As the human population continues to grow (it is expected to increase by 15% to 9 billion people by 2050) the insecurity about how to feed the planet while trying to preserve it is also growing.
Malnutrition encompasses both the state of over and under consumption of calories. A record low 10.8% of our global population is undernourished, representing 795 million people, the lowest since 1990 when our records began to be more accurate. Still, in 2014, 1 in 4 children under the age of 5 had stunted growth which adds up to 159 million children.
In an effort to finally end hunger and malnutrition worldwide by 2030, the Sustainable Development Goal number 2 was established. Several different strategies are being developed to tackle it, but one thing is certain: more sustainable food production systems need to be implemented accompanied by an increase in public investment in agricultural research. In order for agriculture worldwide to go through a sustainable intensification process, we need to use less water, fertilizer, and pesticides.
As the global population has increased, our food habits have changed, mainly in the Western World. In the last half of the XX century, our consumption pattern of meat went from a luxury to special occasions, to a fundamental to our diet. This has almost doubled our consumption, with our global demand for meat expected to increase by 73% in 2050. This estimate will represent an extra 160 million tons of meat consumed per year. Not only is this an unhealthy option, but it is also not an eco-friendly one, either. Livestock production is responsible for 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions and takes up 30% of all land surface. On top of this, for every 1 kg of beef, an estimated 15.415 liters of water and 10 kg of plants are needed.
Given all of the above, governments and researchers agree that new dietary options are required. Over 2 billion people eat close to 2000 different species of insects on a daily basis (entomophagy). Insects are a complete source of nutrients for humans: high in fat, protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. For example, a mealworm’s content of unsaturated omega-3 and fatty acids is comparable to a fish’s, which is higher than in pigs and cattle. They are also much more eco-friendly, with greenhouse gas emissions 100 times lower compared to cattle and all while playing a significant role in ecosystems. Those environmental services crucial to humans include waste bioconversion, pollination, and control over harmful pest species, among others.
Recently, discussion about mass production systems of insects for nutritional ends has begun in many countries. Traditionally insects were gathered from their natural habitats, but given the necessity for new food sources, innovations in mass-rearing systems and new harvesting techniques have started. Some countries, such as Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Thailand, and Vietnam have begun cricket farming: crickets are reared in people’s backyard without the need for expensive materials. Some countries, including Japan, China and the United States of America are exploring the potential of insects, such as silkworms, being used as protein sources in space flights.
In the majority of Western countries, people still view eating insects as a primitive and disgusting habit, associated with famine scenarios. However, many people around the world eat insects as a choice given their nutritional value, palatability and cultural place. According to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, edible insects will be “fundamental to the survival of humankind”.
Can you guess which insects humans worldwide eat more?
- Beetles (31%);
- Caterpillars (18%);
- Bees, wasps, and ants (14%);
- Grasshoppers, locusts, and crickets (13%).
Check www.feedipedia.org, an online encyclopedia of animal feeds, for a nutritious evaluation.
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, www.fao.org/edible-insects;
HUIS, Arnold Van, Edible Insects: future prospects for food and feed security, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome, 2003;
GOULD, Julie, “Nutrition: A world of insecurity”, Nature volume 544, 27th April 2017;
HEFFERNAN, Olive, “Sustainability: A meaty issue”, Nature volume 544, 27th April 2017;
HODSON, Richard, “Food Security”, Nature volume 544, 27th April 2017;
|Margarida Paixão is a medical doctor, currently working as a Public Health resident in Portugal. She attended NOVA Medical School in Lisboa and besides her medicaI work, she has an interest in Human Rights.|