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Diet for a Hot and Hungry Planet: Bugs

A new UN study highlights insects as an untapped, sustainable, healthy resource for food

- Andrea Germanos, staff writer

Crickets, silworm pupae and scorpions at a Beijing market (Photo: thewamphyri/flickr)An environmentally friendly, healthy food source might be lurking in your backyard right now.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) issued a report on Monday, Edible insects: Future prospects for food and feed security, describing how insects are an untapped resource for food.

They're healthy, environmentally friendly—in contrast to greenhouse gas-emitting livestock operations—and insect rearing can provide economic benefits to a wide range of people because of the small capital investment needed.

2 billion people in the world are already eating insects as part of their traditional diets, the FAO says, with beetles being the most consumed insect followed by caterpillars.

"Insects are pretty much untapped for their potential for food, and especially for feed,” said Eva Muller, Director of FAO’s Forest Economic Policy and Products Division, and report co-author.

From the report:

The need to feed a growing global population inevitably places continuous pressure on crop production, which in turn contributes further to the degradation of natural resources (FAO, 2009a). Difficulties arising from climate change, moreover, are set to compound present problems in production. Currently, FAO activities on sustainable diets explore linkages and synergies among food biodiversity, nutrition, food composition, food production, agriculture, urban agriculture (the Food for the Cities programme) and sustainability. The underlying objective is to improve food and nutritional security and provide more ecologically sound food recommendations to consumers and policymakers, including clarifying what is meant by an environmentally sustainable food system (FAO, 2009b). Edible insects as food fit comfortably within this environmentally sound scenario (see Chapter 5) and, by extension, ought to be considered prime candidates as both food staples and supplements, as well as more generally for their role in sustainable diets

Beetles for sale at a Thai market (Photo: avlxyz/flickr)But how to battle "the disgusting factor," especially in Western societies?

The report says that education is key to bring about public awareness of insects as a viable and tasty food source.

Also, "The case needs to be made to consumers that eating insects is not only good for their health, it is good for the planet," the report's authors write.

Some of the environmental benefits of choosing insects over meat, according to the report:

  • They have high feed-conversion efficiency (an animal’s capacity to convert feed mass into increased body mass, represented as kg of feed per kg of weight gain).
  • They can be reared on organic side streams, reducing environmental contamination, while adding value to waste.
  • They emit relatively few GHGs and relatively little ammonia.
  • They require significantly less water than cattle rearing.
  • They have few animal welfare issues, although the extent to which insects experience pain is largely unknown.
  • They pose a low risk of transmitting zoonotic infections.

Also on Monday, the FAO released the video "Forests for food security and nutrition" showing how protecting forests also protects food sources, including insects, which provide sustenance as well as economic benefits, especially to women:

 

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