As the world’s population continues to grow, we may need to search further afield for cheap, sustainable food alternatives. A 2013 World Resources Institute report warned that the world is facing a unique challenge: “To meet different human needs, by 2050 it [the world] must simultaneously produce far more food for a population expected to reach about 9.6 billion…and reduce environmental impacts, including ecosystem degradation and high greenhouse gas emissions.”

Since then, a number of solutions have been proposed. One of the ones to come out on top? Entomophagy, or the consumption of insects as food. High in protein, highly sustainable and a cheaper alternative to meat, insects have been eaten widely in many parts of the world for years, with the most commonly eaten bugs being beetles, caterpillars, bees, wasps and ants. We find out more about the potential of this food group and explore how insects can help protect the planet for future generations.

The problem: the environmental impact of livestock production

The challenge of feeding the world’s growing population is becoming ever more critical. Global meat consumption is expected to increase by 76% by 2050, and the impact that this could have on the environment is concerning. Livestock production, for example, generates greenhouse gas emissions, causes land use change, requires about a third of the world’s arable land for feed, and is a drain on water supplies.

As a result, governments and agencies around the globe – including the UK’s Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) – are looking into alternative food sources for both livestock feed and as food for direct human consumption. Insects have lower land use requirements and emit fewer GHG emissions, and they can also be reared on various organic substrates like vegetable waste, manure and food waste, creating value from and reducing waste products. And, although small in size, they pack a considerable punch: up to 80% of the bodyweight of insects is edible and digestible, compared to 55% for chicken and only 40% for cattle.

Promoting insects as an alternative protein source has considerable potential to alleviate the current negative environmental impacts caused by livestock farming. New research published in the Journal of Cleaner Production has shown that cricket farming uses 75% less carbon dioxide and 50% less water than chicken farming. So, with all the negative costs of producing livestock, it’s hardly surprising that interest in insect farming has expanded in recent years, as farmers can produce much more for less.

The solution: UN recommends consumption of more insects

Since 2003, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (UN FAO) has been working on topics pertaining to edible insects in many countries across the world, and in 2013, the organisation specifically recommended the consumption of more insects. The Earth is home to over 1,900 edible insect species, hundreds of which are already incorporated into people’s diets.

Around two billion people currently eat insects regularly, both cooked as delicacies and in their raw form. Many are packed with protein, fibre, good fats and minerals; mealworms, for example, provide similar levels of protein, vitamins and minerals to those found in fish, while small grasshoppers are on a par with lean ground beef in terms of protein content, while additionally boasting less fat per gram.

But despite the proliferation of ‘entomophagous’ countries – over 35 African nations boast this claim – in the Western world the practice remains somewhat of a taboo subject, probably due to the ‘yuck factor’ associated with eating insects: they are often perceived as unclean and vectors of disease. These negative perceptions surrounding insects are fully entrenched in Western societies, so resetting this image of bugs as pests and persuading consumers to overcome the ‘yuck factor’ will be key for any countries trying to introduce insects as a new alternative protein source.

Liliane Binego, a researcher at Coventry University’s Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience, recently interviewed more than 200 people in Niger and Uganda in her investigation of the potential of edible insects to tackle the global food crisis. Like many others, Binego admits that one of the key hurdles to overcome is changing people’s attitudes towards eating insects.

“In some countries edible insects are regarded as a delicacy and some people rely on them for their livelihoods, but there are still many limitations that we have to understand and overcome if they are to help improve food security,” she says. “Many people are disgusted by the thought of eating a locust or grasshopper. We have to look at changing people’s attitudes and prejudices about them.”

Limiting factors: absence of clear legislation slows progress

While agencies such as WRAP believe that Western diets will incorporate insects to some degree, the major growth will be for livestock feed. The FAO warns, however, that “the absence of clear legislation and norms guiding the use of insects as food and feed is among the major limiting factors hindering the industrial development of farming insects to supply the food and feed sectors.”

In the UK, for example, there is no set list of insect species deemed suitable for human consumption, though the Food Standards Agency acknowledges that several insect species are being sold in UK markets as food. The approach to edible insects differs between countries, and ranges from complete bans on the sale of insect products to defined species and processes that are allowed.

Western countries are, however, slowly but surely making moves towards lifting the negative perception of insects as food. In May last year, the Swiss Government lifted restrictions on selling insects and insect-based products. Grocery stores in the country are now allowed to stock mealworms, locusts and crickets, provided that the snacks comply with food safety regulations.

Coop, a Swiss supermarket group, was quick to move into this new market, teaming up with Essento, a startup that develops insect-based products, to create a range of products containing insect proteins, including meatballs and burgers. However, while the need for alternative, sustainable food sources continues to grow, it remains to be seen whether insect-based products will go down well with consumers in Switzerland and elsewhere.