INSECTS may form a sustainable, nutritious alternative to meat in the effort to keep food production in pace with the planet’s booming population.
Curtin University entomologist Jonathan Majer says despite the squeamishness many people may feel towards insect consumption, there is great potential for the market.
“Insects are very fast breeders so they are potentially a way of producing proteins and fats for human consumption rapidly—more rapidly than cows, goats or sheep,” Professor Majer says.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, food production needs to increase by 70 per cent to feed 2.3 billion more people by 2050.
As the search continues for more efficient and innovative methods of food production, such as genetically modified foods and lab-grown meat, Professor Majer says insects are a good way of yielding protein from waste.
“Insects can feed on waste products a cow could not feed on and produce palatable protein and fat,” he says.
However, he warns against harvesting insects from wild habitats as it would pose the danger of depleting insect populations.
“Insects are small so we need a lot to feed on, but we must not do this at the expense of the conservation of the insect,” he says.
“It needs to be something you can breed in an urban situation, in a factory unit or greenhouse in large quantities.”
According to Professor Majer, the development of better techniques to rear safe, palatable insects for human consumption on an industrial scale is one of the challenges facing the market, as well as overcoming human resistance to the unfamiliar food source.
“Some people are always on the lookout for more interesting flavours and like being experimental,” he says.
“If you eat crustaceans, if you don’t have trouble eating a prawn or a crab then why would you have a problem eating an insect? They are all arthropods—they are fairly closely related.”
However, Professor Majer says precautions must be taken before we start munching on insects.
“They must be cooked properly because many insects are intermediate hosts of a whole range of flatworm and worm-type parasites,” he says.
“There are plenty of insects that sequester toxic chemicals in their bodies or manufacture toxic chemicals to protect against predators.”
“One has to target particular insects which are easy to breed and safe.”
Professor Majer hopes future research will identify edible insect species suitable for long-term sustainable rearing.
Insects have been eaten by humans for centuries and are still enjoyed by people in Asia, South America and Africa.