Future prospects for food and feed security."
Present-day consumption of insects is minimal in developed countries but the United Nations voiced their support for insects as a sustainable food source for feeding growing populations. In order to move forward with the agenda, the FAO laid out a few tasks that are immediately at hand:
- Further document the nutritional values of insects in order to promote insects more efficiently as a healthy food source.
- Investigate the sustainability and quantify the environmental impacts of harvesting and farming insects compared with traditional farming and livestock-raising practices.
- Clarify and augment the socio-economic benefits that insect gathering and farming can offer, with a focus on improving the food security of the poorest of society.
- Develop a clear and comprehensive legal framework at the (inter-)national level that can pave the way for more investment, leading towards the full development (from the household scale to the industrial scale) of production and trade in insect products for food and feed internationally.
From my own work I can say that what is necessary is more than just getting nutritional values from some insects that people eat, but getting standardized and comparable values from as many of the nearly 2000 recorded edible insects as possible. I also believe that understanding how insects are consumed around the world, as well as over the course of human evolution, is information that consumers value when making educated decisions about their diets. I expect that there is a "paleo diet" fad to be had with insects.
The biggest push for insect cultivation is that it is a more environmentally-friendly to raise these "mini-livestock" than it is to tend our current go-to sources of protein cattle and pigs. We need more hard evidence. The truth is that we don't have an example of insect-rearing on the industrial scale, so we can't compare it to what we know after decades of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs, or feedlots). More research needs to be done to model the environmental impacts of mass-rearing insects.
Another area that may hold even more potential is the use of insects in feed for our current livestock. We currently feed everything corn. And more corn. Maybe some animal byproducts in there for protein. Why not insects? Eating bacon raised on insects may be an easier sell than eating the insects themselves. Cows should be fed grass, but pigs are omnivores. Future studies need to investigate the nutritional values of pork from grain-fed pigs versus pork from pigs with insect-based feed. I imagine there would be improvement, possibly similar to the omega-3 fatty acid story in grass-fed vs. grain-fed beef, but how much better is yet to be seen.
The other two tasks are outside of my area of expertise, but it makes sense that promoting insects is the development of a new agri-business, and with that comes the social and legal impacts. I expect the legal implications are the same as with any food business interested in a worldwide market, but it is something that needs to be understood before the insects-as-food movement can really take hold. Socially, the first big question is cost to the consumer. Are we talking dollar menu or gourmet menu? Are we talking grocery shopping for ramen or for steak? Additionally, how is that cost going to effect the social implications of choosing to utilize the resource? It all comes down to marketing. Insects are not cheap, primitive and disgusting.. insects are accessible, innovative and exciting!