Will we really eat insects in a near future?

October 10, 2017

By: Rafael Tonon

More than a solution to a possible protein shortage, as seen in the new Blade Runner, will we choose to include those arthropodes in our daily diet in the next decades?

Insects have been often trumpeted as the future of food: a good and sustainable solution to replace animal proteins in our diet. The United Nations promotes insect-eating as a promising, protein-packed way to feed the 9 billion people that will live on earth in 2050, up from about 7.4 billion today. Crickets, ants and even cockroaches can be an alternative animal protein source to our plates in some years, according to the agency.

In the recent sequence of the classic movie Blade Runner, based on the universe created by the sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick, there are not only the flying cars and the human clones that may catch one’s attention: in the opening scene, LAPD officer K looks for some evidences in a high tech bug farm. Spread out across California, these farms took the place of the greens and grapes farms that we usually relate to when we think about the West Coast state. And the food we usually eat in 2017 will be replaced by insect grubs – at least for animal-based proteins.

According to the movie, the human race looks to grubs as a solution to world hunger, after a blackout that left Earth in the dark for a period, affecting the entire life and the food production of the planet. In a more apocalyptic projection, it makes sense that insects can be brought to our plates. But if all goes well, will we still eat insects and their grubs in 30 years?

Insects are a very promoted eco-friendly solution to a someday protein shortage that livestock just can’t fix – and we know we will probably face this shortage any day soon. But will insects be adopted in our daily diet out of our own free will?

In the book On Eating Insects, Mark Bomford, Director of the Yale Sustainable Food Project, and author of the introduction, says eating bugs would be a great option to save world’s natural resources. “Compare beef and crickets, for instance, and you’ll see that per unit of water and feed input, a cricket always brings far more edible protein to the table than beef. If an insect and a cow get into a metrics fight, it doesn’t matter if it’s about saving the planet or going paleo – the insect always triumphs”, he says. “Insects might be the best solution we have to the superlative problem of how to feed the world”, Bomford adds.

 

Even if insects emit far fewer greenhouse gases than livestock and consume way less water, and they have a comparatively tiny ecological footprint, it’s important to remember that a life subsisting on crickets would require three billion cricket lives per single human life, according to Bomford. Billions of crickets would have to be bred in order to prolong human life. Or even other insects, of course.

Two Brazilian scientists from Federal University of Rio Grande have developed a flour made of cockroaches that possesses 40% more protein than the normal wheat flour. Food Chemical Engineering students Andressa Lucas and Lauren Menegon discovered a new way of producing cheaper and nutritious food by using the insects’ flour.

Cockroaches used in their study are not the ones we see running in our houses. They are of the species Cineria, different from the ones we find in sewers or drains. Researchers buy the insects from a specialized breeder, where they are hygienically produced and fed fruits and vegetables. And, as their research shows, the cockroaches could be bred for nutritional goals, just like crickets or any other kind of insect. And probably in very high-tech farms just as the ones seen on Blade Runner opening scene.

But if we don’t face an apocalypse scenario as proposed by the movie (including those great walls to bar the rising level of the oceans), will insects be adopted in our daily diet out of our own will? Will we be able to realize the benefits of these small animals in nourishing us with high amounts of protein?

Some experts say no, since it is very hard to overcome barriers of cultural prejudices that we have regarding food (and the more “disgusting” some insects are to people, the less likely it is to accept them in their eating habits, of course). Others say we will be more and more familiar with the idea, specially kids (who are still developing their taste buds and preferences) and for those who want (or need) high doses of protein because of their daily activities, such as athletes, for example, less concerned about the taste of what they eat and more with the nutrients they ingest. On the other hand, kids, once convinced that eating insects is healthy, tasty, and cool, can be the most effective ambassadors for the industry.

In a study conducted by Teacher Training College in Bilbao, Spain, showed that “children have a deeper concern for following environmental rules than for following social rules”. This could make them able to ignore stigmas — even in the kitchen — that would thwart conservation efforts.

There are even those who argue that, from a new insect breeding pattern that is far more sustainable and ecologically correct than what we have today compared to other animals (such as cattle and chickens), some vegetarians who do not eat animal proteins on account of a model of ill-treatment could start eating animal-based proteins in the future.

There’s no doubt in the fact that invertebrate livestock can provide the protein we might need in the next decades. But it’s hard to know, when we are trying to look further, if insects will go mainstream as some enterpreneuers and food businesess want. It is not only about a well-planned market strategy. In this case, it is also about conquering people’s palate, historically something much more difficult to achieve.

That’s why WWF suggests another alternative yet: feed farm animals on insects, in order to prevent significant amounts of deforestation and water and energy waste.

“We’re a bit squeamish about eating insects” said WWF’s food policy manager Duncan Williamson, “but we can feed them to our animals. We are going to need animal feed for the foreseeable future, but algae and insects are an alternative to the current system”, he adds.

In one way or another, there are many people who expect that insect breeding can increase in the next years. And can finally be even more present in our food chain – if not in our dishes. One thing is sure: the farms for that will be way different from the ones we have today – and much more alike to the ones K visited in the not so distant year of 2049.

 

Rafael Tonon

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Rafael Tonon is a journalist and food writer. He writes about food, drinks and trends in gastronomy. He contributes to many media outlets, such as Eater, Vice, Slate and more. He maintains the trend food blog What the Fork .

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