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Insect ‘Meat’ for Food Security: An Idea Too Difficult to Swallow?

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insect-sushiAgriculture is one of the most ecologically-intensive practices on the planet; 70% of global water usage is currently attributed to agriculture, in conjunction with the increased demands on land and energy.

With a growing human population, that is anticipated to reach approximately 9 billion by 2050, coupled with increasing levels of affluence in the developing nations, this will further exacerabate the global agricultural industry, in particular livestock.

Whilst there is the option for many to adopt a vegetarian (or vegan) diet, in reality, it will most likely be an unpalatable concept (no pun intended) for the majority of people.
Scientists have floated the idea of incorporating insects into the diets of many across the Western world. Whilst this may sound like a gut-wrenching idea, entamophagy (the practice of humans consuming insects) is carried out by approximately 2 billion people worldwide, predominantly in Latin America, Africa and Asia.

One of the most compelling arguments proponents offer is that insects have a high feed-to-meat conversion rate; they require approximatlely 2kg of feed to produce 1 kg of meat, compared to cattle, with a feed to meat ratio of 8:1. Beyond the greater efficiencies, greenhouse gas emissions are another reason why insects are favoured. Pigs reportedly produce from 10 to 100 times more GHGs per kg of body weight than mealworms. Further details about the greenhouse gas emissions and feed conversion ratios are included below in figure 1 and table 1 respectively.

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Figure 1: Overall greenhouse gas emissions across numerous components linked to livestock production, 2009.

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Table 1: Comparisons between feed conversion ratios, required space and GHG emissions for various types of products derived from livestock. Source: Lesschen et al. 2011

One optimistic point to reflect on a growing interest in (and tolerance of) vegetarianism across the developed world has led to frozen food products (such as burger patties, sausages and other forms of ‘mince meat’) to be produced with plant protein, in particular soybeans. Hence, could such a phenomenon be replicated with insect meat? Perceptions of certain textures amongst people in the West will render any shift towards insect protein unlikely. However, Verkerk et al. acknowledge that insect protein might play a role in processed foods.

Whilst it is grotesque to imagine eating an insect, how tolerant would people be if they consumed it in the form of a burger patty (unaware of the protein source)? A vast number of people are willing to consume whatever is inside a standard ‘meat’ patty from a fast food chain (often one from cows). Considering that such patties look nothing like the animal they were derived from, who’s to say anyone will be noticing insects inside an ‘insect’ patty?

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