Why You May Soon Be Eating More Insects

The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization wants to be clear about its report today. "We are not saying that people should be eating bugs." Just that global changes may necessitate it.

This article is from the archive of our partner .

The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization wants to be clear about its new report released today.

“We are not saying that people should be eating bugs,” said Eva Muller, Director of FAO’s Forest Economic Policy and Products Division, which co-authored “Edible insects: Future prospects for food and feed security”.

“We are saying that insects are just one resource provided by forests, and insects are pretty much untapped for their potential for food, and especially for feed,” Muller explained.

That subtlety is understandably being downplayed given the rest of the findings. Also, that the cover of the report features insects embedded in chocolate and as part of a plate of hors d'ouevres.

The FAO's goal is food security: making proposals aimed at improving global nutrition and eliminating hunger. It's a task that's poised to become far trickier over the upcoming decades, as climate change shifts growing seasons and grazing areas, and overfishing reduces the amount of seafood available. Feeding a global population of 10 billion by the end of the century as our existing food systems deteriorate, will force humans to explore more exotic food solutions.

We can probably take your skepticism for granted. As indicated above, the FAO expects that people will not exactly embrace the idea. The report therefore walks through a variety of arguments for using insects in the food chain.

There are a lot of insects. It's impossible to know how many insects there are in total around the world, but there are almost certainly trillions of trillions. Not all are accessible or edible, but insects comprise a huge percentage of the amount of biomass on Earth. The FAO report focuses on the use of forests for food and agricultural systems, and notes that forests are, in essence, vast ranges of protein-rich meals. Once you get past the exoskeleton.

People already eat them, of course. The FAO estimates that 2 billion humans currently incorporate insects into their diets. The most commonly consumed insects, in order: beetles, caterpillars, bees, wasps, ants, grasshoppers, locusts and crickets, and then cicadas. In Western cultures, the FAO notes, "people view [eating insects] with disgust and associate eating insects with primitive behaviour." Which may explain your reaction to the preceding list.

Insects are healthy. Imagine if instead of "insects" and "mealworms," the following paragraph just said "certain foods."

Insects are a highly nutritious and healthy food source with high fat, protein, vitamin, fibre and mineral content. … For example, the composition of unsaturated omega-3 and six fatty acids in mealworms is comparable with that in fish (and higher than in cattle and pigs), and the protein, vitamin and mineral content of mealworms is similar to that in fish and meat

That food would sound pretty good, right? Setting aside the legs.

It takes less feed to produce the same amount of insect protein. As resources become more scarce or expensive, feed for animals will increasingly be at a premium. In the United States, one kilogram of beef uses seven kilograms of feed — which is plant material that could be used to feed people. Or, for that matter, insects. Seven kilograms of feed yields 3.5 kilograms of insect protein. Insects use a lot less land than livestock, the UN notes. And, "insects are reported to emit fewer greenhouse gases and less ammonia than cattle or pigs." They don't fart, burp, or urinate as much.

Animals can eat insects. Insects don't only have to be human food. They can also be incorporated into the feeding systems for livestock, potentially reducing the amount of plant material consumed by heavier animals. Livestock already eat fishmeal, for example — insects are far more plentiful than fish.

A side note: some animals are already primarily fed on insects. Namely, pet lizards and zoo animals.

Insects are easy to farm. As the FAO notes, humans have been farming insects for millenia: bees and silkworms. Insects are small and resilient. In Southeast Asia, there already exist insect farms; large-scale industrial experiments are underway.

One of the primary benefits of consuming insects is where insects already exist. As the map above indicates, the tropical region is home to far more species of edible insects — the same region that's likely to be most strongly affected by the changes from global warming.

Which is the best argument that the FAO has in its pocket. "We are not saying that people should be eating bugs." Just that they almost certainly will be, out of need. Hunger almost always trumps disgust.

Photo: A girl in Pittsburgh tries an unorthodox Thanksgiving dish in 2011. (AP)

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.