The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation is taking seriously the farming of creepy-crawlies as nutritious food
A Chinese woman selling scorpions on stick waits for customers at a stall in
Saving the planet one plateful at a time does not mean cutting back on meat, according to new research: the trick may be to switch our diet to insects and other creepy-crawlies.
The raising of livestock such as cows, pigs and sheep occupies two-thirds of the world's farmland and generates 20% of all the greenhouse gases driving global warming. As a result, the United Nations and senior figures want to reduce the amount of meat we eat and the search is on for alternatives.
A policy paper on the eating of insects is being formally considered by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. The FAO held a meeting on the theme in Thailand in 2008 and there are plans for a world congress in 2013.
Professor Arnold van Huis, an entomologist at
"There is a meat crisis," he said. "The world population will grow from six billion now to nine billion by 2050 and we know people are consuming more meat. Twenty years ago the average was 20kg, it is now 50kg, and will be 80kg in 20 years. If we continue like this we will need another Earth."
Van Huis is an enthusiast for eating insects but given his role as a consultant to the FAO, he can't be dismissed as a crank. "Most of the world already eats insects," he points out. "It is only in the western world that we don't. Psychologically we have a problem with it. I don't know why, as we eat shrimps, which are very comparable."
The advantages of this diet include insects' high levels of protein, vitamin and mineral content. Van Huis's latest research, conducted with colleague Dennis Oonincx, shows that farming insects produces far less greenhouse gas than livestock. Breeding commonly eaten insects such as locusts, crickets and meal worms, emits 10 times less methane than livestock. The insects also produce 300 times less nitrous oxide, also a warming gas, and much less ammonia, a pollutant produced by pig and poultry farming.
Being cold-blooded, insects convert plant matter into protein extremely efficiently, Van Huis says. In addition, he argues, the health risks are lower. He acknowledges that in the west eating insects is a hard sell: "It is very important how you prepare them, you have to do it very nicely, to overcome the yuk factor."
More than 1,000 insects are known to be eaten by choice around the world, in 80% of nations. They are most popular in the tropics, where they grow to large sizes and are easy to harvest.
field officer Patrick Durst, based in
Durst helped set up an insect
farming project FAO project in
He also thinks such a boost can provide livelihoods and protect forests where many wild insects are collected. "I can see a step-by-step process to wider implementation."
First, insects could be used to feed farmed animals such as chicken and fish which eat them naturally. Then, they could be used as ingredients.
Van Huis adds: "We're looking at ways of grinding the meat into some sort of patty, which would be more recognisable to western palates."
One of the few suppliers of
insects for human consumption in the
• This article was amended on 2
August 2010. In the original, Professor Arnold van Huis
was described as an entomologist at