When I’m a Celebrity: Get Me Out of Here comes onto our screens each November, millions across the UK watch through their fingers as the camp mates are forced to eat spiders, mealworms and witchetty grubs. There is a collective shriek as the celebs gag and retch whilst Dec offers some encouraging words of advice (turning a little green himself).
But for around two billion people, this disgust would elicit confusion as insects make up a part of their normal diet. There are over 1900 species of insect that are used as a source of nutrition around the world. Some of these are just a small part of the diet, while others play a key role in daily living. For example, in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, 96 tonnes of caterpillars are consumed annually, that’s 300 grams per household per week.
The future importance of an insect-based diet was highlighted recently by the world-renowned natural historian: David Attenborough. On a recent trip to Bristol University he, whilst touring their new research centre, was offered a mealworm cookie. Afterwards, a reporter asked him whether the UK could ever really get a taste for bugs. His reply gets to the heart of why insect-based diets are being discussed so much – “we might have to if we want to eat.”
Current estimates put the global population at around nine billion by 2050 for which our current food production would need to double. The food industry is fundamentally unsustainable in terms of land use, water and food consumption, and greenhouse gas emissions. When comparing beef and cricket farming, the benefits of insect consumption are clear. It takes 8 kilograms of feed to produce 1 kilogram of beef compared to 1.7 kilograms of feed to produce 1 kilogram of cricket meat. On top of this, only 40 per cent of a cow is classed as edible compared to 80 per cent of a cricket. Insects also produce less greenhouse gases and ammonia than cattle or pigs and have less land and water requirements.
It’s not just environmental sustainability where insects beat traditional food sources. Eating bugs is also a good choice nutritionally. Mealworms have similar omega-3 levels to fish and similar protein and vitamin levels to fish and meat. The relatively small land use also means it is a viable option for farmers in Lower Income Countries (LICs) who are struggling with traditional farming methods due to frequent droughts. An increase in the global trade and consumption of bugs could help with poverty rates and malnutrition in these areas.
The idea of cultivating insects for human use is not a foreign concept. We use insects in our daily life, sometimes without even realising it. Most of the food we eat in some way relies on insect pollinators, they can act as a natural pest control, they produce products such as honey and silk, and they even have some medical uses. The market for edible insects may not yet be large in the UK but the industry is growing. In 2016 Britain’s first cricket farm opened in Cumbria and Grub Kitchen recently opened in Pembrokeshire serving insect based dishes.
People are optimistic about insect based diets but there are some issues that still need to be addressed. Logistically, there needs to be investment in infrastructure and laws regarding international trade need to be clarified. Within the EU insects are still considered a “novelty food” subjecting them to rigorous and, in comparison to beef, expensive testing. Finally, and perhaps most crucially of all, there is the main problem of trying to change public opinion. Further details about the nutritional value may help this cause. Also looking into the positive socio-economic and environmental benefits of insect farming in LICs may help promote the trade to ethical consumers. But until regular people realise the benefits of an insect-based diet, such a campaign may be futile.
Despite the many positives it still seems unlikely that fried crickets will be part of the Pottershop meal deal anytime soon. However, seeing as the climate is rapidly changing, incorporating insects into our diet is one of the best options we have for both our food security and sustainability.
Image credit: Simon via Pixabay