Are insects really going to become the next big protein source to feed the world?
We know that the climate is changing and that ⅓ of the world’s food gets wasted. We also know that the amount of uncultivated arable land is rapidly decreasing, while the global demand for food is going to keep increasing. So, this means we need to find new ways of producing food which use resources more efficiently and can improve people’s access to quality nutrition. Many of our old ways of farming are becoming obsolete, farmers are facing increasing economic and climatic challenges which are forcing many off the land. Our ability to respond to these challenges is what will be the cornerstone of human prosperity over the next 100 years.
Among the broad array of innovative solutions which are being promoted, one has recently come to the fore. This is the opportunity of producing insects to substitute animal protein in human diets, and a soya and fishmeal in animal feed. But bugs - sies - those are nasty aren’t they?
Well, my first response when I heard about people eating bugs was exactly this. But then I started to get curious, and do a little research. I mean why would people willingly eat bugs, is it because they are really poor and can’t afford real meat? Or is there something else which I’m missing?
The reality is that over 2 billion people already eat insects as part of their regular diets. That means that nearly a third of all people eat insects regularly, and willingly. That's not the case in South Africa though. Other than Mopani worms, which are regarded as a delicacy by some, the idea of eating insects is completely foreign to many South Africans. I mean, why would I want to eat a deep fried cricket?
Well, do you eat prawns? Or crab? Or what about shrimp? These are often regarded as luxury foods, reserved for those who can afford to pay the high prices these ocean critters demand. But if you think about it, what is really that different between a prawn and a cricket? Yes, one lives in the ocean and the other lives on land, but when it comes down to it, the similarities have to be appreciated.
It has been estimated that the demand for protein will increase by over 60% by 2030. This is fuelled by a growing middle class and their demand for higher level consumer goods. Not only is protein needed in the form of meat, milk and eggs - the basic animal proteins, but also in the form of soya and other plant based protein. While some of this demand is for human consumption, the majority of the increase in demand for plant based proteins is for the 1b ton/$450b animal feed industry i.e. feeding animals protein to make more protein.
Global fish stocks are under severe strain. The price of fish meal has skyrocketed, increasing fivefold over the last 20 years. This has forced feed producers to turn to soya and other plant based proteins to make up the almost 20% requirement needed for conventional animal feed. However, the supply of soya is not only finite, but also environmentally destructive, often resulting in the conversion of rainforests or wetlands into monocropped deserts. With China expected to continue buying up most of the world's soya (to feed their massive poultry and pork industries), the need for viable alternatives has become imperative.
This is where insect production has made its recent appearance on the global stage.
AgriProtein, a South African based insect production company, recently became the world's largest producer of fly maggots for use in animal feed. The maggots are fed on a diet of organic waste, including blood and other offal from abattoirs, and are processed into a dried meal which substitutes fish and soya meal in feed for the aquaculture and poultry sectors. The beauty about this system is its ability to recycle otherwise wasted nutrients, taking food waste and turning it into a high value input for the agricultural sector. The result is a more closed loop approach to agricultural resource management. They are not the only company building capacity in insect production. A number of other American, European and Asian firms are also entering the market, producing crickets, silkworms, mealworms, locusts and roaches (among others). The scene is being laid for one of the world's newest agricultural sectors.
It’s not surprising that there is this interest in producing insects. Not only is the consumer demand for insects in places like South East Asia and parts of Africa already massive, where bugs are viewed as delicacies ranking right up there with meat, but their production is much more resource efficient than livestock. Comparatively, producing 1 kg of insect protein requires 10x less feed, 100x less GHGs, 100x less time and 2500x less water to produce 2x more protein content than the equivalent 1kg of beef (Proti-Farm, 2017). The numbers speak for themselves…
Considering that food production is responsible for 80% of all the world's deforestation, 70% of the world's consumption of freshwater and 18% of GHG emissions, it becomes easy to see why we are in desperate need of new methods of production that use fewer resources and are less damaging to the environment. While insect production is unlikely to be the silver bullet that solves all these problems, it is part of a larger basket that puts us on the road towards true sustainability. But mindsets need to change. The Westernised idea that bugs are gross (this is a predominantly western idea, judging by insect consumption habits in the rest of the world) is something that will have to be challenged and changed. South Africa has fallen deep into Western patterns of consumption, with our distaste for bugs being no exception. The question is, will we do something to actively become part of the solution, or will we continue to blindly follow the problematic course we are currently on?
All I know is next time I get the chance, I’m going to choose Kentucky fried crickets over Kentucky fried chicken.
PROTI-FARM. (2017). Why Insects? [Online]. Available: http://protifarm.com/insects/