A few years ago I worked with some colleagues to write a paper about the potential for entomophagy to address undernutrition. We titled it, fittingly enough, “The potential for entomophagy to address undernutrition,” and it was published in the Ecology of Food and Nutrition journal. Entomophagy is the fancy word for insect eating.
My brother and I had been doing research on entomophagy and I came across a paper in which somebody surmised that we could feed all of the world’s hungry people using insects produced in just a few buildings. I did some calculations of my own and brought this up in a phone conversation with Dr. Florence Dunkel, one of the world’s preeminent entomophagists. She was intrigued, and enlisted my brother and me and another professor, Dr. Frank Franklin, to collaborate on a paper based on our calculations of how much land it would take to grow enough insects to meet the food deficit of all of the world’s undernourished people.
While not quite as optimistic as those first estimates I had read, our calculations indicate that insects could represent a radically more efficient source of calories, protein, and other nutrients, as compared with conventional Western livestock.
Here’s a brief summary of our findings:
- There are almost 800 million undernourished people in the world (undernutrition is “the result of prolonged low levels of food intake and/or low absorption of food consumed.”)
- As of 2014, the average food deficit is 84 calories per person per day. Food deficit describes “how many calories would be needed to lift the undernourished from their status.” Some areas, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, experience much higher average food deficits.
- Increasing population and food consumption patterns, coupled with pressures from climate change and overutilized resources, may cause more food shortages.
- Humans knowingly and willingly eat over 1900 species of insects worldwide.
- More than 2 billion people eat insects on a regular basis, in spite of centuries of Western pressure against it.
- Many insects have similar nutrient profiles to conventional Western livestock meat and products.
- Yet farming insects uses far fewer resources, less energy, less water, less land, creates less waste, and reduces global warming potential, as compared with conventional livestock.
- Many insects can utilize organic side streams for feed. Organic side streams are biowaste from agriculture, forestry, and household processes. Insects also have huge potential as recyclers of organic side streams, in turn becoming feed for conventional livestock (see Mad Agriculture for more information).
- On less than 50,000 acres, one could raise enough mealworms (in a light industrial operation utilizing organic side streams for feed) to erase the world’s food deficit. That’s about 0.0004% of the world’s 12 billion or so acres devoted to agriculture.
- On less than 250,000 acres, one could raise enough crickets (in a small farming operation utilizing organic side streams for feed) to erase the world’s food deficit.
Our calculations were meant to illustrate the enormous potential for entomophagy to help reduce hunger while reducing pressure on our resources, but, clearly, increased entomophagy represents only one component in a complex approach to combating hunger (including reduced poverty, better education, better food distribution, less wasted food, better agricultural yields, and less environmental degradation).
Just for fun, though, how much land would it take if we derived all of our calories from mealworms? There are about 7.5 billion people in 2017. If we should eat an average of about 2000 calories per day (2400 for men, 2000 for women, less for children), that’s a mere 15 trillion calories a day. Since one could theoretically grow about 10.7 million calories of mealworms per acre per day (not including the feed for the mealworms), it would take about 14 million acres to feed the entire world all-mealworms, all the time (that’s less than one-thousandth the agricultural land we have in production today).
“What’s for breakfast, dad?” “Mealworms!” “Again? We always have mealworms….” “Yes, that’s all we eat.”
Getting back to the present situation, I’ll draw your attention to the first bullet point above. There are 800 million undernourished people in the world today. Let that sink in for a second. While that number has fallen fairly significantly over the past few decades (from close to a billion in 1990), that’s about one in nine people in the world that are going hungry. Most of us are so far removed from this tragedy that it can be hard to connect to the very real suffering. This recent New York Times video by Nicholas Kristof helped make that connection again for me – we are living in a world where we let children die in a dystopian climate change-induced landscape. These kinds of stories will become more common if we don’t work on solutions.*
One part of the solution, as detailed in the 2013 UN Food and Agriculture Organization report Edible insects: Future prospects for food and feed security, is entomophagy. This report came out before our paper, and did not include detailed calculations about the land and other resources needed for farming insects, but it establishes entomophagy as a very real component of the FAO’s approach to combating hunger.
Wageningen University in the Netherlands is where the rock stars of entomophagy research reside. There is some skepticism there that insect calorie production will be as efficient as our calculations indicate. But, on the one hand, even if our numbers were off by a factor of ten (or a hundred), insect farming is still far more efficient than farming conventional livestock. On the other hand, I believe that our numbers could be too conservative, if anything. Consider that insect farming is currently very primitive relative to much conventional agriculture. As insect farming technologies improve, I believe we will see leaps and bounds in its efficiency, which could far surpass what we suggest is possible in our paper.
Of course there are a lot of unknowns, but that’s where organizations like MightI and Aspire come in. MightI is a nonprofit working with local communities in Sub-Saharan Africa to study the feasibility of implementing insect farming there. They are also doing research into how different feeds affect insect nutrient profiles, as well as the health impacts of insect consumption. Aspire is a for-profit that is using higher tech farming to create cricket flour in the U.S., and is also working with local communities in Africa to farm insects.
In the U.S., meat-eating is one of the largest contributors to climate change. Entomophagy represents one way to curb the amount of conventional meat we eat. Culturally, most Americans are averse to eating insects, but are generally open to new culinary experiences (witness the explosion in sushi eating over the past few decades). And flours made from some insects can provide a protein boost in things like soups, shakes, baked goods, protein bars, etc. that, if anything, adds to the flavor. I could envision a time when we add a little mealworm or cricket powder to almost everything we eat, allowing us to cut back significantly on more expensive and wasteful (and some would say unethical**) proteins.
Where do we go from here? My plan is to keep evangelizing entomophagy. Practicing a little of what I preach, I’ve been growing mealworms in the basement now for over a year. My next move will be to see if I can grow enough to meet my protein needs for a week. I’ll also do some experimenting with organic side streams (mostly our erstwhile compost) as feed, to see if I can get decent mealworm growth with nary an ounce of high-grade feed. In agriculture, I see a lot of potential in indoor vertical farming, especially with advances in solar power, LED lighting, lithium battery, and other technologies); entomophagy fits right in with this (imagine taking old abandoned warehouses in places like Detroit and Baltimore and turning them into beautiful farms).
Want to grow your own mealworms (GYOM)? Or start your own insect factory? Or maybe travel to developing countries to see how you can help with entomophagy projects there? If you’re interested in getting involved in entomophagy in any capacity, check out the great resources below.
Warning: A lot of insects are great to eat, but don’t just go out grabbing insects willy nilly and eating them. Some insects are poisonous. Some insects carry pathogens. And some insects may contain pesticides.
Organizations Working With Entomophagy in Developing Countries:
- MightI: “Aims to use robust, multidisciplinary research to investigate ways edible insects can contribute to sustainable food security and improved health and well-being globally. Our vision is to generate applied research on edible insects that has the potential to improve lives and protect our precious environmental resources.”
- Flying Food Project: “Aims at rearing and eating crickets as a delicious, affordable and healthy solution for malnutrition.”
- Aspire: “To celebrate, innovate, and advance responsible farming and healthy eating of insects. We will continue to research and invest in sustainable insect farming practices to bring this protein alternative to market.”
A Small Sampling of Companies Raising Insects or Selling Insect Products in the United States and Canada:
- Aspire: “We raise food-grade crickets on a commercial scale, and are actively working to normalize the consumption of insects in the western world.”
- Tiny Farms: “To enable adoption of insects as a source of sustainable alternative protein, Tiny Farms Inc. applies designs thinking, IoT, and automation to build smart, easily scalable farming systems.”
- Mad Agriculture: “We harness the nutrient recycling abilities of insects to turn food waste into a protein rich feed supplement so we can be less dependent on unsustainable ingredients like fishmeal and soy.”
- C-fu Foods: “A new approach to protein that comes from a more sustainable source, insects. Through our innovative process we’ve created a healthy meat replacement that helps you create culinary staples like burgers, schnitzel, or nuggets.
DIY Insect Farming:
- A series of videos detailing how to start a mealworm farm
- Third Millennium Farming: Small-scale cricket farms
- Open Bug Farm: From the Tiny Farms folks, open source instructions for building mealworm farms
- Livin Farms: Countertop mealworm farms. Looks sleek and high tech, but fairly spendy at $649. Harvest over a pound of mealworms a week.
Articles, Books, and Videos on Entomophagy:
- Edible insects: Future prospects for food and feed security: UN Food and Agriculture Organization report on entomophagy.
- Edible: An Adventure into the World of Eating Insects and the Last Great Hope to Save the Planet by Daniella Martin
- “Insect Farming in Developing Countries” by Ana C. Day on the 4Ento blog
- “Eating insects has long made sense in Africa. The world must catch up.” by Saliou Niassy and Sunday Ekesi
- “To Save the World, Eat Bugs” by Cayte Bosler, The Atlantic
- Wired video about entomophagy
- “You Won’t Believe this Shocking New Nutrition Trend” by Clint Carter in Men’s Health
*I’m hopeful that, just as with the Millennium Development Goals, we can work together to achieve the even more ambitious Sustainable Development Goals, which call for ending hunger and extreme poverty by 2030.
**We know pigs and cows and chickens experience consciousness and pain and suffering. Do insects feel? Here’s an interesting disquisition on that. Insects may have a form of consciousness, but probably do not feel pain as we define it.