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Eating insects: good for you, good for the environment

Insects are a great source of protein with a tiny carbon footprint. Flickr/mckaysavage

The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations released a report on Monday called Edible Insects: Future prospects for food and feed security and since then news outlets have been looking for images of people eating bugs.

Even I was on our local TV news this week commenting on the issue. The reporter who rang to seek my input asked if I would be willing to eat a live bug for the camera. I politely declined, not just because I am a vegetarian, and not because I am squeamish. As I told the reporter and camera man, if I were to eat an animal, it would most certainly be a bug.

Indeed, I probably eat bugs all the time. As explained by an insect food producer to the ABC, most of us eat a quarter of a kilogram of insects by accident each year. Insects find their way into our foodstuffs no matter how hard we try to keep them out. Interestingly, if you eat organic, your rate of insect consumption is much higher.

So even though I have avoided eating animal flesh (including fish) for over 30 years, I nevertheless engage in entomophagy. And so do billions of people all over the world.

It is not true that the eating of insects is something that humans resort to only when they are starving. Many cultures cherish the flavours and texture of insects. Right here in Australia, indigenous people travelled to the alps each summer to feast on the bounty provided by the annual influx of bogong moths.

Which, you might say, is fine for them but not likely to convince me to fry up some moths (hint: remove the wings by scorching). So what are the arguments for entomophagy, and why on earth does the United Nations want us to do this apparently disgusting thing?

Eating insects is efficient, good for the environment, improves animal welfare and reduces the risk of diseases in humans. Let’s go through the arguments presented in the FAO report.

Efficient feed conversion. The amount of feed you need to provide to get animal based food varies greatly depending on the species. Predatory fish are expensive to raise in aquaculture because they need to be fed fish. Herbivores are more efficient, but it still takes 10 kilograms of food to produce 1 kilogram of cow, only half of which can actually be eaten. By contrast, 10 kilograms of feed will produce up to 9 kilograms of insects, of which over 95% can be eaten. If we want to find a way to produce more protein with less, insects are the way to go.

Food inputs from waste. Now let’s talk about what kind of food we give our livestock. If we have to catch fish to feed our aquaculture fish we are still dependent on wild caught protein. If we grow grain to feed our cattle, we still have to use land and fertiliser and water. But if we choose to raise insects we can feed them our waste products. Think about it, flies grow on manure. Other insects could grow on agricultural waste products high in cellulose. This transcends efficiency. Growing insects for food could actually clean up the mess made by growing other food.

Less greenhouse gases. Cattle produce so many greenhouse gases that a kilogram of beef has an impact similar to driving 250 kilometres in a car. The only insects that even produce methane as a waste product are cockroaches, termites and scarab beetles. Getting our protein from insects would significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Water savings. Agriculture consumes 70% of water worldwide, and the production of animal protein requires 100 times more water than protein from grain. This includes the water used to grow the grain to feed the animal, also known as “virtual water”. By this method of calculation, 1 kg of chicken requires 3500 litres of water and 1 kg of beef requires between 22,000 and 43,000 litres of water. Insects need far less, and can be grown throughout the drought.

Animal welfare. All of our concerns about live animal exports and battery farm hens are based on the need to reduce animal suffering. High density of livestock is necessary for commercial food production but is undesirable from an animal welfare point of view. Insects, on the other hand, are naturally gregarious. Many of them prefer to live in high densities and killing them humanely is possible and easy. No more nightmare film clips from abattoirs.

Reduced risk of disease. Think about the infections that move from animals to people and have frightened all of us: swine flu, bird flu, mad cow disease. These infections are called zoonotics, and they spread because we are similar enough to our livestock to be able to catch their diseases. Insects have a much lower risk of passing disease on to us.

In fact, it is difficult to find many disadvantages to eating insects. We don’t even have to get over our aversion to biting into a crunchy morsel with too many legs. Factories are already growing insects to produce protein powders which can be used to supplement foods we already enjoy.

The only downside I could find is that eating fresh insects collected in the wild puts you at risk of consuming pesticides. Which is one of the reasons I did not want to eat a bug for the camera – we did not have any insects from a trusted source.

The other reason is the backlash that could result from the disgust factor. Yes, it would make good TV viewing, because it is shocking and kind of gross. But if we really want people to eat more bugs (and we do!) then I don’t think we want to give the impression that we will have to start picking crickets up off the lawn and popping them in our mouths.

No, we are much more sophisticated than that. Insect protein will be produced by reputable growers who will care for their charges and ensure a high quality product. Make no mistake, this is a growth industry.

In future, entomophagy will be something we do by design, instead of by accident.