Almost a third of the world’s population eats insects. In the Western culture, however, the sight of insects still leads to emotional reactions somewhere between disgust and restrained curiosity. But due to the megatrends of sustainability and health, we are now finding more and more entrepreneurs, caterers and consumers who are opening up to beetles, crickets and worms.
Still taboo in Europe, quite normal in the rest of the world
80 percent of the world’s countries have insects on their plates. According to the Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, these are more than 140 countries with a total population of around two billion people who regularly eat insects. Crickets, locusts and worms are a culinary constant, especially in Asia, Africa and South America (and especially in China, Thailand and Mexico). But in our western culture we still look at insects with a large portion of skepticism to disgust. So far the social mainstream prefers to limit itself to chicken, pork and beef.
But not only since this week we know that our meat consumption is still way too high, with negative implications for both the environment and our health. The issue of sustainable nutrition is becoming increasingly urgent as the world population grows and climate change progresses. Just this week in Geneva, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a new special report that says global warming is progressing faster than expected – with with grave consequences for agriculture. Rising temperatures, changing precipitation and more frequent weather extremes are already threatening global food security today.
“Agriculture, forestry and other forms of land use are responsible for 23 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions”
Researchers see meat consumption as a key factor in curbing man-made climate change and guaranteeing sustainable development in the future. Not without reason: agriculture, forestry and other forms of land use are responsible for 23 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. And as much as 80 percent of agricultural land is used for animal production. It quickly becomes clear that our current meat consumption is not in line with the sustainability challenges we are facing.
Insects and their potential for more sustainable nutrition
For years the FAO has been talking about the potential of insects and approximately 2,100 edible species for global food security. They are not only much more sustainable when it comes to production and their ecological footprint, but also their consumption is seen to be much more beneficial for human health.
And indeed, the environmental balance sheet is impressive. Insects produce significantly less greenhouse gases than cattle and pigs and require only a tenth as much land. Whereas one kilogram of beef requires about 15,000 liters of water for production, one kilogram of insects requires an average of only 15 liters. In addition, insects are much more efficient due to their alternating heat, i.e. they do not have to produce any energy to warm the body and produce twelve times as much food per kilogram of feed as beef. And finally, if one considers that almost in every case the entire insect can be eaten (e.g. in crickets it is “only” 80 percent due to the legs), but only about 40 percent of a cow, the higher efficiency becomes clear once again.
Insects and their nutritional and physiological added value
The environmental benefits are complemented by a comparatively excellent nutritional profile: Insects are rich in proteins and at the same time almost free of fats and carbohydrates. Although the contents may vary with regard to species, feeding and life cycle (egg, larva, pupa), protein contents of 45 to 61 percent are not uncommon with regard to dry matter. For example, grasshoppers fed with wheat bran have twice the protein content of other species fed with maize.
Only recently, a study was published in the journal “Frontiers in Nutrition” according to which insects can even protect against cancer, as crickets, grasshoppers and caterpillars have larger amounts of valuable vitamins and minerals with an antioxidant effect than, for example, orange juice. Insects also contain a similar amount of omega-3 fatty acids to fish. Finally, they are an important source of trace elements such as iron and zinc (e.g. many insects contain twice as much iron as beef).
“Not only ecologically, but also nutritionally, there is a lot to be said for insects.”
Even if insects have to be evaluated differently, they are undoubtedly a brilliant alternative to meat. Not only ecologically, but also nutritionally, there is a lot to be said for insects. And also with regard to the welfare of the animals, one seems to be better off here compared to traditional livestock farming. Yet little is known about whether and how sensitive insects are to pain. But the usual killing by freezing comes very close to the “natural fate” of cold-blooded insects, which fall into “hibernation” at low temperatures.
Our diet already knew insects
Now these fundamental assessments are playing two-fold into the cards of social change and with that megatrends such as sustainability and health. But how can it be that insects are still such a big taboo topic in Western cultures? This is particularly surprising, as insects have been on the menu in our latitudes before. The Romans and Greeks already ate locusts and other crawling animals. And in the German federal states of Hesse and Thuringia, as well as France and Luxembourg the cockchafer soup was a seasonally popular food until the 20th century.
These old traditions do not seem to be remembered in the present. The sight of insects is accompanied by a real neophobia, meaning that we are afraid of what is new on our plates. This reaction mechanism is usually only known from children and usually disappears completely during adolescence. Psychologically, this could be explained by the fact that we don’t like to eat what we normally only know from buzzing around the garbage or from living in unkempt corners of the apartment.
“What the farmer does not know, he does not eat”, says an old German proverb and refers to people who are not really open to new things and who prefer the familiar. But if one had asked the German population in the 1970s whether they would have liked to eat sushi, i.e. raw fish, the majority would probably have declined rather gratefully. And even the lobster was nicknamed “cockroach of the seas” 150 years ago because it was a real nuisance. Today, both dishes are usually served under the umbrealla fine dining.
“If one would have asked the German population in the 1970s whether they would have liked to eat sushi, the majority would probably have declined rather gratefully.”
Ento Food as a growing trend
The many “entopreneurs” (of entomophagy, i.e. the consumption of insects) that are trying to make insect food acceptable again in the western industrial nations know that our food culture can change so blatantly. At present, insects in Europe only are able to make it onto the menu of gourmets as avant-garde dinners.
However, the community of “insectivores” (i.e. insect eaters) is growing steadily, which is why there are more and more respective offers. Whether Bugfoundation, which created an insect burger based on the larvae of the buffalo worm; isaac nutrition, which aims to revolutionize the sports food market with an insect protein powder; or Livin Farms, whose insect farm recycles food waste within the local four walls.
It may still be a pronounced niche. But forecasts by some market research institutes already estimate the sector’s turnover for 2023 at over 1 billion US dollars, and by 2030 it should even be 8 billion. Global corporations such as Nestlé and Cargill are keeping an eye on the growing market, and large foundations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have already provided funding for pioneering companies. No wonder now also large retail chains such as Lidl are jumping on the bandwagon and bringing deep-fried insects into selected stores as snacks.
Whether insects will become a widespread food, as in other parts of the world, is difficult to assess at present. Because still nobody knows whether the mass breeding of insects brings with it similar problems as the conventional cattle breeding. However, it is clear that our food system needs to change against the backdrop of global challenges such as climate change and malnutrition. And crickets, locusts and worms have a lot to offer here.
- Food & Agriculture Organization (2013): Edible Insects. Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security.
- Heinrich Böll Stiftung (2018): Insekten – alte und neue Nützlinge.