Maybe It's Time To Swap Burgers For Bugs, Says U.N.

May 14, 2013
Originally published on May 16, 2013 5:49 pm

Yes, we talk a lot about eating bugs here at The Salt. We know, because some of you have complained about it.

But insect cuisine isn't just a crazy fad for Bay Area and Dutch foodies, or for Israelis plagued by locusts: In a report out this week, the U.N.'s agricultural arm makes the case for why insects should be an option for dinner.

The Food and Agriculture Organization has been pondering bugs as a protein source since 2003, but in the new report, the agency argues that insects might be essential to feeding a planet of 7 billion people. Why? They're nutritious, better for the environment than other protein sources and can generate jobs, according to the FAO.

"Insects are pretty much untapped for their potential for food, and especially for feed," Eva Muller, director of FAO's Forest Economics, Policy and Products Division, said in a statement.

Of course, 2 billion people worldwide already enjoy insects with gusto — in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Australia. As The Salt previously reported, some efforts have focused on "grow-your-own-insect" kits as a form of emergency food aid for African refugees. Among the most popular of the 1,900 species consumed are beetles, caterpillars, wasps, ants, grasshoppers, locusts and crickets. But rich nations have turned up their noses at them, and the FAO says it's high time for that to change.

There are some signs that investors are warming to insect farming, as climate change has a lot of people rethinking where we get our protein. And insects are now looking like a pretty appealing alternative: They emit considerably less greenhouse gases and waste than other animals, they require little to no land, and many species can consume waste products like animal blood, which means we wouldn't need to produce feed (like soybeans or corn) especially for them.

And if you want to talk about feed efficiency, insects use just 2 pounds of feed to produce 1 pound of meat. Cattle, at the other end of the spectrum, require 8 pounds of feed to produce 1 pound of beef, the FAO says. Locusts beat out beef when it comes to essential nutrients like iron, too: between 8 and 20 milligrams per 100 grams of dry weight of locusts, compared with 6 milligrams per 100 grams of dry weight of beef.

In addition to bugs to feed people, the FAO is optimistic about opportunities to raise insects to feed to animals. As we reported last year, fly farming in South Africa is starting to get off the ground. Just last week, entrepreneur Jason Drew, who's raising flies to feed salmon and chicken, won the highly competitive U.N. Innovation Prize for Africa.

So why haven't we seen a big insect farming boom yet?

There's the disgust factor, for one thing. But there are also big regulatory hurdles: In many countries, the FAO says, regulations on producing insects for food aren't very clear. (Ironically, in the U.S., regulations allow for a certain amount of insect bits to make it into our food, but they don't cover insects as the main meal, according to the FAO.)

Then there are all sorts of food safety concerns. For example, if you were to raise flies on animal blood — a normal source of food for the insects — what happens if you then feed the flies to chickens meant for human consumption? The FAO is calling for more research to untangle such questions.

But FAO says the future is bright for edible insects. "Although it will require considerable convincing to reverse [feelings of disgust], it is not an impossible feat," the report states. British artists seem to agree: A recent exhibition at the U.K.'s Wellcome Collection showcased 3-D printing demos of "possible novel insect foods" of the future.

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