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Are insects a viable future alternative to an unsustainable meat industry?

When it comes to food, we have an ability to know what we can eat and what we can’t; there is a line that we know we cannot cross and for each individual, this line is drawn differently. For some, this includes animals, for others, this doesn’t. For some, this includes animal products, for others, this doesn’t. It ultimately depends on where a person draws their own line for whatever reason – social, religious, environmental.

However, there are some things that, for everyone, fall on the side of unspeakable. Insects would almost certainly fall within this category. It may sound far-fetched, but insect-based foods are quickly becoming the future, as alternatives to meat are sought amidst the global climate crisis. 

With numbers steadily increasing, it is estimated that the world’s population will reach 9.8 billion by 2050. Scientists estimate that, at its current rate, the world can feasibly hold 10 billion. Beyond this, the already struggling food supply, as well as the issue of space, will cause catastrophic consequences for the future of our planet. 

What history shows is that this line is continually shifting, people’s perceptions of what we can and can’t eat shifts over time

When this is coupled with the sheer unsustainability of current meat production rates, suddenly what seems like a nightmare may become a reality. There will simply be too many mouths to feed by a system that is already irreversibly damaging our planet. It asks the question: how can we feed more people in a world where the climate emergency is an existential threat to existing agricultural and food systems?

For some, developing alternative forms of protein to replace meat may be part of the answer. This could, and I unfortunately think does, lie with insects. Currently, over 2 billion people are actively eating insects as a major part of their diet. In fact, their protein concentration is astronomical. They have high-quality proteins and amino acids, some polyunsaturated fats, a few minerals and of course, fibre in their exoskeletons. Insects require a fraction of the water and land needed for larger animals, and produce far lower levels of greenhouse gases.

A substantial difficulty facing this prospect is changing people’s perception of physically eating an insect. Nevertheless, the line between what people deem acceptable to eat is continually widening. Hundreds of years ago, potatoes were reserved only for the poorest people in a society; it is now ranked the fifth most important crop in the world. Chocolate was imported and turned into an exceptionally bitter drink in its first form, a drink that repulsed many. Even the more recent revelations of avocado, quinoa and kale are testament to society’s willingness to add new things to their diet. What history shows is that this line is continually shifting, people’s perceptions of what we can and can’t eat shifts over time. 

Some food companies, like Crické and Cricket One in the UK, have started developing new products made with edible insects to deliver insect-based nutrition in a very discrete form. It is clear that insects could certainly provide a valuable asset to a more sustainable global food supply. 

What is clear is that meat consumption, at least at its current rate, is simply unsustainable

Amidst calls from the United Nations for restaurants to consider more insect-based options on their menu, Japanese chef Surasit Buttama is leading the way in visualising a future with insects.  His up-scale restaurant in Thailand includes the latest recipe that consists of almond cream pear tart served with silkworm vanilla ice-cream. While the ice cream has two silkworms lying on top, the ice-cream itself is made of powdered silkworms. The same goes with pasta made of crickets and giant water beetles or crickets mixed into brownies. A dish consisting of grilled sea bass is served with crispy ants and ant eggs mixed with beurre blanc sauce.

Edible insects, for the moment at least, remains a niche in that market, but what is clear is that meat consumption, at least at its current rate, is simply unsustainable. In a warped dystopian future (which is not an impossibility), only the mega-rich will continue to be dining on meat and as the price continues to rise and those who cannot afford it will be forced to find their protein in sources like insects.

In many ways, these decisions lie with us students. We can either willingly attempt to move our collective line to include maggots, cockroaches and crickets, or actively do something to try and prevent it. Personally, the thought of having to settle for insects as my source of protein is a pretty dire future, even as a student. However, there seems to be a way-out. Students cutting down the intake of meat, as well as highly damaging environmental foods, can go a long way to countering this prospect. One day, eating insects could well be considered the norm, a delicacy even. 

But, it’s certainly a future that bugs me. 

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