By the year 2050, the planet will be packed with 9 billion people. In low- and middle-income countries, the demand for animal products is rising sharply as economies and incomes grow; in the next few decades, we’ll need to figure out how to produce enough protein for billions more mouths.
Entomophagy — eating insects — could be an elegant solution.
Insects are chock-full of protein and rich in essential micronutrients, such as iron and zinc. They don’t need as much space as livestock, emit lower levels of greenhouse gases, and have a sky-high feed conversion rate: a single kilogram of feed yields 12 times more edible cricket protein than beef protein.
Some species of insects are drought resistant and may require less water than cows, pigs or poultry. Here, a man is eating a fried water bug in Thailand.
At least 2 billion people worldwide eat insects, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.
Yellow jacket wasp larvae are popular in Japan, cicadas (pictured) are treasured in Malawi, and weaver ants are devoured in Thailand. Termites, a food favorite in many African nations, can be fried, smoked, steamed, sun-dried or ground into a powder.
The list of edible insect species is at 1,900 and growing.
In the 1980s, Paul Rozin conducted a study in which he invited volunteers to try two different kinds of juice and rate them on a 200-point scale. Then, he briefly submerged a dried, sterilized cockroach in one of the glasses of juice and a birthday candle holder in the other.
The participants were asked to evaluate each juice again; their ratings of the ‘cockroached’ juice plummeted, by 102 points on average. The candleholder, by contrast, produced a ratings drop of a measly three points.
Still, bugs are making their way into meals. A Belgian outfit called Green Kow (pictured) makes carrot-mealworm, tomato-mealworm and chocolate-mealworm spreads.
Ento, based in the UK, sells mealworm and cricket pâtés at food festivals and last year created a pop-up restaurant devoted to insect cuisine. In the USA, Chapul and Exo sell protein bars chock-full of cricket flour, while New Generation Nutrition, in the Netherlands, has experimented with a falafel-like chickpea and buffalo worm patty.
To combat this problem, the EU instituted a series of new policies, including a ban on feeding ‘processed animal proteins’ to farmed animals. There are some exceptions for fishmeal and fish feed, but as the law currently stands, insect meal is a non-starter.
Another problem for would-be insect farmers is a law that forbids ‘farmed animals’ — a category that includes insects raised for food and feed — from being reared on certain kinds of waste, including manure.
Over the past year, its chefs have been to five continents and discovered an astonishing world of insect flavor. In Australia, they savored the sweet-and-sour tang of honey ants and sampled scale insect larvae, which taste like fresh mushrooms and pop softly in the mouth.
In Uganda, they feasted on queen termites (pictured), which are fatty — like little sausages — with the texture of sweetbreads, the fragrance of foie gras and a delicate sweetness.
In Mexico, they enjoyed escamoles, desert ant eggs with a creamy mouthfeel and the aroma of blue cheese.
The edible insect industry is still in its infancy, and it’s too soon to tell how it will develop or whether it will succeed. Will we accept insect flour in our snack foods? Can we be persuaded to make waxworm tacos in our own kitchens? Will crickets become a grocery store staple? And will any of this add up to real change?
Many other innovations are also being hailed as the future of food, from fake chicken to 3-D printing and from algae to lab-grown meat. Whether any of them, including insects, will turn out to make a real contribution to food security and sustainability remains an open question.
[This gallery is adapted from a story that appeared on Mosaic. It has been edited to fit this format.]