The industrial ways of meat production is unsustainable causing deforestation, soil degradation, pollution of soil and water bodies. The animal feedlots cause severe human health issues for people living close to these confined industrial animal production units. There are concerns on use of hormones, antibiotics and other chemicals that has severe effect on human and animal health. Growing population and rising meat consumption is driving disruptive innovations for alternative protein sources. Entomophagy or consuming insects offers lot of potentials to address the current concerns.
Insects are historically consumed as food in many cultures. The consumption of insects started about 7000 years ago. The Bible mentions the food of John the Baptist was locust and wild honey (Matthew 3:4). In Asia, Africa, Europe, central and south America’s several insects are eaten. About 2300 insect species of 18 orders are consumed as food in 113 countries. Most of them are harvested from wild, however few species are reared commercially. Insects are common snacks in the streets Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and several African countries. The most commonly eaten insects are grasshoppers, termites, crickets, larvae, beetles, bees and ants.
Insects as food is becoming a trend now, it’s no more a poor man’s food. Edible insect industry is growing very fast in the US and Europe. In addition to food, insects are used in pharmaceutical, cosmetics, pet food and agriculture industry. The research and development on edible insects is still in its nascent stage. Both fundamental research and its application offers tremendous potential to address some of the current environmental and humanitarian challenges. It may take a while for insects to be consumed as food in the US and other countries where eating insects is not a part of the local tradition.
Insects are made into powder, commonly referred as flour that is used in snacks and nutrient bars. Insect flours has several applications as feed sources for pets, fishes, livestock and poultry. Insects can be reared using the biomass from the farm and recycled back as feed sources for livestock and pets. It perfectly blends into the concept of circular economy and regenerative systems. Insects can be reared in a low-cost simple insect farm to a highly sophisticated system with automation, sensors, robots and IoT.
Insects can also be used as food additives. For example the dark red dye carmine is used for clothes, cosmetics and food. The red dye of lac insect is used for cloth dying and beverage industry.Likewise there are several applications of insects in healthcare and industrial products.
Use of insect waste products
While rearing insects their droppings commonly referred as frass that also contains outer skeleton (exoskeleton) is generated in large quantities. Frass has an application in agriculture industry as a manure. I was involved in advising a company for using the frass in agriculture and realized that it cannot be used directly in commercial agriculture. However with technical tweaks the product can be redesigned to suit appropriate soil and crop conditions.
Insects offer several solutions to address the current challenges of food and nutrition security. Rather than focussing on 30 major staple crops, entomophagy offers diversification of food sources that not only supplements protein but also reduces the ecological footprints. However care needs to be taken on food safety concerns. Some insects can have poisonous products in them. For example the giant African silkworm has thiaminase that is considered as carcinogen. People experiencing allergies after eating grasshoppers, crickets, cicadas and wasps are reported.
Entomophagy is a sunrise industry. It perfectly fits into a decentralized setup where people rear insects in their houses or backyards like kitchen garden, say, ‘edible insect gardens’. Several companies are now producing insects at an industrial scale that has a great potential with the rising market for alternative protein sources.