Entomophagie | © Lightspring @ Shutterstock

Considerations on entomophagy

Speech at Asset2018 in Belfast

Entomophagy has tradition

Did you know that our ancestors regularly ate cockchafers in the late 19th century? At least in Germany and France. Either in the soup, with about 30 bugs per serving. Or candied for dessert. But suddenly the perception changed. In the First World War people were hungry and had to eat insects to survive. Insects became food for emergency situations and for poor people. Today, insects are no cheaper than meat. There are even really expensive specialities, like escamole, the larvae of certain ants, which the Mexicans particularly appreciate.

Entomophagy has existed since time immemorial. Today, about 2 billion people worldwide eat about 2,000 different insect species. Not (yet) in the western world. But also here the realization is slowly gaining ground that we have to reduce our meat consumption. We have been looking for alternative sources for our supply for a long time, and so we are increasingly interested in insects. The first start-ups for insects as food and animal feed are already on the market.

Political Drivers of Food Choice @ Asset2018 | © Dr. Sabine Bonneck
Improving Diet Quality @ Asset2018. Panel with Jayne Woodside, Sabine Bonneck, Barbara Bray and Yanni Papanikolaou, chaired by Cliodhna Foley-Nolan | © Dr. Sabine Bonneck

Public discussion

So far, the public debate has essentially revolved around two questions. How can we expand the production of insects? If insects are to contribute to our protein supply, enormous quantities are required that cannot yet be produced efficiently. And how can we make insect consumption socially acceptable? Consumers in the western world have so far been extremely cautious. However, there are more questions that should be answered in order to define the framework conditions for the industrial breeding of insects.

Open questions

Is it healthy for humans to eat insects? The microbiological and chemical risks of entomophagy have not yet been fully clarified. We already learnt that people with allergies to shellfish are also allergic to insects.What is the nutritional value of insects? Insects contain not only protein but also fat in a composition that nutritionists consider comparatively valuable. In view of the large number of insects, it is not surprising that they differ considerably in protein and fat content. A Danish study suggests that insect protein may not be well suited for muscle building.Is entomophagy sustainable? We currently use an area as large as the entire American continent for livestock farming and the production of animal feed. Insects live close together, so they need little space. They also get along with comparatively little food. A cow eats 8 to 10 kg of feed to gain 1 kg body weight. A pig needs 5 kg, while insects get along with 2 kg. Although there is not much experience, the data available suggest that entomophagy is sustainable.

What about animal welfare?

Do we want to apply animal protection principles to insects as well? Do we possibly even have moral or ethical obligations towards insects?

So far, research has mainly focused on vertebrates. But most animals in the world are invertebrate. So the data is thin and we know little about whether insects can feel pain or suffering. From the few existing research results, the researchers derive the recommendation that we should take into account the possibility that at least certain insect species have a feeling of suffering or pain.

Western animal welfare legislation is based on the 5 freedoms for animals. According to this, animal welfare means freedom from

  • Hunger and thirst,
  • inconveniences,
  • pain, injury and illness,
  • anxiety and stress,
  • and the freedom to behave in a manner appropriate to the species.

We can interprete this freedom for insects in such a way that in livestock farming they should receive sufficient food of adequate quality. Their natural living conditions should largely be replicated in the breeding facilities and they should not be exposed to stress and should be killed in a gentle manner.

Conclusion

Most of us are disgusted by insects. We do not treat even more likeable animals, such as cattle and pigs, with respect and dignity. Disturbing reports of intolerable conditions in factory farming regularly come to the public. The question therefore arises as to whether we would be better at dealing with insects. However, one must fear that we will let another species suffer in order to keep our supply of animal protein at the highest possible level.

Dr. Sabine Bonneck