Cassandra Coburn

A bug in the system

Claims about their low environmental footprint are based on scant evidence

I’ve lost track of the number of features I’ve seen joyfully hailing the edible insect revolution, entitled ‘Grub’s up!’ Barclays has released a report which predicts that the market for edible insects will hit $8 billion by 2030, and you can already buy Smoky BBQ Crunchy Roasted Crickets in Sainsbury’s. Research last month showed that certain species of edible insect contain higher quantities of antioxidants than freshly squeezed orange juice. Bugs are officially on track to become not just the ethical and environmental solution to protein provision, but a superfood as well.

But wait. As with most food fads, these pronunciations are coming early, and are based on scant evidence. Everyone longs to believe that edible insects are the answer, now that we know what a toll the meat industry takes on the environment. And there’s no question that meat production is a major cause of environmental change, driving deforestation and production of greenhouse gases. But a close look at the bugs reveals that they might not be quite the answer everyone’s looking for.

The impetus driving the popularisation of edible insects is the belief that they can provide equivalent quantities of protein with a significantly lower environmental footprint than traditional sources such as poultry and livestock. On the face of it, there is compelling evidence to support this. For one, insects are poikilothermic, meaning that they don’t use any energy to maintain their body heat. As such, they convert food into their bodily protein with a much higher efficiency than other animals. This is important: producing the grain-based feed that most livestock and poultry subsist on is a large driver of the total greenhouse gas emissions the meat industry creates, so using less of it to produce the same amount of protein would be hugely beneficial.

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