Sounds unappetizing, but can it save our planet?
By Emily Powell
On average, westerners eat about half a pound of animal products or animal meats every day. The agricultural operations which support this habit release an incomprehensible mass of greenhouse gas emissions, which are possibly the most tangible problem within our fossil fuel addiction. This habit, however, could also possibly be the first place we can cut back on our environmental impact. This starts with more sustainable protein substitutes beyond beef, pork, or chicken, such as the fake meat, soy, and whey proteins I’ve written about on this blog before. But there’s one diet staple that we haven’t tried (and most of us would refuse to try, if given the opportunity), yet two billion people across the globe incorporate it as a standard part of their regular diet: Insects.
Entomophagy, or the practice of eating bugs, is customary and necessary in many areas where biodiversity fosters innumerable species of edible insects (yum, locusts…). They’re relatively easy to capture and cook, plentiful beyond belief, and provide a fantastic source of fiber and protein. So why are we so disgusted by the idea of eating insects? That comes as part of a cultural stigma – it’s not that insects taste bad (especially because most of us have never tried one), it’s that we associate insects with unappetizing ideas of pests, filth, and lack of sanitation. However, if we could manage to overcome our negative attitudes and embrace insects for the nutritional and culinary values they carry, could insects become a staple, sustainable protein?
This has yet to be proven. In some studies, including those cited in the Time magazine article which is linked at the bottom of this page, insects are found to have a protein-conversion rate (ratio of protein consumed to produced) barely more efficient than poultry. This means that bugs are sustainable for the tribes and communities that subsist on naturally-occurring populations, but when produced on an international and industrial scale, bugs would be no more efficient in creating protein than chickens. Insects do, however, offer an unconventional solution to food waste: When fed purely food scraps and waste, some species can still grow strong and large, though not as large as the insects fed processed grains and pre-packaged feed. Using food scraps to grow more food is an example of a cradle-to-cradle design, a system in which no resources are wasted, but are reused and recycled to create more useful things.
Still, though, insects can be a viable protein option; most scientists believe they cannot substitute other forms of animal protein completely, nor can they be viably mass-produced. Modern companies creating cricket protein bars, cricket chips, and other insect products, including Six Foods, assert than insects are a food source that can be integrated into our current food system, but “cannot replace it,” as Kevin Bachhuber, founder and owner of Big Cricket Farms, is quoted in Erbentraut’s Huffington Post article on the “mainstream” possibilities of insects (linked at the bottom of this page).
It’s no doubt that eating bugs doesn’t sound immediately appetizing, and this probably isn’t going to change right away. But that doesn’t mean that bugs can’t make a breakthrough in our western culture like raw fish did with the now-trendy dish of sushi. Crickets probably aren’t going to start showing up in restaurant cuisine anytime soon. However, as a food source that is only beginning to get the credit it deserves, insects may be more common in our future diets than we can imagine today, and could even help us alleviate the environmental costs of omnivorism in our meat-loving culture.
- Time Magazine debunking the efficiencies of insects: “Eating insects isn’t as eco-friendly as people say”
- Huffington Post on the nutritional value of insects: “It’s healthier to eat a bug than it is to eat a steak”
- Huffington Post postulating the implementations of insect farming: “Eating bugs as never been more popular, but will it ever go mainstream?”
Emily’s exuberant passion for sustainability and sustainable nutrition stems from her everlasting love for the outdoors, people, dirt, and broccoli. As an undergraduate in the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University, Emily is working towards becoming a spokesperson for everyday sustainable food and lifestyle choices, including decisions on what foods you buy, where you buy them, and how you make the most of foods’ energy. Leveraging communication through writing, Emily has been recognized in competitions such as the DuPont Challenge and the Apprentice Ecologist Initiative for her essays on sustainability issues and initiatives, including Honeybee Colony Collapse Disorder and community gardens in elementary schools. Emily aspires to utilize relationships with other academic disciplines to plant the seeds of sustainability and nutrition principles in the young adults of her generation. She plans to earn her Registered Dietitian credential and work either on the community or personalized sustainable nutrition level.