Report bats for inclusion of insects as part of sustainable diet in future

The general attitude towards consumption of insects by humans is negative as insects are perceived as unclean and vectors of diseases

By Deepanwita Gita Niyogi
Published: Friday 06 November 2015

A report by the United Kingdom government’s waste agency suggests that people should include insects in their diets as an environment-friendly option to meat.

But the study accepts that persuading consumers to accept “creepy-crawly” creatures on their platter will be difficult. The problem of supplying the UK’s population with nutritional and sustainable protein supply will be “one of the defining challenges of the coming decades”, the report adds.

When asked about how eating insects can be considered sustainable, Paul Vantomme, senior officer at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and manager of the United Nations Programme on Insects for Food and Feed, said, “The point is that farmed insects can be fed with our own food waste (or any other vegetal waste such as lawn mowing). In this way, we would not farm (additional) crops to feed them, but recycle our own (and animal) food waste. Insects can turn vegetable waste into high-quality proteins, fats, vitamins and they do this by using less water than when compared to cows.”

Need to look for alternative protein sources

According to the report, the worldwide consumption of meat is expected to increase by 76 per cent by 2050. Rising household incomes are leading to greater demand for more meat globally. Even the traditional dietary habit of the Mediterranean region is undergoing a “transition”, with people eating more meat and dairy products than plant-based food.

Livestock production generates greenhouse gases, causes land use change, requires 33 per cent arable land for feed and gives rise to huge water demand. As a solution, alternative proteins are being pursued for livestock feed and as food for direct human consumption. Sources of alternative proteins range from bacteria to insects, from mycoprotein to artificially cultured meat, the report states.

Insects are part of the traditional diets already of approximately 2 billion people worldwide, according to Vantomme. The majority of insect consumption is based on gathering insects in the wild, mainly in forests. Insects are also used as medicine and as animal feed.

“Novel foods in Western diets will incorporate insects to some degree, in a similar way to the spread of sushi from Japan in 2000s, but the major growth will be for feed to livestock,” the report said, citing insects as an alternative source of protein.

Overcoming the yuck factor

However, the Western attitudes towards entomophagy (consumption of insects by humans) are typically negative—insects are perceived as unclean and vectors of diseases. Similar attitude may be found towards lab-grown meat.

According to a FAO report, edible insects contain high-quality protein, vitamins and amino acids for humans.

Insects are a potential source for conventional production (mini-livestock) of protein, either for human consumption, or indirectly in recomposed foods (with extracted protein from insects), and as a protein source into feedstock mixtures.

Cricket farming is already a popular activity for farmers in Thailand which started in 1998. Currently around 20,000 farmers raise crickets for consumption. Cricket farming contributes to the livelihood and nutrition base of farmers and a value chain has established through which the crickets are marketed around Thailand. Ground cricket flour is being used as a protein source in North America.

The report also recommends increased consumption of seaweed which has “high nutritional value”, with 65-90 per cent protein content. Processed meat is suggested as another alternative protein source because it requires 99 per cent less land to produce and produces 96 per cent less greenhouse gas.

The India scenario

In India, a large proportion of the population likes chickens, fish, milk, ice-cream, cheese, eggs and cookies which do contain animal proteins, Vantomme said.

“Therefore even in India, the production of farmed fish, shrimps, chickens and milk is fast increasing and for which the country is producing/importing feed grains like soy or corn. Farming insects on vegetable wastes and then using the insects (in the form of powder) as ingredients of compound feed for fish, shrimp and chicken farms can greatly improve the production cycles (quality and productivity).”

Pulses provide protein to the vegetarian population in India. But there is a downside to the story. As pulses are plants, so the amino acids they contain are not complete. Insects are animals, and animals do have a more complete range of amino acids, Vantomme added.

But eating insects does not come cheap, at least for now. Vantomme told Down To Earth, “In the future, insects will become cheaper. Some Belgian and Holland companies recycle supermarkets vegetable/fruit wastes to feed insects.”

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