Edible insects and the environment

Protein with a lighter environmental footprint

The contribution by livestock and especially cattle to environmental problems is on a massive scale and should be addressed with urgency according to FAO’s report Livestock’s Long Shadow. Global demand for livestock products will more than double during the next 50 years (from 229 million tonnes in 1999/2001 to 465 million tonnes by 2050), and livestock production accounts already for 70% of all agricultural land. The livestock sector is an important contributor to greenhouse gas emissions such as CO2, CH4 and N2O. A recent study (2010) published by the university of Wageningen states that minilivestock produces relatively less NH3 and CO2 eq. than conventional livestock. Livestock uses also 8% total water and most of this on feed crops and irrigation of pasture land. It is a major driver of deforestation and a leading player in the loss of biodiversity in Europe.

Because insects are cold blooded, they have a high food conversion rate, e.g. crickets need six times less feed than cattle, four times less than sheep, and twice less than pigs and broiler chickens to produce the same amount of protein. They also emit less greenhouse gases than conventional livestock. Methane for instance is produced only by a few insects such as termites and cockroaches. In many cases insects can be grown on organic waste. The meat yield after processing is also much higher for insects (e.g. crickets 80%) than for beef (55%), pork (70%) or lamb (35%). Therefore, edible insects are a serious alternative for conventional production or other animal based protein sources, either for direct human consumption, or indirectly as feedstock.

Sustainable harvesting

Edible insects are found in agricultural fields, forests, fallow land and water bodies. Considering the insects inhabit such a vast array of habitats, they may act as umbrella species protecting other natural resources. A Kenyan project combining forest conservation and improving livelihoods with ‘commercial insects’ such as honey bees and silk moths showed an increase in forest biodiversity during its implementation. Research on this topic could focus on, for example, the Mopani worm and the Asian weaver ant.

Food security planners and forest managers would gain from a greater awareness of the ways in which the value of edible insects in rural economies affects - and is in turn affected by - local natural resource management strategies, including farm and bush burning, pesticide use, and tree conservation decisions. In areas such as the Congo Basin, western Africa or South East Asia, insects contribute significantly to the food security and livelihoods of millions of people as a reliable source of protein, carbohydrate, vitamins, and traditional medicines. Being labour-intensive and requiring no major capital investment or land-ownership, insect harvesting, processing and sale at local markets is very much within the reach of the poor, especially women and children to achieve substantial cash gains. And importantly, as suggested by Toledo and Burlingame (2006), nutrition and biodiversity form the basis to reduce the number of people suffering from hunger by half by 2015.

last updated:  Tuesday, January 14, 2014