Bugs not Burgers by Gavin Hubbard, 1st December 2011
Illustration kindly provided by the excellent John S Dykes: http://www.jsdykes.com/
In the future, instead of coq-au-vin, we may find ourselves eating cockroach-au-vin…
In a world where people are increasingly aware of their greenhouse gas emissions and environmental footprint, scientists think it may be in our best interests to switch from beef and pork to witchetty grubs and meal worms.
While the western world may react with disgust at the idea of eating insects, recent research has shown that adding insects to the menu, as well as being good for you, would be better for the environment than conventionally farmed beef and pork. In fact, pound for pound, insects are more efficient at converting food into weight and produce less greenhouse gases, such as methane, than cattle or pigs.
Methane, per molecule, is a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2 and ruminants, like cows, produce a lot while fermenting food in their four stomachs; to the tune of about 250-500L a day. With a growing global population and developing countries rapidly adopting a more western style diet, receiving most of their protein from animal products, the number of animals required to feed us all has to grow too. With increasing global demand for meat, and dwindling resources, the price of beef and pork is only likely to go up.
With this in mind researchers at Wageningen University in the Netherlands decided to look at what the environmental impact of other sources of animal protein – insects – might be. Five different insect species were put into special chambers, and the amount of CO2 and methane going in and out of the chamber over three days was measured. By subtracting the difference they calculated the total amount produced by the insects as they grew. They also measured the insect’s weight at the start and end of the experiment so they could tell how much they grew.
While the levels of CO2 were comparable to traditional livestock, they showed that not only do the insects produce less methane than traditional livestock, per kg of weight, but that they are better at converting food into body weight, with one species, the migratory locust, gaining almost 20% extra weight per day.
So, by switching from burgers to bugs on mass, we could curb the effects of climate change. But would such a diet be good for us? Many different cultures regularly enjoy insects as part of their diet, for example silkworm larvae* are often eaten in China, and there’s mounting evidence that insects provide good nutrition too.
CC, Picture by Rampiant Gian: http://www.flickr.com/people/gchicco/
Of 94 insect species examined in one study, 63% had a higher calorific value than beef and 70% were better than fish, lentils and beans.
Not only do they provide raw energy, in the form of calories, better than most traditional meats they are also good sources of vitamins and iron. A tasty 100g serving of silkworm larvae will happily give you more than 224% of you recommended daily amount (RDA) of vitamin B1, 112% of vitamin B2 and nearly 48% of your RDA of vitamin B3 and packs a whopping 35.5mg of iron compared to beefs 2.9mg. Even 100g of the humble roast chicken can only manage 5.4% vitamin B1.
The numbers alone are unlikely to tempt many of us away from what we know, and a big cultural shift would be needed, but it seems that we may soon have little choice. Insects may, initially, have to creep into our diets as ingredients; wherever processed food has protein added this could come from insects.
In fact, for many of us, they already have, whenever you’re eating something red that says it contains “natural food colouring E120”, that’s probably from Cochineal. Cochineal, or Dactylopius coccus, is a small insect that lives on cacti in South America and Mexico and is processed to harvest the red carminic acid it contains. The red bit on those dubious looking “crab/fish sticks” you like, yup. That’s from cochineal.
Increasingly people are willing to try them and even some restaurants are now (deliberately) serving them. If you’re in London check out the Archipelago Restaurant who regularly offer something for the intrepid or curious foodie, using ingredients like chilli and garlic locusts and crickets.
At the end of the day, would eating insects really be that much different to our own, acceptable, delicacies of prawns, crayfish and lobster?
Would you be willing to try some insects if we held a special SciBar about it...? Let us know in the comments!
*I’m told you can find these in the UK as “ground cucumbers”...