Will insects really be the food of the future?


When we talk about the food of the future, a subject regularly swarms in the media: that of the consumption of insects. "Food of the future: insects on our plates?" » ; “What if insects were the food of the future? » ; “Why we will all eat insects in 2050” ; so many titles suggesting that "posterity" rhymes with "locusts".

Outside the West, entomophagy (that is to say the consumption of insects by human beings) is not futuristic: nearly 2 billion people regularly consume more than 2 species of insects. different insects.

But if in our regions we are thinking more and more about crunching these critters, it is not so much for the search for new taste sensations as for the interest we attach to them from an environmental point of view.

According to one FAO report of 2013 – no stranger to the recent buzz around entomophagy – insects are said to be extraordinarily efficient at converting food into body mass. In addition, they could feed on by-products not valued by our food systems, and their breeding would emit only small quantities of greenhouse gases.

So many tantalizing promises to address the very real environmental problems caused by meat production.

However, despite the media hype, scientific studies looking at the environmental potential of eating insects remain mixed in their conclusions. So it's time to kick the anthill and see why, despite what we hear, insects may not be the food of the future.

Replace meat… or rather feed it!

Insects are often presented as a six-legged alternative to meat. Yet this is not the web that the industry is weaving.

Thus, the French companies Ÿnsect and InnovaFeed (having respectively raised 372 and 165 million dollars in 2020, more than the entire industry in all previous years combined) raise insects for… animal feed. And these two examples are not isolated. The breeding of insects does not therefore seem set to replace intensive breeding, but rather to provide it with enough to subsist.

Without even mentioning the question of the ethical and health issues related to traditional meat farming, it is important to emphasize that this approach potentially poses more problems than it solves.

On the one hand, because the environmental impacts of meat are not limited to that of animal feed. On the other hand, because the production of insects is not necessarily more favorable for the environment than conventional animal feed.

According to one 2020 life cycle analysis (i.e. an evaluation method allowing a multi-criteria and multi-stage environmental assessment of a system to be carried out): "a comparison with conventional foods has highlighted the environmental disadvantages of current models of food production insect-based (especially compared to plant-based foods)”.

Same observation for this study on Hermetica illucens, the species used by the French company Innovafeed: "produced on a pilot scale, the protein concentrate (insect meal), while being competitive with products of animal origin (whey, egg protein , fishmeal) and microalgae, has a greater environmental impact than concentrates of vegetable origin”.

A other study on mealworms, the hobby of the company Ÿnsect, also finds them to have a greater environmental impact than soy or fish meal.

In summary, if the use of insect meals can sometimes be more ecological than concentrates of animal origin to feed farm animals, it does not however manage to compete with concentrates of vegetable origin.

Moreover, if the promoters of insects praise the use of agricultural by-products (wheat and corn gluten, brewers' spent grains, beet pulp, etc.) to feed them, we realize that in reality many companies prefer use cereal, more nutritious, safer, and sometimes even cheaper.

That is to say, resources that could just as well be consumed by farm animals, or even by humans. However, feeding insects corn before feeding them to chickens is inherently less effective than simply feeding corn to chickens or humans.

The potential of insects to feed on agricultural by-products thus comes up against the laws of the market and competition for the same resource. Because agricultural by-products, far from being waste, can be used in many ways, whether for animal feed or for human food.

Moreover, even if food waste were used to feed farmed insects, the benefits for the climate would be very uncertain.

Finally, insects need to be kept in a warm environment. Otherwise, they are likely to grow much more slowly, or even simply not to survive. However, heating millions of insects in the factory requires a lot of energy. As the latter is not necessarily carbon-free, this can have a decisive influence on the carbon footprint of the final product.

In short, and although this is currently the path taken by the industry, the environmental potential of insects as a wonder ingredient for animal feed seems limited.

Entomophagy, a far from miraculous solution

But what about entomophagy itself? Because it is indeed this buzz that is discussed in the media, works of fiction, and even some school textbooks.

At first glance, there would be something to be reassured. Several studies indeed agree on the lower environmental impact of insects compared to chicken, which itself has a lower environmental impact than other types of meat.

A life cycle analysis dating from 2012 finds that broilers are associated with 32% to 167% higher emissions in CO equivalent2 than mealworms, and that they require two to three times more land and 50% more water.

The problem is that these studies have almost all been carried out on small-scale farms (as in Thailand or Korea, in conditions that are optimal or impossible to reproduce in the West on a large scale.

Man behind a stall displaying several types of insects
In countries that traditionally consume insects (here in Thailand), insects are generally taken directly from the wild, or come from small farms.
Moomoobloo/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Or it can be very difficult to preserve these environmental benefits with the passage to the industrial scale, however necessary to reduce costs. Of many questions remain, for example concerning the food used to feed a large breeding of insects, and the possible health risks.

This is how a survey looking at the European context comes to the conclusion that insect farming does not necessarily emit less greenhouse gas emissions than chicken.

An alternative that suffers from competition

If the performance remains honorable, we must not forget an essential detail: insects are not the only ones that can replace meat. However, to judge the potential of a solution, it should be compared to all the other alternatives, and not only to the one that suits us.

One thinks in particular of vegetable proteins, already widely available on the market. And on the environmental level, there is no photo: it is better to eat lentils and soybeans rather than insects.

For an alternative to have potential, it must also be successful with consumers. And on this point we can not say that the insects hit the mark.

For example, a recent study of the Food Standards Agency finds that six in ten respondents (60%) are willing to try plant-based proteins, compared to only a quarter (26%) willing to try edible insects.

Worse still, of those unwilling to try any of the meat alternatives offered, 67% said there was nothing to entice them to try eating insects.

In short, not only are insects not a better alternative to vegetable proteins from an environmental point of view, but they are also much less accepted by consumers.

For the title of “food of the future”, it might therefore be wise to leave our six-legged friends alone and look instead to vegetable proteins, and why not mycoproteins or cultured meat.

Tom Bry-Chevalier, PhD student in environmental economics - Cultivated meat and alternative proteins, University of Lorraine

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

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