Fried Worms and Other Delicacies: Why Eating Insects is the Future of Sustainable Food

Eating insects is one way to fight poverty and pollution in a growing world.

In most Western countries, the practice of eating bugs has been firmly relegated to stunts on reality television shows like Fear Factor. However, according to a report released last May by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, looking at bugs as a viable source of protein could ease the burden that raising livestock places on the environment.

The world’s population is projected to reach 9 billion in 2050. Beef production is expected to increase dramatically in response to the growing population, but the UN Food and Agriculture Organization predicts that there will be a lack of arable land for farming to meet this demand. Their report promotes insect farms as a less resource-intensive alternative that emits fewer greenhouse gases and uses less pesticides than traditional farms. Insects require less land and convert food into protein more efficiently than livestock, providing more product with less waste. Furthermore, insect farming can provide new sources of employment in developing countries where many of the world’s more than 1,900 edible insect species live.

Entomologists Marcel Dicke and Arnold van Huis advocate using insects as a food source, promoting stacked-cage insect farming as a more humane and cost effective substitute for the stressful high-density farm housing that cows, pigs, and chickens endure today. They also dispute insects’ reputation of “being dirty and carrying diseases,” saying that insects raised under hygienic conditions are completely safe to eat and, with a greater genetic difference from humans than livestock, are far less likely to breed new strains of diseases like swine flu.

Two billion people in today’s world practice entomophagy, or the consumption of insects as food, as a sustainable solution for a growing population’s need for protein. Insects provide other nutritional benefits as well, such as fiber, healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals. In fact, many insects provide equal or more nutrients than other food sources. Insect-based foods such as cricket flour tortillas provide a more accessible way for people in developing countries to receive iron and protein.

Some restaurants and shops in California, New York, and Utah offer insect treats and meals, but for the most part, the stigma against insect consumption holds fast in the Western world. Although insect cuisine remains on the outskirts of mainstream diets, the UN report expresses hope that “the high nutritional value of insects and their low environmental impact, low-risk nature (from a disease standpoint) and palatability may contribute to a shift in perception.” As our population grows and the need for alternative sources of protein becomes more evident, we may all have to dust off our copies of “How to Eat Fried Worms” and start looking for recipes.

Photo by Jay Cross, licensed under Creative Commons.

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