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The business of feeding future generations

Insect burgers and teriyaki crickets – will dishes like these soon be a normal part of everyone’s diet? To many people in the West, it may sound far-fetched, but slowly businesses are emerging that believe entomophagy (the human use of insects as food) is the solution to the world’s growing protein shortage.

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Around the world, insect-based start-ups are emerging from their cocoons: Essento, in Switzerland, is selling insect burgers in supermarkets across the country and Flying SpArk, in Israel, is producing powders and oils made from fruit flies. Top chefs, including Alex Atala of the Michelin-starred D.O.M. in Brazil, are also beginning to experiment with insects. Insect recipes are available for home cooks, and Finnish company EntoCube can provide budding farmers with specially designed containers to produce food-grade insects. These entrepreneurs are all driven by a similar conviction – that the way we eat now is not sustainable.

A looming protein gap
By 2050, there are predicted to be 9 billion people on the planet. To feed the world’s population, food production will need to almost double, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. “Demand for meat products will increase by 70 or 80 per cent, yet current livestock production already takes up around 70 per cent of all agricultural land. Bringing more land into production is not possible and the scope for increasing production per unit of land is limited,” says Professor Arnold van Huis, a tropical entomologist from Wageningen University in the Netherlands.

What is more, the environmental costs of today’s agriculture are high. Meat production alone is responsible for around 15 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions and 60 or 70 per cent of all ammonia emissions. Producing one kilogram of beef takes 20 000 to 40 000 litres of water. We have already overfished our oceans, yet meat and fish are the principal sources of protein for many people on the planet.

So how can we produce additional protein in a sustainable way? Professor van Huis believes insects will be an important part of the solution. “In terms of feed conversion efficiency – meaning how much feed an animal needs to produce an edible product – insects are the best. And whereas you can only use about 55 per cent of a chicken, with insects like mealworms and crickets you can almost eat the whole thing,” he says.

Insects are not the only potential alternative source of protein, of course. From pulses and algae to lab-grown meat, other solutions exist or are being developed, but Professor van Huis believes insects have by far the best prospects. The beauty of insects is that they are a highly abundant resource – there are 2100 edible species and at least 2 billion people around the world eat them regularly today. So what is holding us back?

Today’s ‘entopreneurs’, as they have been tagged, face an uphill battle in the West, where most people think insects are a pest and eating them is disgusting. There is a reason for this, says Dr Julie Lesnik, a biological anthropologist at Wayne State University in Michigan, US, whose research focuses on the evolution of the human diet. “Humans have eaten insects for millions of years. Before sophisticated weapons were developed, insects were a reliable source of food. It’s easier to visit a termite mound than to go hunting, especially for a mother carrying her children,” she says. “But when humans left Africa and went north to non-tropical environments they had to rely more on hunting, because in the cold winters there were fewer insects available.

Insect-based feed
If the Western reluctance to see insects as food is so deep-seated, perhaps there is another way: feed the insects to the animals we normally eat. This is the approach taken by Bühler, a global leader in providing plants and processes for food and feed products. It has teamed up with the Dutch company Protix, one of the pioneers in insect products, to offer automated insect rearing and processing facilities to clients around the world.

We face two major problems,” says Andreas Aepli, CEO of Bühler Insect Technology Solutions. “We have not only a demand for more meat, but also a shift from grain-fed to protein-fed animals like fish and chicken. Our traditional sources of protein – soybean meal, fishmeal, and other animal meals – are all problematic. Using insects as an ingredient not only solves this problem but also transforms organic waste into high-value nutrients. Insects are the right solution. They have the least environmental impact in terms of water, land, CO2, and energy.”

At the new plant, high-quality insect ingredients are produced at an industrial scale. “Separating and extracting the proteins and lipids at scale, efficiently, reliably, with full traceability and feed safety – that’s where we are breaking new ground,” says Aepli.

Indeed, Aepli believes we could be witnessing the birth of a whole new industry. He estimates that by 2050, insects could account for 15 per cent of global protein production, with the market expanding beyond feed and into human food. “We are already getting interest from all over,” he says. “The Asian market will probably grow fastest, but demand will not be saturated any time soon.”

One hurdle yet to be overcome is legislation, which until recently did not really take into consideration the use of insects for food and feed. For example, in Europe unused food from supermarkets, restaurants, and homes can’t be fed to insects yet – even though this would constitute an efficient way of recycling. However, there are also promising signs in legislation: the European Union has recently started to allow insect-based products for fish and pets.

Changing attitudes in the West
Meanwhile, insects are slowly appearing on menus and in supermarkets in the West. Could food preferences change? Sushi was unknown outside Japan until recently – now it’s ubiquitous. Shrimps are enjoyed around the world, in spite of their close resemblance to insects. “There is proof that tastes can change,” says Dr Lesnik. “Grasshoppers have been offered as a novelty food at sporting events in the US and sold out, so it can happen.”

But Professor van Huis says it’s difficult to predict how quickly public opinion will change. “A company in the Netherlands tried to introduce burgers made with insects a few years ago, but they were not tasty enough and didn’t catch on,” he says. “It requires good products and strong role models to promote the idea.”

Aepli agrees: “Demand for insect-based food will increase if the food industry develops products with adistinct taste that do not try to imitate something else and bring added value. That’s the challenge.”