July 13, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

How do we ensure we can produce enough protein to feed everyone?

Growing human populations and the nature of our existing agricultural systems means that meeting demand for food will continue to put huge strains on our planet. Reducing our production and consumption of foods like meat and dairy are one route to reducing impact – but how do we ensure we can produce enough protein to feed everyone?

Insects (and other creatures more leggy than our traditional livestock) are one potential solution. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has estimated that crickets need six times less feed than cattle to produce the same amount of protein, emit less greenhouse gases and ammonia, and can be grown on organic waste.

Around the world, there are over 1,900 insect and arthropod species that are regularly eaten, including grasshoppers, ants, mealworms, scorpions, caterpillars and tarantulas. Most are caught from the wild, meaning that deforestation and unregulated harvesting are threatening wild populations. Development of sustainable, scalable insect farming is therefore just as critical as it is for other forms of agriculture.

Many people recoil reading or thinking about eating bugs, but it’s actually much less ‘unnatural’ or weird than some people might claim. It was thought for a long time that mammals couldn’t break down the tough exoskeletons of insects, but recent research into genetics has debunked this.

“We now know from research on bats and mice, and now my research on primates, that this isn’t true.” Mareike Janiak, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Anthropology and lead author of the study published recently in Molecular Biology and Evolution.

Working with collaborators, Janiak discovered that working versions of a gene called CHIA exist in almost all living primates, which encodes for a stomach enzyme that breaks down chitin, a component of the insect exoskeleton.

“It’s interesting that many people who like shrimp and lobster think insects are yucky,” says Janiak. “But shellfish are kind of like underwater insects.”

But if you still can’t stomach the idea, there are some workarounds. One method of easily adding the benefits of insect protein to our diets, while avoiding the knee-jerk response of many Westerners, is incorporating them within processed food. Producers manufacturing products like cricket flour already exist in the UK and many other countries that are less traditionally insectivorous. In the quest for affordable protein and reduced environmental impact, perhaps we could soon see ready-meals enriched with processed insect products on supermarket shelves.

Joy Aston is studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London

Banner image: Deep-fried crickets, Thomas Schoch / Wikipedia