Insect protein, a market ready for metamorphosis
Mealworm arancini to start, followed by Mezcal worm tacos with guacamole and grasshopper bacon bits. For dessert, cricket flour brownies. All washed down with a delicious Mezcal margarita.
Entomophagy is not a new concept by global standards. Some 2 billion people in 130 countries already indulge on insects on a regular basis. Wasps, ants, cicadas, scorpions and silkworm pupae are some of the more exotic insects to eat, but mealworms, crickets (ground or whole) and larvae are much more common. Although still unusual in a Western diet, insect protein is viewed as a lucrative (and ecologically sound) business opportunity.
Foodies will say they taste nutty, sweet and add texture. But for many, quite understandably, the "ick" factor is hard to get over no matter how dressed up the consumption of insects is. For others, the benefits of entomophagy are too good to ignore. At a micro level, they provide the consumer with protein, minerals, high-quality fatty acids and are lower in cholesterol than many meat alternatives. For instance, a 100g serving of crickets will provide you with 68 grams of protein as opposed to 26 grams of protein for the same weight of beef. At a macro level, insects require significantly less land, water and feed than traditional meat and fish species and release far fewer greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
The environmental impact
The UN estimates that the population will hit 10 billion by 2050, which will require a 70% increase in food production. Many consider that in order to feed our growing population, without perpetuating the cycle of environmental degradation, we will be required to overhaul our food production systems. But what would this look like?
The world has a growing appetite for animal protein, which is bad news for the environment. Beef and soy are the two leading causes of deforestation. With beef, land is cleared for grazing and with soy land is cleared to grow the crop, which is predominately used as animal feed for cattle and other livestock. On top of deforestation, there are further considerations such as greenhouse gas emissions, soil degradation, water usage and waste disposal. Compare this with insect farming, where the negative externalities created, and land and feed requirements are significantly smaller, the appeal of insect consumption begins to appear.
It has been estimated that insects are as much as 300 times per square metre more efficient in terms of protein output than soy. Insects thrive in close, densely populated environments, and can be fed on food waste. The land use is so minimal that insect farming start up, Entocycle has recently opened a facility under the railway arches of London Bridge, feeding its black soldier flies a diet of surplus fruit and veg, discarded brewers' grains and coffee grounds from the local area.
However, some take their crickets with a pinch of salt. Researchers have pointed out that insect farming has not yet provided evidence of its environmental credibility. For instance, research has shown that crickets fed solely on food waste died before they could be harvested. Those fed a grain-based diet had a conversion rate similar to that of chickens. There is also a risk of accidental animal release and a lack of research into effective waste management. Potential benefits may also be lost through energy intensive heating. Crickets for example need to be kept at 25 degrees Celsius or higher. The alternative would be to import insects from warmer climates, but of course this would add to their carbon footprint.
A business opportunity?
Notwithstanding the environmental benefits of insect protein, the industry has attracted a lot of interest from businesses looking to carve out their slice of a booming industry. A report by Barclays has estimated that the insect protein market could increase to 8 billion dollars by 2030, a vast increase from the less than 1 billion dollars it is presently estimated to be worth
Continental Europe, mainly France and Holland, already has an established insect farming industry for fish and pet food. The EU was due to consider approving the use of insect protein for other animals including poultry, however this has been waylaid by the pandemic. If restrictions are lifted, insect farmers may be able to break into the lucrative animal feed market. As such, in the short term, demand for insect protein is likely to be driven by animal feed rather than human consumption.
The UK Government is also betting on insect protein as a cost efficient and practical way to produce sustainable animal feed for livestock. The UK Government awarded Entocycle a £10m funding package to develop its operations with a target of breeding 5 million black soldier flies and processing 33,000 tonnes of food waste a year. Supermarkets and restaurant chains are also backing the industry by encouraging their suppliers to use insect protein for animal feed and supplying food waste for insect food.
Eating insects won't appeal to everyone. Fortunately for those people, the short-term demand for insect protein will be driven largely by animal feed. For now, steak, chicken and burgers will keep their place on the dinner table: however, there are huge opportunities for entrepreneurs looking to tap into a niche market which has the potential to mushroom over the next few years.