Are insects the food of the future?

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories.

What’s happening

Termite tacos? Cockroach casserole? Cricket cacciatore? The thought of these meals may invoke nausea, but the concept of bugs as a staple of the average person’s diet is growing in popularity. 

Humans need protein in their diets to survive. For much of the world’s population, that means eating meat. Cows, pigs and chickens are great sources of protein, but raising them requires a lot of resources and has a major environmental impact. Experts say current livestock practices simply won’t be able to keep up with the food demands of the world’s ballooning population — expected to rise to 10 billion people by 2050. Livestock farming also contributes to deforestation, uses significant amounts of water and is a major source of greenhouse gases.

For these reasons, there have been a number of attempts to find alternative protein sources that can meet the world’s nutritional needs without harming the planet. These include plant-based proteins, lab-grown meat and insects. In 2013, a United Nations report argued that large-scale insect farming may be the most effective way to ensure global food security. In recent years, a number of companies have been launched with the goal of making that vision a reality. 

Why there’s debate

Insects have a lot of advantages as a food source. First off, they’re nutritious. They are a great source of protein and other nutrients. Insect farming could also be drastically more efficient than raising livestock. Raising bugs requires a fraction of the space, water, food and energy that pigs or cows do. 

Advocates argue that the aversion to consuming bugs is largely cultural, since about 2 billion people worldwide eat them regularly. Offering insects in more appealing forms, such as bars or powders, could be a way to overcome the "ick factor." 

Despite these positives, there’s a healthy amount of skepticism that people in Western countries will ever get used to eating insects on a regular basis. There are also practical concerns about whether it is realistic to farm insects at a scale large enough to meet global demand. Some even worry that insect production could end up being as environmentally harmful as current agricultural practices. Others say eating insects may prove unnecessary if the promise of alternatives like lab-grown meat is realized. 

What’s next

Though some insect-based foods are currently available, the ability to produce them at a level that would allow them to become a substantial part of the Western diet is still a long way off. The government will also have to decide how it would regulate insect farming and establish public health standards like it has done with other foods.

Perspectives

Supporters

Insects are nutritious

“On a morning in the not-too-distant future, you might toast bread made with cricket flour, drink a protein smoothie made from locust powder, and eat scrambled eggs (made extra creamy with the fat from mopane caterpillars) with a side of mealworm bacon.That meal will give you four times the iron, more than three times the protein and more key vitamins and minerals than the bread, smoothie, eggs and bacon you eat today.” — Sandee LaMotte, CNN

Current meat production methods are unsustainable 

“By 2050 there will be an estimated 10 billion humans living on this planet. … We simply don't have the capability, the land or the production resources to ensure that many people can eat a cheeseburger whenever the mood strikes.” — Andrew Tarantola, Engadget

If people in other nations eat insects, we can learn to do it, too

“The Western aversion to eating bugs is cultural. Many people in the world have been eating insects for millennia.” — Diana Nelson Jones, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

White settlers imposed their aversion to eating insects on the places they colonized

“European explorers may, in fact, be responsible for the disgust that is evoked in Americans today at the idea of eating insects. … When these colonizers came across indigenous people eating insects, they were horrified — and this reaction appears to have been passed down through the generations.” — Sophie Yeo, The Hill

Insects could be used to make meat production more sustainable

“Currently, most animal feed comes from soybeans and fish meal, and producing it contributes to a range of problems. ...Insect farming has long been promoted as the solution to these problems.” — Eduardo Garcia, New York Times

Skeptics

The “ick factor” is too much to overcome

“Westerners are just plain disgusted by bugs on the dinner plate. And save-the-planet discussions don't seem to be changing their minds.” — Berly McCoy, NPR

There are many complications holding back large-scale insect farming

“Insects like crickets and beetles are, indeed, a very good source of protein and other nutrients. But the ones that humans already eat tend to be wild-caught and consumed in comparatively small numbers. Factory farm facilities that can breed, raise, kill, and ship millions of critters require more food as input, output more waste, and raise thorny issues.” — Adam Rogers, Wired

Insect farming could end up being just as harmful as current practices

“Foods are not inherently good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, sustainable or not. This fiction resurfaces over and over again, with different actors leading the hype. Soy, salmon and quinoa were all once touted as miracle ingredients (and, incidentally, faultless protein sources). Turns out that mass-scale monoculture, factory farming and globalized supply chains will transform any product into a monstrous, devastating resource-gobbler. Insects included.” — Laura Shine, Montreal Gazette

Lab-grown meat and plant-based proteins are a better solution 

“Let’s leave the bugs outside and focus on making protein from plants and animal cells, instead.” — Catherine Lamb, The Spoon

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo:  Getty Images