Sustainable America Blog

Will Insects Save Our Food Supply?

Ever heard of entomophagy? It’s the fancy, scientific word for eating insects, and some people believe it could be the wave of the future.

Many cultures around the world have happily eaten insects for a long time, and today the practice is getting more attention as insects can provide a sustainable and readily available source of protein. For Americans, the biggest issue is culturally bred squeamishness around the prospect of eating any sort of bug. We typically bomb, spray, squash, or in any other number of ways try to irradicate all insects from our lives, especially our dinner plates. (“Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup!”)

But consider this fact: The population of the world is increasing by approximately 75 million people per year, and that growth accelerates exponentially. According to the United Nations Panel on Global Sustainability, we will need 50% more food and 30% more water to feed our growing populations by 2030. Producing animal protein requires a lot of vegetable-based feed, access to land, and huge amounts of water. And the rearing of livestock in industrial farming situations is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than all of our cars, planes, and trains combined. With more and more people around the world expecting meat as part of their daily diet, we are facing a mounting crisis of food availability.

Enter insects, stage left. Insects are the most abundant consumable life form on the planet, and that is just based on what occurs naturally in the environment without any human husbandry. In addition, many insect are incredibly nutritious. Some insects contain up to 91% protein and are high in important micronutrients like iron, calcium, B vitamins, beta-carotene, and vitamin E.

We in the West tend to associate insects with filth and decay, but in fact most insects are not dirty or dangerous. An 1885 manifesto by Victor M. Holt entitled “Why Not Eat Insects?” long ago aimed to dispel these deeply held irrational fears without success.

With the reality of feeding the billions becoming more prescient, there has been a recent resurgence of attention to eating insects. Earlier this year, noted naturalist and bug-chef David George Gordon published an updated version of The Eat a Bug Cookbook. In it he offers tips for harvesting or raising your own edible insects and fun, unusual recipes like Deep-Fried Tarantula and White Chocolate and Wax Worm Cookies. At the Future Food Salon held in New York City last month, guests sipped wine, socialized, and sampled several interesting gourmet recipes made with insects, including cricket flour, as ingredients. The Chocolate Chip Cricket Cookies were a hit. A Brooklyn-based start-up called Exo just raised over $50,000 on Kickstarter to produce protein bars made from cricket flour.

All of this has many people asking, what may we be missing? If 80% of the world already eats insects, could we change the way we think about this potentially revolutionary source of protein? Sustainable America has a goal to increase food availability by 50% by 2035 in America. We support small local farms, more efficiency in industrial farming methods, urban farms and composting to reduce food waste as important ways to achieve our goal. Eating insects is an intriguing possibility with legitimate potential to help increase food security, but for now we’re still working on getting over the ick factor…

For a comprehensive look at the current and potential future role of insects as food around the world, check out the report Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations this year.

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By the Numbers

Currently 50 million households suffer from food insecurity, meaning that family members cannot always meet their basic food needs.

10 million people a year could be fed through the recovery of just one-fifth of food waste.

Only 2% of food waste is composted or otherwise recycled—62% of paper is recycled.

Consumers throw out about 40% of the fresh and frozen fish they buy.

The U.S. produced 208 pounds of meat per person in 2009—60% more than Europe.

Low income commuters spend a much higher proportion of their wages on gas—8.6% versus 2.1% at $4 per gallon.

Food prices rose 35-40 percentage points between 2002–2008.

Americans consume 25% of the world’s produced oil, but our nation holds less than 3% of the world’s proven oil reserves.

The International Energy Agency says greenhouse gas emissions rose 3.2% last year, with a 9.3% increase in China offsetting declines in the US and EU.

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