Entomophagy: Overrated and scary?

Speech at the Food for Future-Conference in Cologne

When I first heard about entomophagy, I was really excited. But the more I study the subject, the more sceptical I become.

Wilhelm Busch @ wikipedia

In the western world we even have an entomophagy tradition. Our ancestors ate cockchafers regularly less than 200 years ago. Either in the soup with about 30 beetles per portion or candied as dessert. But then the perception changed. Suddenly insects were seen as food for the poor or for emergency situations after people ate them out of need during the First World War. Because otherwise they threatened to starve to death. Our ancestors forgot that insects are edible. For us, in the late 20th and early 21st century edible insects ever existed.

For some years now, we have been looking for new, resource-saving sources of animal proteins and are slowly beginning to take an interest in insects again. There seems to be no scientific reason against entomophagy: The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment describes entomophagy as sustainable, environmentally friendly and ethically justified. Essentially, the public discussion revolves around two questions: How can we increase production? And how can we make insects more attractive to consumers? They are still reacting very reservedly.

Open Questions

Before we start the production of insects on a large scale, I think we need to answer more questions:

  1. Are insects good for our health?
  2. Do insects have a high nutritional value?
  3. Is entomophagy sustainable?
  4. What about animal welfare?

The microbiological and chemical risks of entomophagy are still not fully researched. We know that people with allergies to shellfish can also react allergically to insects. And insect production workers will sooner or later develop such an allergy. According to a small study by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, regular consumption of grasshoppers has a positive effect on the beneficial bacteria in the gut and helps to reduce inflammatory activity in the body.

Nutritionists regularly point out that insects contain a lot of protein and valuable fat. The consumption of insects may ensure a better iron supply than the consumption of a steak. However, according to a Danish study, insect protein is not suitable for muscle building.

Is entomophagy sustainable?

Entomophagy is sustainable when you compare the production of insects with the breeding of cattle or pigs. At present we use an area for mass livestock farming and the cultivation of animal feed which, taken together, is as large as the entire American continent. A cow needs 8 to 10 kg of feed to gain one kilogram of body weight, a pig 5 kg of feed. Insects need both less food and less space than cattle and pigs. But not in comparison to chickens in conventional animal farming.

The idea that food waste can be fed to insects is repeatedly put forward. Research is still done on the question what this means for the safety of the food that will later be produced from the insects. And one can question as to whether it is possible to kill “two birds with one stone” here: food waste will probably not be of such high quality as the high-performance feed that animals normally receive in mass livestock farming. The ultimate goal of animal breeding is that the animals grow as fast as possible and gain weight so that they can go to the slaughter as soon as possible. Feeding inferior feed prolongs production cycles, and the famers need to put additional resources into insect breeding.

Does the idea of animal protection also include insects?

And what about animal welfare? Do insects have rights? Could it be that we have any moral or ethical obligations towards insects? Most of the animals in the world are invertebrates, but research has so far focused on vertebrates. So we know very little about insects. So much, after all, that research makes a clear recommendation: we should definitely take into account that at least certain types of insects can experience suffering or pain. Of course, we do not yet know whether insects can perceive the conditions in mass production. But the lack of evidence does not mean that insects do not have this ability.

Conclusion

So far, it appears that the consumption of insects is healthy for most people. Nevertheless, there are still research questions regarding the health benefits of entomophagy and the nutritional value of insects.

Before we start large-scale insect production, we should clarify whether it is really sustainable. If it turns out that conventional poultry breeding hardly requires any more resources, the question arises as to whether we really need entomophagy. Especially as it is completely unclear whether and when consumers will make friends with entomophagy. The marketing specialists still need to do a lot of work here.

(c) PETA

Most of us are disgusted with insects. However, we do not manage to deal better with more likeable animals in mass livestock farming. Reports about the dreadful conditions in the mass animal farming constantly come to the public. Lastly, consumer protection organisations reported that every fourth product of animal origin, for example eggs, milk and escalope, comes from sick animals. The animals are sick because we treat them so badly in factory farming. I wonder whether we will treat insects better. In fact, I am afraid that we are going to make an additional species suffer in order to keep our consumption of animal protein at the highest possible level.

I think entomophagy is overrated because it is less sustainable than most people claim. And when I think about the conditions in factory farming, it gets scary for me…

Dr. Sabine Bonneck