Would You Like Fries With Your Insect Burger, Ma’am?

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A trip to a supermarket is a rare luxury in a pandemic, but if I were to drive down the aisles with my basket today I would probably take away a healthy pile of fruits and vegetables, some meat and fish, and maybe some cheese. However, my 2031 shopping basket could have some extras, and perhaps surprisingly, some of them are from insects. This is a little closer to the future as EU scientists declare that farmed insect products are safe for humans and animals.

Is meat consumption sustainable at this level? Our world in data, CC BY 3.0.

We humans, like some of our great ape cousins, are omnivores. We can eat anything, even if we don’t want to eat some things twice every time. Therefore, the diet of individual population groups would have changed significantly in the past, depending on the conditions in which they lived, and gave us the opportunity to spread to almost any place in the world – and we have.

Over the past hundred years this need to live only on locally available food has been marginalized by advances in agriculture. For those of us in developed countries, any food we like can be ours for a trivial endeavor. This has led to an explosion in meat consumption as what was once a luxury food item has become affordable to the masses, and in turn, a corresponding agricultural expansion to meet demand that is unbearably stressing ecosystems and adding significantly to global warming . It is very clear that a mass switch to veganism is unlikely. So, could farmed insects be the answer to our meat protein cravings? It’s likely a difficult sell to consumers, but it’s an issue that needs further study.

Your delicious, nutritious and fidgety friend!

Mealworms live on a bran diet. Richard Chambers (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Before a reader imagines getting involved with a creepy crawly animal, it should be noted that the insects in question are likely not winged and legged adults staring at potential guests. Instead, it’s an alternative source of protein. These would almost certainly be larvae, the earlier stage of an insect life cycle, dried and made into other foods. For example, at some point we can eat a hamburger made from insect protein.

The species most frequently cited as a candidate is the mealworm, a beetle larva that is particularly easy to breed and can be fed on readily available by-products of the grain industry such as wheat bran. They are so easy to farm that they can be done at home, but even when scaled up to a commercial size facility, they take up a fraction of the land and water resources required to manage the equivalent volume of animal protein.

Don’t let EU scientists get started

The EU scientists’ research paper presents a detailed analysis of dried mealworm larvae, both whole and ground into powder. To a non-food scientist, how detailed they are on this work is an eye opener, but as a consumer, it’s important to know that the levels of bacteria, toxic heavy metals, or other toxic compounds are kept in check. After an in-depth review of the growing process, they conclude that properly treated mealworm products fed on suitable foods that do not contain such nasties pose no risk when consumed. Of the batches tested, some had 58.9% protein and 27.6% fat, with most of the remaining fiber in the form of chitin. Anecdotes from online research for this piece suggest that they have a pleasant taste that some describe as slightly nutty.

I grew up surrounded by farmland on heavy clay soil that was traditionally dairy land but switched to cultivation in the 1970s and 1980s with the introduction of more efficient tillage techniques. Today it grows acres of grain, but they are by and large not meant for your plate. Instead, huge tracts of land provide the feed for indoor cattle breeding. A large amount of land produces a surprisingly small amount of food. Growing up in a British farming community like me, I loved to eat good quality meat, but I’ve come to the increasing conclusion over the years that farming this way is by no means the most efficient way of producing food from the land , nor is it the most environmentally friendly. I would prefer to eat smaller amounts of higher standard beef than eat daily beef that has been intensively farmed this way. The prospect of cultured insect protein fed on by-products from food crops grown on this land can therefore only be a positive step and I welcome the EU’s move as an early step to make this change. The question is who will be the first to add a bug burger to the shopping cart.