Should We Be Eating Bugs & Insect Protein Instead Of Meat?

A figure watching some tv while they enjoy eating bugs out of a bowl.

Insects have always been a source of food for people, all around the world.

Strangely enough, the countries that currently eat the most meat often look down on others who eat insects with disgust.

Insect farming has the potential to solve a growing number of environmental and ethical issues tied up in rearing livestock and growing food for the animals we raise.

Eating insects may seem gross to you, but in the future it could play a key role in finding an agricultural system that benefits all life on Earth.

Let’s take a look at just how impactful making the switch to insect protein sources could be.

What does agriculture without insects look like?

Our current food system is one of the leading causes of habitat and biodiversity loss, soil depletion, and carbon emissions – yet, as climate change begins to ramp up, we’re responding as a society by increasing the intensity of our destructive farming methods.

As more and more soil is depleted, large swaths of important forests are cut down in the quest for more fertile land.

In general, deforestation and other human activities accelerate climate change, summoning the wrath of extreme weather events and many other issues that tend to degrade agricultural soils even further.

unsustainable cattle grazing

We seem to be in a hurry to reach the end of our current way of life; positive feedback loops associated with climate tipping points are on the horizon, but it doesn’t have to be this way.

The solution simply cannot be to push harder – we need to change how we approach our agricultural system as a whole.

When it comes to climate change timelines, humanity seems to be surprised by how fast all of these problems are stacking up. It may be that by 2050, the livestock industry will significantly overshoot its safe operating space, and at that point we won’t really have much of a say about the quality or yield of our crops.

Not only could we physically run out of viable farmland, in the process of doing so we would also be both destroying the nutrient quality of our food, and causing irreversible harm to ourselves and the environment.

The problem isn’t that we have too many mouths to feed – it’s what we’re feeding them.

Global meat production has quadrupled since the 1960’s, with over 300 million tons of meat being produced in 2020 alone – with grazing land for cattle representing one of the main drivers of deforestation worldwide.

global meat production

Animal agriculture is also responsible for a second key driver of deforestation: soy production.

You may be thinking: why are all these vegans destroying our forests?

The truth is, soy is mainly produced to feed livestock animals that humans love to eat – and with the rise of popular animal dishes around the world, we see a similar rise in soy production, among other crops that rely on monoculture farming operations and subsidies.

We do this to our oceans as well, which suffer from insane levels of overfishing and bloodthirsty whaling operations. These issues are massively ignored compared to land-based animal agriculture, but they have similar negative effects on our planet as a whole.

So it’s clear that the source of much of our food is the issue, so how can we go about finding a new source of large amounts of protein that isn’t from plants?

How common is it to raise insects as food?

Insect protein happens to check a lot of environmental boxes, which is something that can’t really be said about animal protein.

And raising bugs for food isn’t a new thing – it’s a practice that’s been a primary source of protein in countless cultures that eat insects since the dawn of humanity.

These practices are on the decline, however.

In Africa many cultures are seeing a decline in insect-eating, also known as entomophagy, with the rise of Western dietary habits. And as these diets become more common, vital traditional ecological knowledge can be lost over time.

entomophagy: the practice of eating insects

But this isn’t always the case. In some South African provinces, things like termites, grasshoppers, and mopane worms are still some of the most sought-after insect based foods.

In Nigeria, you can still find plenty of people eating crickets, beetle larvae, and termites – and seasonal grasshopper harvests and the collection of black ants supply numerous tribes and people with protein in Uganda.

assorted fried insects
Image by Alpha via Flickr

Asia is also home to many cultures filled with people who eat food made with bugs. Sautéed fly larvae are savored as a delicacy in Japan, as are dragonflies in coconut milk with ginger and garlic in Bali.

While certainly up for debate, Chinese beekeepers are even considered more virile because of their habit of munching on bee larvae while maintaining and tending to hives that produce honey.

An estimated two billion people worldwide happily eat bugs as food; not out of desperation – but as a deliberate, enjoyable, and nutritious choice.

Are insects healthy to eat?

Just like other animals, some insect species are more nutritious than others, or simply just taste better. It’s not all about the environmental benefits, and the tastiest insect varieties are starting to reach other continents besides those where insect eating is common.

A single black ant, an insect commonly used as food, wandering around foraging for.

Insect farming as a whole is a rapidly expanding industry, with an estimated global market value of over 1 billion, and this is largely due to just how nutritious insects can be when included in the human diet:

  • Insects are a complete protein, and healthier than beef
  • They contain high amounts of essential minerals like calcium and iron
  • Insects are rich in vitamin B-12 and Omega-3 fatty acids
  • Chitin in their exoskeletons is full of dietary fiber

And while all of these nutritional benefits are great, the real value in farming insects extends well beyond nutrition.

What are the benefits of eating bugs?

Insects are simply more economical to farm than other kinds of livestock.

An interesting point to make about this is that unlike livestock farming, the risk of disease spreading between humans and insects is incredibly low – improving the safety of consumption as a whole.

Compare this with health issues from animal products, where 75% of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic, which means they transmit between humans and animals.

These strains on healthcare systems lead to rampant overuse of antibiotics within the animal farming industry as an attempt at stopping the spread of disease – eating meat is bad for the environment, and it’s not something we can continue to deny.

livestock grazing land
Image by Don Graham via Flickr

Insect proteins offer us an exit from these issues, and perhaps most importantly – insect foods require a fraction of the resources to produce compared to other kinds of livestock.

Let’s take a look at some bite-sized stats about insect farming:

  • They require considerably less clean water, food, and land to raise
  • Emissions and farm waste is much lower compared to things like beef
  • Insects convert plant protein for us much more efficiently than animals
  • Farming insects involves little need for temperature or weather controls
  • They can be grown indoors on a smaller scale than current factory farms
  • Our waste food can be fed to them, so they’re natural recyclers
  • There’s less of a need for antibiotics and pesticides to farm them

And the list goes on, as insects truly do satisfy a variety of sustainable development goals. As more research on the low-impact nature of insect farming is published, it’s becoming very clear how well it compliments sustainable agriculture practices.

However, we also want to look at the negative impacts of raising insects:

What are the disadvantages of eating insects?

As insect harvesting technologies improve, the number of businesses competing for a slice also goes up.

In places like Uganda and Kenya, the demand for insects has led to a huge uptick in the need for light traps used to catch grasshoppers. These light traps catch more grasshoppers than ever before, and create a lot of unwanted by-catch in the process, similar to how ocean floor trawling works in the fishing industry.

Check out this video covering the basics of the whole process:

As you can see, there are human health impacts as well. And coupled with a general reduction of grasshopper habitat, this growing practice threatens other local wildlife populations and is ultimately unsustainable.

Of course, the environmental impacts of these kinds of insect farming operations, whether light traps or straight up tubs of bugs, can be also completely mitigated if set up properly.

captive mali grasshopper
Image by Ralf Steinberger via Flickr

A more viable alternative to wild-caught insects in both cost and seasonality exists, but we also shouldn’t ignore that a rise in demand for insect protein may also lead to a rise in unsustainable, cheaper practices of acquiring it.

So what’s stopping most of us from getting our protein from insects?

Will eating bugs in the future be more accepted?

The major issues preventing the widespread adoption of eating insects are cultural.

Countries that eat the most meat per person right now usually don’t have histories of eating insects in their day-to-day lives – and in many cases, the people who live there have a strong cultural aversion to the idea entirely.

insect street vendor
Image by Allie Caulfield via Flickr

We’ve seen this before; with things like lab grown meat or even just plant based meat facing silly amounts of public backlash before being normalized (although, lab grown meat still isn’t quite there).

The more pioneering businesses and individuals get involved, the smoother the cultural shift will be.

While it’s clear that insects represent an environmentally friendly option, and improve upon other kinds of animal farming – they’re still alive, which leaves us with a bit more to consider.

Is it ethical to be an insect eater?

There’s no question that insects are capable of learning, and they also appear to experience pain, similar to mammals (which includes humans).

As we learn more about arthropod cognition in general, the less certain we’ve become about claims of their inability to feel or experience things like sentience and suffering. In fact, insects like bees and ants are completely capable of forming their own mini animal cultures.

If you’re vegan or vegetarian, you’re probably already feeling uneasy about all of this, or you could even be an entomotarian – someone who’s plant based aside from eating the occasional insect. Even if you aren’t – this decade is probably the best period of human history ever to learn how to go vegan.

It’s never a good idea to assume that another living being can’t suffer, so with all of this in mind let’s talk about the legitimate ethical questions surrounding people eating bugs.

A person preparing some dried mealworms to be used as food.

Honestly, it’s hard to argue against it when you consider the level of brutality in the current world of animal farming.

The requirements of raising animals like cows or pigs are often actually irrelevant when it comes to raising creatures who are quite comfortable in swarms and piles, or burrowing into their food.

Insects don’t need much space to roam free, and they don’t really seek out environmental enrichment or entertainment in general.

The silk production process, for example, involves very little space aside from growing the mulberry leaves used to feed them. This isn’t a perfect comparison, but if you consider something like growing and weaving cotton fabric, there’s much less going on overall.

It’s a relatively trivial matter to give a mealworm its best life, unlike a cow or chicken kept in a barn. And it’s definitely possible to provide them with everything they would ever want in life at a much lower cost.

A colony of ants emerging from their sandy sheltered colony.

The slaughter of an insect is also much simpler – like lowering the temperature to the point of sending the animals into a dormant state before killing them. There’s also the option of shredding insects, which sounds a bit barbaric, but shredding insects is almost instant – fast enough to avoid any drawn out suffering.

All of this is a far cry from rounding up terrified mammals and birds, cramming them into a truck, and passing them through a hit-or-miss bolt gun gauntlet in front of their friends and family.

Ethical considerations of the treatment of animals do seem to need to be balanced against the net gain to wildlife as a whole, at least for now. And as long as animal protein remains an unavoidable source of nutrition for almost all cultures on Earth, eating insects may be a better option.

What do insects taste like?

This is usually the first question most people have when it comes to eating bugs, and you may be surprised to find out insects have a quite varied flavor profile.

Black ants have a zesty, sour flavor with the texture of fish roe (like you’d find on sushi) and are commonly used as a garnish or flavor enhancer.

Grasshoppers have a more savory flavor, with a meatier bite complimented by salt, garlic, and oil – these are a great snack on their own.

Crickets are another insect that can be seasoned in a variety of ways, with an earthy, woody flavor profile. If you’ve ever seen insect-based protein powder or flour, it’s probably made from crickets!

Mealworms have a light and nutty flavor, and can often be found fried or eaten whole like grasshoppers, or ground up as an ingredient like crickets.

Somewhere around 2000 insect species are eaten by humans, which means there’s plenty more to discover in the world of cooking with bugs.

You might also find it interesting that most insects are almost entirely edible, meaning close to around 80% of their bodies are edible, compared to something like a cow where some parts are often considered waste products.

Final thoughts

Insects are a sustainable source of important nutrients that can be healthier, cheaper, and much better for the environment compared to meat and other animal products.

There’s also a strong argument that insect farming reduces the suffering and torment of animals overall, and if it could be farmed ethically – it could replace them entirely.

How do you feel about people eating insects?

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