Eat Insects to Save the Planet?

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Insects are in vogue lately. As the ‘food of the future’ they appear in numerous publications and summits all over the western world. Last month, the German National Institute of Risk Assessment held a symposium entitled “Insects as Food and Feed – Nutrition of the Future?“. International experts gave talks on the advantages of eating insects, with a focus on nutritional composition and safety aspects of introducing them into our modern food system, either directly as food or indirectly as feed for animals. The interest was considerable and the lecture hall full.

While for the normal consumer the idea of eating insects might go from revolting to thrilling or maybe even appealing, a group of more professional insect enthusiasts, the so-called entomophagists, see the same idea as a potential solution to all problems connected to food production and consumption.

Insects have been eaten for a very long time and continue to be considered delicacies in many cultures; the West however has lost them from its food spectrum. So why is it that we are we now suddenly supposed to eat insects? Having a closer look, the narrative of insects as our saviors is even more complex – and problematic – than what it seems.

The insect solution narrative

A rapidly unfolding narrative claims that if insects would be embraced by western consumers, they could replace conventional meat and thereby alleviate the devastating effects of conventional livestock production, and even provide a solution to global problems such as world hunger and ecological crisis. The idea is based on the argument that insects are highly efficient in converting biomass into valuable nutrients, using far less water and emitting much less CO2 than cows, pigs and chicken. An often-cited report published by the World Food Organisation FAO in 2013 (Van Huis et al. 2013, ) gave the topic a boost of attention, with extensive media coverage and a noticeable subsequent increase in academic publications. But also a variety of businesses offering food (and feed) products made of insects has recently emerged in various countries such as the US, the Netherlands and the UK. Meanwhile there are at least one hundred such companies. Even though many of them are small and young, one could certainly speak of an international edible insects movement.

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Especially the exoticised and sensationally presented products on offer (chocolate-covered scorpions or “ant-lix sucker“ lollipops for example), but also potentially meat-replacing foods like insect burgers or cricket powder are still a culinary exception on the fringes of (not only) western cuisines. But the protagonists of the insect movement – researchers, entrepreneurs and other enthusiasts – hope that it will grow to be a whole new sector. The marketing departments are busy referring to the “solution narrative“ surrounding insects and most companies advertise their products as sustainable, organic and authentic with slogans such as:

“Insects are healthy, nutritious alternatives to mainstream staples such as chicken, pork, beef and even fish.” Washington Post 

“The production of meat consumes an incredible amount of water: a single kilogram of beef requires over 15,000 liters…Eating insects is an easy way to cut down on water footprints…The conclusion seems simple: replace meat with insects.” The Grasshopper Suppliers

“Bugs! entomophagy! future food! All these words describe what the future of food looks like.” Bush Tucker

The marketing of products is not the only realm in which such promises are proclaimed. For example the first international conference on insects as food and feed held in the Netherlands in 2014 was called “Insects to Feed the World“, and a popular book on the topic by Daniella Martin has the title “EDIBLE: An Adventure into the World of Eating Insects and the Last Great Hope to Save the Planet“.

Admittedly, these are some of the most extreme examples. They drastically show how insects are being staged as a panacea to all kinds of overarching global problems. Insect revolution and everything will be fine – sounds great, doesn’t it?! Maybe a bit too good to be true though.

Insects – more than a calculable protein source

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First of all the insect category itself is much more complicated than often implied. Insects are by far the biggest group of organisms on earth, with some scientists estimating the number of species to be in the double-digit million area. Even the so far over 2000 species identified as edible aren’t some homogenous mass of protein suppliers, but form a complex multiplicity of foods – especially if you consider that insects taste different depending not only on species but also on developmental stage, feed, preparation method and other factors. And of course these things also have an influence on their healthiness (Payne et al., 2015) and their environmental impact (Lundy and Parella, 2015) which may suffer from thoughtless mass production just like conventional meat does.

Further inconsistencies of the simple idea of insects as a solution are whether people would actually accept them as “normal” food (Deroy et al., 2015). And trying to save the planet presupposes that there is a simple homogenous thing – but this “one world” approach within the edible insect movement masks out the multidimensionality of the world (Yates-Doerr, 2015).

Another more practical open question is how one can be sure that insects are safe to eat when produced on an industrial scale (Rumpold and Schlüter, 2013). This of course is important – and currently a hot topic within discussions to legalise insects as food and feed in the EU. Such considerations, along with questions of consumer acceptance were at the centre of nearly all talks and discussions at the recent symposium in Berlin – a tendency also observable in the discourse more broadly.

Most of these objections could be countered by research and development. But a mere glance over technical and psychological obstacles to implementing insects’ potential as a quantifiable nutrient source tends to sideline some crucial aspects: the social and political dimension of it all.

The politics of edible insects

Who would actually benefit from a full-blown commercial integration of insects into the global food system? Would world hunger really be alleviated? Would food production automatically become more sustainable if we replace conventional meat with insects? What does it mean to save the planet? What can and should the role of insects really be in our struggles with world hunger and ecological issues?

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An important question in the context of all these global problems is: whose problems are they actually? IN particular sustainability seeems to be a topic that concerns every human being equally because we all share this one planet. But as long as the species Homo sapiens is not extinct as a whole, the category “humankind” can be quite misleading, because for some people the problems are bigger than for others. Some have less privileges and means to protect themselves from the negative effects such as pollution, droughts, resource scarcity etc. Global issues such as food insecurity, ecological crises and food system fragility are not only highly complex, but also inextricably bound up in social inequality, exploitative dynamics and uneven power relations.

The fundamental and manifold inequality between people finds one of its most extreme and painfully explicit expressions in the continuing reality of world hunger. While the lucky ones have access to any delicacy they desire, others starve. It may sound banal, but insects are no exception to this structural brutality – and this is something rarely discussed in the shallowly optimistic insect discourse.

There is a striking incongruitybetween the solemn promises and the actual practices concerning insects as food which – to say the least – are much more complicated than the solution narrative suggests. Just like other foods, insects – if integrated into global markets – become commodities at constant threat to be sold for profit more than to nourish people in a sustainable and equitable manner. Insects are also becoming subject to this kind of exclusionary commercialisation.

The insect products offered online in English in 2015 had a mean price of 25 $ per serving of 30 g (Müller et al., 2016). Thus, the absolute majority of the world’s population are excluded from them. Within the insects-as-solution-discourse it is often argued that this is a temporary deficiency and will be fixed by the markets once trade restrictions are abolished and production is scaled up, thereby making the products accessible to everybody. But what if this story is wrong, and the fundamental problem is not a technical but a social and structural one? Why focus on producing more and more (there already is enough! (https://www.wfp.org/hunger/faqs)) without addressing the unequal distribution of food? What if the same will happen to insects as with other super- eco- and solution foods like soy? Once commodified and circulating within world markets, partly serving as feed for livestock rather than being eaten directly, they were often displaced from their former cultural embedding and after all did not benefit the poor and underprivileged. Nor did they necessarily lead to sustainable production, despite their potential to do so.

As long as the global food system works the way it does, it will be very difficult to reach food security – let alone food sovereignty, and insects could also become part of the problems they are supposed to solve. Of course we as consumers are not powerless – and like with other products can inform ourselves about the ecological and social effects of our purchases, thereby influencing how the food system evolves. But this isn’t as easy as it may sound – especially with insects. Currently, many companies offering insect products declare hardly any information about the production background – and in many cases the insects are being resold from other sources, making it impossible to assess their origin. The data that nevertheless is obtainable suggests a resource extraction from poorer world regions to western countries (Müller et al., 2016).

The closer you look at the realities of the modern insect trade, the more doubtful the insect solution becomes.

Thailand – pioneer of insect commercialisation

Thailand is a global hotspot not only of eating insects but also a global pioneer of making business with them. For example there are an estimated 20000 cricket farmers, while most other insects are still collected in the wild. But due to intensive agriculture and urban sprawl many species have become rather rare – and consequently are being imported from neighbouring countries to cover the growing demand. These countries – Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia – have much higher rates of malnutrition, and also a culture of eating insects which makes it seem logical to keep them and eat them locally. Instead, many insects end up being consumed by well-off middle-class city dwellers who are already well-nourished. And they oftentimes don’t actually replace meat because they are eaten as snacks.

market hall at Talad Rong Kluea built in 2009 to serve the growing insect trade

Let’s take a closer look at one of the nodal points of the SoutheastAsian insect trade. Talad Rong Kluea is a large market on the Thai side of the Cambodian-Thai border. It contains a newly-built hall specifically to serve the insect trade – a clear sign of the growth and professionalisation of the Thai insect industry. But a few hundred metres up the road, in an area much less visible and official than the big hall, one can observe the somewhat dark side of the business. During the rainy season when many insects abound, dozens of Cambodian women and children process wild-collected locusts manually by pulling off their wings (pictures). They are seasonal day labourers paid according to the amount of insects they manage to process: 5-6 Baht (0.16-0.19USD) per kg, on average 100 Baht (3.15USD) per day – far below the minimum wage. Many of the workers have small wounds on their hands due the monotonous motion while ‘de-winging’ the locusts. A girl with plasters on her hands explained: “it’s a bit painful and annoying, especially for writing at school” (Female, 12, Cambodian). But not all of the children even attend school—especially not during the peak of the locust season. Usually, they work from 5 a.m. until 5 p.m. (Sankharat, 2013).

While some of these people say they are happy with their jobs, they also don’t really have a better choice and are subject to the same structural inequalities faced by workers in other sectors in Southeast Asia: many reside illegally and are subject to highly precarious working conditions. Their wage is vanishingly small relative to the turnover of the industry and the profits made by their supervisors.

Given this unequal distribution, it is highly unlikely that the role of the day labourers and other ‘underlings’ in the insect trade will substantially alter their position in society, while others retain their superior social status partly through benefitting from the growing insect business.

After being processed, the locusts are sold through various channels and some of them end up in large supermarkets in Bangkok and other cities where they are sold for double or triple the price of conventional meat. Some of the Thai insect entrepreneurs have been reported to earn up to 100 million Baht (~3 million USD) or even 600-700 million Baht (~16 million USD) per year (Kreutzberger and Thurn, 2014; Yhoung-aree and Viwatpanich, 2005).

What does this tell us about insects as “food of the future”?

A woman in rural Thailand who is used to collecting and eating insects for free put it this way:

I think it’s a bad idea to introduce insects as snacks into the modern world. If it becomes popular there, what does that mean for the future of our children? If those businesses need a lot of raw material, maybe they will buy many insects from the local people, and then the future generations will not have enough to eat any more. Nowadays, all kinds of natural resources are decreasing because people are collecting them for sale. If demand for insects increases like that as well, this would add to the destruction of ecosystems and burden the local people here (Female, Thai, early 50s).

many of the day labourers pulling off the insects' wings are children

The potential of insects as food remains

The structural links between food insecurity, capitalism and global inequality can be quite discouraging if one takes the attempt serious to abolish world hunger and contain the terrifying ecological effects of the current food system. It has probably become quite clear that insects cannot simply resolve these fateful entanglements for us. That would have been too easy! But reverting to fatalism as a reaction to the shattered dream of easily “saving the planet: of course is also not going to help. The “insects to feed the world” approach is certainly deceptive and simplistic, but it does also address some interesting potentials worth considering. For example, some practical ideas such as replacing fish meal with black soldier fly larvae fed on organic waste are somewhat promising.

But a technical approach is not sufficient for solving structural global problems – especially world hunger. The social and political dimension should never be factored out – and here insects can, like food in general, be a great starting point to highlight interconnections and inspire transformational approaches.

Especially in western countries insects have a great potential to spark curiosity and new ideas. At first they may be regarded as disgusting, but if taken seriously insects could not only help us widen our culinary horizon, but also ask questions about our food system. It just depends on the way we relate to and act upon the idea.

Importing insects from Cambodia or Thailand where they have always been informally contributing to food security would probably reproduce the problems we want to tackle. But like with other food, we can start here and now, where we are. June bugs for example can be quite annoying on a summer evening when you’re trying to relax after work in the park – but they taste great! And honeybee drone brood is discarded by many organic beekeepers in early summer – a local fresh resource with lots of culinary potential only waiting to be explored!

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Literature

Deroy, O., Reade, B. and Spence, C., 2015. The insectivore’s dilemma, and how to take the West out of it. Food Quality and Preference 44: 44-55.

Kreutzberger, S. and Thurn, V., 2014. Harte Kost. Ludwig Verlag, Munich, Germany, 320 pp.

Lundy, M.E. and Parrella, M.P., 2015. Crickets Are Not a Free Lunch: Protein Capture from Scalable Organic Side-Streams via High-Density Populations of Acheta Domesticus. PLOS ONE PLoS ONE 10: e0118785.

Müller, A., J. Evans, J., Payne, C.L.R. and R. Roberts, R., 2016. Entomophagy and Power. Journal of Insects as Food and Feed 2/2. Available at: http://www.wageningenacademic.com/doi/pdf/10.3920/JIFF2016.0010.

Payne, C.L.R., Scarborough, P., Rayner, M. and Nonaka, K., 2015. Are edible insects more or less ‘healthy’ than commonly consumed meats? A comparison using two nutrient profiling models developed to combat over- and undernutrition. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, DOI: 10.1038/ejcn.2015.149.

Rumpold, B. A. and Schlüter, O.K., 2013. Nutritional Composition and Safety Aspects of Edible Insects. Molecular Nutrition & Food Research 57: 802-23.

Sankharat, U., 2013. Cambodian Child Migrant Workers in the Rong Kluea Market Area in Thailand. Asian Social Science 9: 24-32.

Van Huis, A., Van Itterbeeck, J., Klunder, H., Mertens, E., Halloran, A., Muir, G. and Vantomme, P., 2013. Edible insects: future prospects for food and feed. Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, Rome, Italy, 190 pp.

Yates-Doerr, E., 2015. The world in a box? Food Security, Edible Insects, and ‘One World, One Health’ Collaboration. Social Science and Medicine 129: 106-112.

Yhoung-aree, J. and Viwatpanich, K., 2005. Edible insects in the Laos PDR, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam. In: Paoletti, M.G. (ed.) Ecological implications of minilivestock. Science Publishers, Boca Raton, FL, USA, pp. 415-440.

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