Insects are a major source of food for people around the world. They are delicious and nutritious, and they are widely consumed. Over 2,000 species of insects are eaten globally, and 80% of countries in the world have a significant history of entomophagy (insect eating). The vast majority of different insect species that are eaten come from the wild, but as the human population grows and we put more pressure on our natural resources through habitat loss and global warming, it is becoming increasingly important to focus on sustainable farming systems for the rearing of edible insects.
Number of insect species consumed, by country. [Source: Ron van Lammeren Laboratory of Geo-information Science and Remote Sensing at Wageningen University using data from Yde Jongema]
In the blog post, I will discuss the delicious and diverse range of insects that are eaten around the world and how we can make sure we're consuming insects sustainably.
First of all, let's talk about the variety of insects that are eaten around the world. Many people automatically think of crickets or grasshoppers when they think about eating insects, but there is a huge range beyond that. In Thailand, for example, it's common to eat ants, bee larvae, bamboo worms and silkworms. In Mexico, chicatana ants are fried up with lime and salt as a tasty snack (see image below). In Uganda, termites are roasted over coals and eaten like popcorn.
Not only do different cultures have various insects in their diets, but there is also a range of flavours and textures to enjoy. Ants can be sour or spicy, like the Sanni ants eaten in Uganda, or sweet and creamy, like the pachymorphus ants consumed in Australia. Termites are often described as having a nutty flavour, while bee larvae can taste like bacon!
In addition to being delicious, insects are also very nutritious. Many contain high levels of protein, healthy fats and essential amino acids. If you haven't read it already, please take a look at my previous blog post - The Importance of Insects in the History of Human Evolution - where I investigate the intriguing possibility the dramatic increase in brain size seen in early hominids was down to eating insects. In particular by using simple bone tools to access termite mounds, a fantastic source of essential fats needed for brain development.
So now that we've established how tasty and nutritious insects are, let's talk about sustainability. As mentioned previously, the vast majority of insect species consumed around the world are currently harvested from the wild. However, as human populations continue to grow and natural habitats shrink, it is becoming important to focus on farming techniques for rearing edible insects at scale.
Insects are a crucial part of global food webs, and we need to do all we can to protect their habitats. One-third of all insect species are now classified as endangered and this is thought to be due to habitat loss, modern agricultural practices and climate change. Deforestation is a key driver of the decline in insect numbers around the world, especially in the tropics. It is estimated that we are losing between 13 and 32 million hectares of forest every year, which is equivalent to 18 football fields every minute. Forests are vital for the health of our planet. They play a crucial role in regulating the climate, protecting soil and water resources, as well as providing a home for millions of species. Deforestation not only destroys these forests but also fragments the landscapes that remain, making it more difficult for species to move around and find new homes. As a result, many insect species are becoming extinct as their habitats disappear.
The second driver for the decline in wild insect populations is intensive farming and, in particular pesticide use. These chemicals not only kill the target crop pests, but they also have a devastating impact on wider insect communities. For example, the widespread use of insecticides is having a devastating effect on bee populations. Bees are essential for the pollination of crops, and their decline could have a serious impact on food production. Pesticides are poisonous to bees and can kill them when they come into contact with them. They can also make bees more susceptible to diseases, which can lead to colony collapse.
The final driver is climate change, which is already negatively impacting insect populations, with rising temperatures and changes in rainfall patterns resulting in increased mortality rates and shorter life spans. Insects are very sensitive to changes in their environment and most cases, they are unable to migrate to cooler or wetter areas. As the world warms, and extreme weather events become more common, we will likely see further declines in insect populations.
Given these worsening pressures on insect populations, it is all the more important that the wild harvesting of insects is carried out sustainably. In most cases, wild populations of insects, such as Endoxyla leucomochla, the wichetty grub, in Australia have been collected from the wild for generations and continue to be, in an ecologically friendly way.
However, if insects are to become a mainstream staple for a growing population then we need to move away from wild harvesting and focus on developing farming methods for mass-rearing insects at scale. Most press articles covering edible insects have stressed ‘sustainability’ as a primary reason for the adoption of an insect-based diet. This reflects an overall increased public awareness that current food production methods have the potential to damage ecosystems and the climate. Whilst insects should not be viewed as a silver bullet, they may provide one option to help mitigate the environmental impact of traditional forms of livestock farming.
Meat is an energy-dense food that provides many people with essential nutrients missing elsewhere in their diet. Nonetheless, meat production has an environmental cost which is disproportionate to its contribution to our diets. Although 80% of farmland is used to produce livestock it provides just 18% of the calories in our diets and 37% of the protein.
In contrast, insects are extremely efficient at converting feed into edible meat with much lower environmental impact. In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, crickets have been found to produce just one-twelfth of the emissions compared to cattle.
Insect farming also requires less land and water than traditional livestock farming, making it a potential solution for countries facing resource scarcity. Insect farms can also be located in urban areas, reducing transportation costs and providing employment opportunities in cities.
Whilst there has been some progress towards insect rearing for food globally, more investment, research and innovation are needed to establish effective farming methods at scale. The FAO highlights that there are significant knowledge gaps related to insect rearing and processing techniques as well as understanding the market.
Bugvita is working hard to bridge this gap. We are working with the wider UK insect farming community to help push forward efficiency improvements and reduce the carbon footprint of insect agriculture. Bugvita has also developed a state of the art processing facility in Lincolnshire, where we are focused on providing the highest quality insect-based ingredients for human consumption.
In conclusion, there are many reasons why people should consider eating insects, not least because they are a fantastic source of sustainable protein. If you haven't already, why not head to our shop and try some insect-based foods for yourself? Who knows, you might just find your new favourite snack!