An Old Dish For Modern Food Problems 

A man holding a large plant with berries on it, next to a basket.

The EAT–Lancet international panel into the global food chain in 2019 concluded that “civilisation is in crisis”. This was a stark warning about the 200,000 year history of humanity culminating in ecological catastrophe. All of these factors, including modern industrial agriculture, extractive capitalism and the profit motive, as well as governments slavishly following Big Food and their greedy western appetites, must be held accountable.

This context is where “future foods” – food that promises good for animals and the environment – have taken on the hype that was once associated with Silicon Valley start-ups. The younger generation is more concerned about making ethical and sustainable choices. Venture capitalists in the tech sector are also increasingly interested in investing in them. Beyond Meat, a Californian “alternative food” company, launched its products in 445 British grocery stores. Its rival, Impossible Foods is expected to follow suit soon. Cell-grown meat is not far away: In December, the Singapore Food Agency approved the first ever fully synthetic chicken nugget. Still, recent history shows that the rise of tech-backed American food companies in the processed food market have an uphill battle.

Leah Bessa, founder of South African start-up Gourmet Grubb says that although insects are not as “sexy”, as other meat options, she believes anyone who is interested in food security needs to look for more solutions. She says, “I don’t believe we should expect any one food to solve all our problems. Our agriculture system lacks diversity, which is a problem. The best thing about insects is their ability to be grown anywhere and in any environment. They don’t damage land. You can grow them using by-products from the food industry. And they are full of nutrients.” She cautions, however, that it has taken decades for plant-based foods to reach where they are now. It will be a huge win if insects can do it,

The majority of the current investment will go towards insect-as-feed for animals. Mars Petcare has just announced Lovebug, a new insect-based catfood range. Insects have great potential to be used as feed for aquaculture and livestock. Ynsect is a French company that has raised $225m for the establishment of Amiens’ largest insect farm. It will soon produce 100,000 tonnes per year. In the meantime, another company, Entocycle, has received a £10M government grant for a black soldier fly larvae nursery outside of London. It sounds almost too good to be true. The best part about insects is that they are efficient in feeding livestock. Plus, their “frass” (excrement), can be used to fertilize. Around 33% of the cropland in the world is currently used for livestock feed.

A picture taken from above, of 3 bowls with food in them such as grains.

Dr Sarah Beynon is an entomologist and runs the Bug Farm in Pembrokeshire. This working insect farm attracts many visitors. She believes that we will need to adapt to a new way of farming. These high-tech, robot-operated, vertical farms are aimed at maximizing protein yield. It’s not as cruel as it sounds. The insects probably see it as a great deal. We can raise them in large numbers without risking their welfare. They are happier when they are around other insects of the same species. Insect life cycles can also be very favorable to factory farming. At certain stages of their lives, they produce heat. At other stages, they require heat. An indoor farm can be more effective than an outdoor one in a warmer climate.

Beynon is concerned that insects used for livestock feed could lead to a corrupt and wasteful food system. She says, “It’s a good stepping stone, but not really attacking the problem itself.” Our insane consumption of meat is the problem. It seems a bit crazy to feed insects the by-products from plant-based agriculture. These insects then go on to be fed into an animal-based farm system. You’re wasting more food and energy if you add more steps to the food chain. It is always more efficient and sustainable to make a move out.

In other words, if we don’t want to eat more vegetables, we should get used to eating insects.

Bessa believes that western consumers may not be ready to eat whole insects. However, they don’t necessarily have to be averse for new innovations like her Entomilk which is made of black soldier fly larvae (“BSFL”) in industry parlance. It is rich in fats, minerals and even calcium. “People are becoming more conscious of the impact food has on their bodies and environment. They travel more, so their minds are more open to new ideas. They are more open to trying things they may have thought were gross.

According to Barclays, the edible insects market will reach $6.3 billion by 2030. Sainsbury’s research found that 42% of British consumers are open to trying insects.

Did you know that crickets produce less than 1% of greenhouse gasses as cows in order to produce the same amount of protein? They also require far less water: 112 liters of water are required to make a single gram of beef, but 23 liters to make a gram of insect protein. In this respect, insects also easily beat chickpeas. It’s difficult to convey all this in the snack aisle at Sainsbury’s, where the company Small Giants, competes with Cool Original Doritos or Really Cheesy Giant Wotsits. These foods have long histories, large marketing budgets, and are priced lower. Majno is encouraged and motivated by his repeat customers and recent Great Taste Award. In truth, the Small Giants snacks were difficult to distinguish from cheaper rye crackers. Once you’re done with the strangeness of eating insects or insect products, you realize that they are actually very bland.

A picture of a tractor and truck in a field, as the tractor pours items into the back of the truck.

There are also other obstacles. Many species of insects are on the verge of being approved by the EU. However, it is not clear if Britain will follow these European standards or re-start from scratch. This would mean that British insect-farming could be impacted for many years. There are many restrictions on seasonal insects, despite the increased demand. Eduardo Gomez is the Mexican food specialist MesxGrocer. He claims he cannot import Mexican delicacies like escamoles (ant pupae and larvae), as meat and cheese from Mexico are prohibited in Europe. “High-end restaurants have been asking me for years to bring in insects. Insects are the future. This will be realized eventually. If we want to save the world, this is the best thing we can do now.”

However, for the moment, the West’s insect future feels very beige. These products are highly processed and enriched with insect protein powder, as opposed to grasshoppers with avocado or the lake fly dumpling stews Dr Ayieko conjures. It’s important to remember that insects are not a state of the art protein for westerners. 

Dr Monica Ayieko was first exposed to the benefits of insect protein after she married into a family that lived near Kisumu’s eastern shore of Lake Victoria. The tiny lake flies that swarm here look like smoke rising from a lake. After they began to swarm in her house, she applied insecticide and was rebuked by her mother-in law. She showed her how to gather them in a net and crush them into dumplings. These can be dried, used in a stew, or eaten raw. She returned to her village and found that a neighbor’s child had died from malnutrition. She believes such cases can be avoided if more people make use of this abundant source of protein. She is now based at the Jaramogi Odinga Universität in Kenya and has dedicated her career to research local traditions and developing an insect farming route to food security.

Ayieko states that this is a local, highly-indigenous knowledge. It’s not something that we have been forced to learn. “We now have 120 masters and doctoral students here studying sustainable agriculture. Their research must focus on insects for food or feed. While insect-eating is increasingly accepted, they are still considered a food of the poor. Some rural people can afford chicken and fish and might feel embarrassed collecting insects. They don’t want to be considered poor.

Unfortunately, habitat destruction has reduced the number of insects that can be collected. Climate change is causing a decline in lake-fly populations. “There was an abundance of lake flies when I first published my paper. In recent years, I see less of them.”

A picture from above, of a river winding through farmland.

One insect, Carebara Vidua is no longer available. This insect is a great delicacy in our community. It isn’t common to see it anymore. It would normally emerge from wetlands, but we have cut down trees, laid concrete, and done all that humans do.” This is an irony in that insects are being presented as innovative solutions to Western food system problems, while they are disappearing from areas where they are most needed – those areas likely to suffer the worst effects from climate change.

Dr Sarah Beynon agrees with this point. As Western standards of wealth are held up in developing countries, local traditions and expertise may be lost irreversibly. She too sees education as a way to a better world and has worked with local schools to educate young children about sustainability. 

“Young people will choose sustainability when the food tastes good and has a texture that they are used to. It’s not their desire to see insects’ parts – so they need to be able to get the nutrition and protein. However, we should not hide the fact they are insects.” She hopes to have insects on Pembrokeshire school menus someday. That’s the key.” 

It may not be too far-fetched. We like to believe that we eat the foods we love because of time-honored traditions. This includes roast chicken and other national dishes. It wasn’t that long ago, packet sandwiches and sushi were considered outlandish and unimportant – but a few generations back, roast poultry was considered an elite food. Only 1 million chickens were consumed in Britain every year in the 1950s. Today, this number is closer to 1 billion.

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