our skin crawl, but a third of the world’s population eat insects and wouldn’t bat an eyelid. Experts are suggesting we need ‘man up’ and join them. So, we take a look at why we should consider doing so and what some Southampton students have to say about the suggestion that insects may soon be making their way onto our tables.
Over the past year there has been increasing hype about insects and their potential as a good source of meat for us in the western world, with the EU offering its members €3 million to research the use of insects in cooking. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has also acknowledged the potential of insects as a food in a report entitled ‘Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security.’ The report showcases the benefits of a diet supplemented by insects.
So what is it that makes insects so great? Well, from a nutritional point of view insects beat most meats we currently eat. They are high in protein, iron and contain vitamins while being significantly lower in fat than beef and pork. They also have the environmental advantage as they are more efficient to rear than other sources of meat protein. Insects require less feed stock per unit mass of protein, less land and less water while also generating less greenhouse gases than other animals that we currently eat.
I asked some Southampton students for their reaction to a selection of insects from beetles to caterpillars that are common food sources in other parts of the globe. The responses – apart from the immediate bemusement and disgust – were all fairly similar, and an overwhelming majority of us were more inclined towards the idea of insects such as grasshoppers and beetles. This was especially true if they appear in flour form such as the idea of a protein rich insect powder proposed by a team of McGill University students that has won the $1 million Hult Prize. By far the least appealing idea seems to be worms such as mealworms, caterpillars and flies.
A lot of people asked me during the questioning what was wrong with more conventional meat sources. The issue is that in the developing world we already consume a disproportionately large amount of the world’s resources, resources that with a rapidly growing population are becoming increasingly scarce. It is therefore not only unfair but also unsustainable for us to indulge so regularly in meat such as beef. Cattle pastures require so much land that hundreds of thousands of acres of tropical rainforest have been destroyed to make room for them, while still further land and precious water sources go into growing the food the cattle consumes.
The EU and FAO seem keen to improve legislation and promote a more positive public opinion on eating insects which would enable further investments to be made and help to grow the industry. However it seems they may have a tough job persuading the British public to get in on the idea. Eating insects is of course not the only alteration that could be made to solve some of the problems associated with our current diet.
For example, synthetic meat is in the early stages of development, with the first lab-grown burger being eaten in London this summer. Some believe the answer to our problems lies in vegetarianism, but as currently a large percentage of the British public are omnivores a more realistic change is likely to be the type of meat protein.
While insects may look like the perfect solution to an outsider, only time will tell whether we will be willing to get over our disgust and accept their place on our plates.