Eating Insects: the New Frontier of Sustainability

The news is spreading across the European media, about a future use of insects for human consumption and in agriculture.  Population is steadily growing, and 9 billion people are expected to live on the earth in 2050. The increase in the use of resources for agriculture will result in an even greater pressure on the environment. FAO foresees scarcity of agricultural land, water, forest, fishery and further biodiversity loss. Bearing in mind the issue of climate change, this forces us to rethink the ways we eat and we produce our food. 

The reason behind this entomon-interest, is the contribution to food security and sustainable consumption, since insects are high in proteins, vitamins and amino acids proving to be an exceptional addition to the human diet. Entomophagy is the human use of insects as food: ants, cicadas, crickets, earthworms, grasshoppers, are all edible insects. The eggs, larvae and adults of certain species have been eaten by humans from prehistoric times to the present day.

“Insects have a high food conversion rate: e.g. crickets need six times less feed than cattle, four times less than sheep, and twice less than pigs and broiler chickens to produce the same amount of protein” (FAO)

Insects are a potential protein source for animal consumption as well, and can be employed into feedstock mixtures, completing sources such as grains, soy, maize and fishmeal. Most importantly, insects can be grown on organic waste, need less water, and emit less greenhouse gases than livestock for their production. 

We already consume “weird” or”disgusting” food

We already consume a variety of possibly disgusting foods. It is not just a custom of far-away holiday destinations, if we take a look in Europe we also find foods and recipes that involve not immediately attractive products. Think about foie gras, the duck liver fattened through pipes put in the animal’s throat, that doesn’t sound delicious to me, however our common perception is that of a finest luxury food. In France, Italy and Spain, brain as food (generally from beef and veal) is a delicacy. In Scotland the traditional dish is Haggis, a pudding made with sheep hearts, livers, and lungs, that are mixed with other ingredients, and boiled in the animal’s stomach. It has a smokey, fatty and sweet taste, and is not unpleasant at all.

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Brain as food is a delicatessen in some countries.

Actually, we also eat foods that contain substances derived from insects. Carmine, better known as E120, is a natural food colourant,  whose pigment is produced from cochineal, a plant parasite, that is crushed and boiled to obtain the extract. Among its uses, carmine can also be added to food products – it is commonly employed in commercial brands of yogurts, candies, juices, drinks, sauces… – to confer them a bright colour that ranges from red to purple.

A psychological repugnance 

However, these foods do not generate the same spike in disgust as when we are talking about eating insects. One reason may be that we are not familiar with this practice, which is common instead to other cultures across the globe. Robert Zajonc is a social psychologist that developed the theory of the “mere-exposure effect” (or familiarity principle) by which humans develop preferences for things simply because they are more familiar with them.  Hence, it may be possible that if we were exposed more often to the practice of entomophagy, we may perceive it less unpleasantly.

A cochineal, used to create carmine, a red food colourant (E120).

The human diet is characterised by the simultaneous presence of curiosity for novelty (neophilia), and by a cautious attitude, or even of aversion, for what is novel or unknown (neophobia). Research is investigating the level of acceptance of insect-based products (particularly as meat substitutes), and many studies suggest that to reduce insect food neophobia, these products should be integrated in food preparations to make them invisible, and associated with familiar flavors.

Indeed, eating insects also clashes with our tradition and European gastronomic culture. This new custom shall be gradually presented to consumers, through the introduction of innovative products developed with a partial use of insects derivatives, such as in the form of an annelids flour (that already exist) – imagine to find in the stores high-protein chocolate muffins. So, eating insect food, does not have to look like insects. It is more likely that young, open-minded people, interested in the environmental impact of their food choices, may be the first ones to introduce these new products. More viable in the short term, will be the use of insects for animal feed: for instance PROteINSECT is a project funded by the EU,  aimed to evaluate fly larvae as a novel source of protein for animal feed, for the adoption of more environmentally-sound production technologies.

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