If we want to save the planet, the future of food is insects

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My first attempts at feeding insects to friends and family did not go down well. “What the hell is wrong with you?” asked my wife when I revealed that the tomato and oregano-flavoured cracker bites we had been munching with our G&Ts were made from crickets. “Hang on, I’m vegetarian!” cried our friend – which prompted a slightly testy discussion on whether insects count as meat, how many thousand arthropods equate to one mammal and considering almost all industrial agriculture involves the mass slaughter of insects, what’s the difference?

I then tried some Crunchy Critters dried mealworms on my seven-year-old. “It doesn’t taste of much,” he said. His friend wasn’t wild about his grasshoppers either. “The legs are weird.” But connoisseurs insist that dried specimens from a packet simply cannot compare to free-range, seasonal arthropods roasted in their own oils. “The fresh ones are much tastier, of course,” says Dr Monica Ayieko, senior insect researcher from the western region of Kenya – and one of an estimated two billion people who regularly eat insects. “I love the smell of roasting lake flies or crickets. It’s a nice savoury smell. This is one thing we pride ourselves on in Africa – we always eat fresh food.”

The only unqualified success I had was with my nine-month-old, who seemed almost as keen on desiccated buffalo worms as he is on, well, just about anything he can shove into his mouth. And that’s just as well. If the evangelists for eating insects are to be believed, orthoptera, larvae and any number of the 900+ edible species of insects could form a regular part of his future diet. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation has urged that we all make more of this “underutilised” resource. And given the issues of food supply sustainability, it may not be a question of choice.

A man in a white coat and helmet in a lab inspecting a tray of insects

It ought to be obvious to anyone with an appetite that the way we eat is not sustainable – and that something fundamental will have to shift if we do not want to end up with half the world obese and the other half under water. “Civilisation is in crisis,” was the verdict of the EAT-Lancet international commission into the global food chain in 2019, which contained a dire warning of 200,000 years of human history culminating in ecological disaster. Modern industrial agriculture, extractive capitalism, the profit motive, governments cowering before Big Food and our own greedy western appetites all must take a share of the blame.

It is in this context that “future food” – food that promises to be good for you and animals and the environment – has taken on the buzz that was once associated with Silicon Valley start-ups. Younger consumers are increasingly anxious to make ethical, sustainable choices – and tech industry venture capitalists are increasingly keen to invest in them, too. The Californian “alternative meat” company Beyond Meat, valued at around $9bn, has now launched its products in 445 British supermarkets and its rival, Impossible Foods, is expected to follow soon. Cell-grown meat isn’t far off: in December, the Singapore Food Agency approved the world’s first fully synthetic chicken nugget. Still, recent history suggests that tech investor-backed American processed food companies vying to dominate the protein market isn’t likely to lead to utopia.

Insect protein is not as “sexy” as the alternative meat companies, admits Leah Bessa of the South African start-up Gourmet Grubb, but she feels anyone interested in food security should be looking for multiple solutions. “I don’t think we should be expecting any one food to solve things,” she says. “The problem with our agriculture system is that we don’t have enough diversity to cater for different climates and landscapes. What’s great about insects is that you can farm them anywhere, in any environment. They don’t destroy land, you can grow them on by-products of the food industry and they’re full of nutrients.” But, she cautions: “It has taken the plant-based food movement decades to get to where it is now,” she says. “If insects can do the same, it will be a big win.”

Currently, most of the investment is heading towards insects-as-feed for other animals. Mars Petcare recently announced a new insect-based cat food range, Lovebug, and insects show great potential as feed in aquaculture and for livestock. The French firm Ynsect recently raised $225m to open the world’s largest insect farm in Amiens that will soon be producing 100,000 tonnes of protein per year. The British company, Entocycle, has, meanwhile, received a GBP10m government grant to build a black soldier fly larvae farm outside London. As a sustainable business model, it sounds almost too good to be true. Insects not only make a far more efficient feed – they can also be fed on waste and their “frass” (excrement) can be used as fertiliser. Currently, around 33% of cropland worldwide is used to feed livestock.

An employee checks worms before they are being turned into protein powder

Dr Sarah Beynon, an entomologist who runs the Bug Farm, a working insect farm and visitor attraction in Pembrokeshire, believes we will have to get used to a different idea of farming: hi-tech, robot-operated vertical facilities devoted to maximising protein yield. As inhumane as that sounds, from the insect’s point of view, she stresses, it’s a good deal. “With insects, we can farm them intensively without compromising their welfare. They’re actually happier when they’re close to many other insects of the same species.” Insect lifecycles are also highly conducive to factory farming: at certain stages of their lives they produce heat and at other stages they need heat, so an indoor farm can be more efficient than an outdoor farm in a warmer climate.

Still, Beynon worries that using insects for livestock feed could end up serving to prop up a dysfunctional and wasteful food system. “It’s an important stepping stone, especially where it comes to replacing unsustainable fishmeal – but it’s not actually attacking the problem itself,” she says. The problem being our insane overconsumption of meat. “It’s slightly crazy to me to feed the by-products of plant-based farming to insects which are then fed into an animal-based farming system. The more extra steps you have in the food chain, the more energy and food you’re wasting. It’s always more efficient and sustainable to take a step out.”

Packets of Crunchy Kids Critters

In other words: if we don’t want to take the drastic step of simply eating more vegetables… we should probably get used to eating insects ourselves.

While western consumers are not ready for whole insects, Bessa believes they aren’t necessarily averse to innovations, such as her Entomilk, which is made from black soldier fly larvae (“BSFL” in industry parlance) which are rich in fats and minerals, including calcium. “People are starting to become more aware of what food does, not only to their bodies but to the environment – and they travel a lot now, their minds are much more open. They’re more willing to try what they might have considered gross before.”

The edible insects market will grow to $6.3bn by 2030 according to a report by Barclays. Research by Sainsbury’s found 42% of British consumers are willing to try insects.

But it’s one thing persuading someone to try a novel insect product – and another making it part of their weekly shop. This is the challenge that Francesco Majno, the Italian entrepreneur behind the Small Giants cricket snacks that I attempted to foist on my house guests, is trying to meet. It’s not so surprising to find the insect start-up space littered with the husks of companies that barely emerged from pupal stage.

The sign to Bug farm and Grub kitchen, just outside of St Davids, Pembokeshire, Wales.

The first company to penetrate a British supermarket was Eat Grub, whose whole insects appeared in Sainsbury’s in 2018 – only to be quietly removed from shelves this year (though they are still available online). Majno believes that offering insects in “familiar” products such as crackers and tortilla chips is a surer route to acceptance: “I can say that we have a completely different approach compared to Eat Grub or other similar insect brands such as Crunchy Critters,” he says. “We believe that the only way to tackle the yuck factor is by giving insects a familiar form that can help anyone to try them the first time and to understand how tasty and nutritious they are.”

Green grasshopper isolated on white background

It’s not hard to convey that at a market stall, where Majno can go into salesman mode. Did you know crickets emit less than 0.1% of the greenhouse emissions of cows to produce the same amount of protein? They require vastly less water, too: it takes 112 litres of water to produce a single gram of beef but less than 23 litres for a gram of insect protein. (Insects also comfortably beat chickpeas in this regard.) But it’s hard to get all that across in the snack aisle of Sainsbury’s – where Small Giants now competes with Cool Original Doritos and Really Cheesy Giant Wotsits, foods with long histories, large marketing budgets and lower price points. Majno is encouraged by the number of repeat customers and the fact that he recently won a Great Taste Award. But in truth, I couldn’t really have distinguished the Small Giants snacks from cheaper rye crackers. And once you get over the oddness of biting into insects and insect products, you realise a more pressing problem: they’re actually quite bland.

There are further obstacles, too. Numerous species of insects are moving towards regulatory approval in the EU, but, post-Brexit, it is unclear whether Britain will adopt these European standards or start all over again, which would set British insect-farming back years. And while there is increased demand, seasonal insects are subject to numerous restrictions. Eduardo Gomez, who runs the Mexican food specialist MexGrocer, says he is prevented from importing Mexican delicacies such as escamoles (ant larvae and pupae), since meat and cheese products from Mexico are banned in Europe. “High-end restaurants have been asking me for years – please can you bring insects in? The future is in insects. Eventually, people will realise this. It’s the best we can do right now if we want to save the planet.”

Glass jars of insect flour, oil and fertiliser all made at Ynsect's lab.

For the moment, however, our insect future in the west feels rather beige: highly processed products enriched with insect protein powder – as opposed to grasshoppers with guacamole, or the lake fly dumpling stews that Dr Ayieko conjures. And it’s worth stressing that for all the talk of insects as a state-of-the-art protein for westerners, for many people, insects are a food of the present – and an endangered one, too.

Dr Monica Ayieko’s eyes were opened to the potential of insect protein when she married into a family who lived on the eastern shore of Lake Victoria, near the city of Kisumu. Here, the tiny lake flies swarm so abundantly, they look like smoke rising from the lake. When they swarmed in her home, she set about them with insect spray before being upbraided by her mother-in-law, who showed her how to collect them in a sweep net and crush them into dumplings – which can then be dried, tossed into a stew or eaten raw. When she returned to her own village she found a neighbour’s child had died of malnutrition – and she feels such cases could be averted if only more use was made of this readily available source of protein. Now based at the Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University in Kenya, she has devoted her career to researching local traditions and developing insect farming as a route to food security.

“This is local, highly indigenous knowledge – it’s not something that has been imposed on us,” Ayieko says. “We now have 120 masters and PhD students here, studying sustainable agriculture and their research must be on insects for food and feed, which is very encouraging.” However, while insect-eating is becoming more accepted, insects are still widely seen as a food of the poor. “Some people in rural areas can now afford to buy chicken and fish, which means those who can’t feel shy about collecting insects – they don’t want to be seen as poor.”

Meanwhile, habitat destruction means there are fewer insects to collect. “We are currently seeing a reduction in the lake-fly population because of climate change. When I published my first paper on lake flies, there was an abundance of insects. Now in my old age I am seeing less and less of it.”

One of Ayieko’s favourite types of ant, carebara vidua, can no longer be found. “This insect is a big delicacy in my community. But you don’t see it any more. Normally, it would emerge from wetlands – but we have chopped down trees and built roads and laid concrete and done all the things that human beings do.” There is a bitter irony to the idea that just as insects are being held up as novel solutions to the dysfunctions of the western food system, they are disappearing from the areas where they are genuinely relied upon – areas that are likely to see the worst effects of climate change.

Adult mealworm beetles, which are used for reproduction, eat pieces of carrot in a container at the laboratory of the insect farm Ynsect

Dr Sarah Beynon echoes the point – as western standards of affluence are held up as something to aspire to in the developing world, local traditions and expertise are being lost, perhaps irreversibly. But she, too, sees education as the route to a better future and has been working with local schools to introduce young children to issues of sustainability. “Young people will make their food choices around sustainability – so long as the product tastes good and has a texture they’re used to. They don’t want to see parts of insects – so it’s a case of using the protein and the nutrients. But we shouldn’t hide the fact that they’re insects.” She has helped to develop a product called VEXo mince, a plant- and insect-based mince that can be used in all mince contexts: burgers, meatballs, etc. As soon as Covid recedes, she hopes to put insects on school menus in Pembrokeshire and beyond. “That’s the key. If we can normalise them on school menus, it will be a huge step for the future.”

And I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch. We like to think we eat what we eat due to time-honoured traditions – that national dishes, such as roast chicken, are part of who we are. But it wasn’t so long ago that sushi and packet sandwiches were seen as outlandish and pointless – and a couple of generations back, roast chicken was an elite food. In the 1950s, only around 1m chickens were eaten in Britain each year. Now, that figure is closer to 1bn.

Majno tells me he felt an insect snack was the way to introduce the idea of entomophagy to consumers – much more manageable than an insect-based meal. But it’s worth stressing that snacking is itself a relatively new phenomenon. Doritos were invented in 1966; Wotsits in 1970. When I was a child in the 1980s, “eating between meals” was still the sort of thing your granny tutted at. And this cultural taboo has been obliterated mostly by the might of the food industry – which has always strived to create new moments for eating. The America obesity researcher Barry Popkin has compiled extensive evidence showing that obesity levels rise as developing countries adopt the western diet – of which snack foods are a key part.

That could lead you to despair. But my point is: nothing about how we eat is fixed. If we can get our heads around factory-farmed chicken, Wotsits and the Impossible Burger, we can probably get our heads around cricket flour, BSFL milk and mealworm bolognese. And we can hopefully look at those cultures that eat insects regularly with admiration as opposed to disgust. Dr Ayieko tells me she is optimistic. “If we cannot figure out a sure way to sustain these insects, we are treading towards extinction. But if we can, we are safe. We will provide for them and they will provide for us.”

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