The maggot-like larvae of small mealworms – a type of shiny black beetle – and house crickets will become the third and fourth insects that can be sold as food for people in the European Union. Eight other nominations are pending approval.
On Tuesday, the EU gave the green light to the sale of the larvae in powdered, frozen, pasty and dried form. Crickets can be sold as a partially defatted powder.
For many Europeans, the idea of eating wriggling or crawling creatures in any form isn’t exactly appealing. But insects, already a delicacy in high-end restaurants around the world, are part of the normal, healthy diet in countries from Mexico to Thailand. They have also caught the attention of scientists and companies looking to clean up agriculture and feed the world’s growing population.
Reducing meat emissions, a “huge challenge”
Most of the global warming food pollution, which accounts for about a quarter of global warming, comes from meat and dairy products. Cows and sheep spit methane, a potent but short-lived greenhouse gas, and farmers are razing forests to create pasture and grow soybeans, three-quarters of which are for cattle.
If fried crickets and mealworm salads replace some steaks and burgers, they may play a small role in preventing species from becoming extinct and curbing climate change.
“It’s a huge challenge to keep up with the growing demand for livestock products,” said Tim Searchinger, technical director of the food program at the World Resources Institute, a US environmental research organization. “We pretty much have to explore all avenues of solution.”
“No one will be forced to eat insects”
The European Commission’s decision to approve two new insects as food does not appear to be part of a drive to change diets, despite saying that eating insects “contributes positively to the environment, health and livelihoods”.
Instead, the new rules specify that mealworm larvae and house crickets are safe to eat for people without allergies. They also ruled that foods containing it must be labelled.
“No one will be forced to eat insects,” the European Commission said in a tweet last week.
However, this decision could accelerate the transition to less destructive diets for the environment. In Germany, for example, about half the population plans to eat less meat, while in the United States people are eating more meat but replacing beef with less polluting meats like chicken. Insect protein could be a cheap alternative, especially in processed foods.
Between 35% and 60% of the dry weight of insects is made up of protein. The lower end of the range is higher than most vegetable protein sources and the higher end is higher than meat and eggs. Insects are better than livestock at turning calories from their food into calories on their bodies. They also reproduce quickly and gain weight rapidly.
Only a few studies have attempted to determine the environmental damage caused by eating insects. A life cycle assessment published in 2021 found that protein from yellow mealworms uses 70% less land and pumps 23% less greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than the same amount of protein from chicken at Grill.
Previous studies have also shown that insects are better for the environment than meat, but worse than plants.
Disgust remains the “biggest obstacle”
Still, convincing EU and US citizens to eat more insects could be tricky.
According to a 2020 report, three-quarters of European consumers are unwilling to trade meat for insects and a further 13% are unsure. of the European Consumers’ Organisation, an umbrella group funded in part by the EU. In Germany, 80% of people say they are disgusted by the idea of eating insects, according to a 2022 report of the German environment agency, UBA.
“Disgust is considered the greatest barrier to the introduction of insects into the Western food market,” the authors wrote.
Even though Western diets include other foods associated with rot, such as moldy cheese and mushrooms, research into whether these barriers can be overcome is still in its infancy.
A study published in December found that people were more willing to eat insects after learning about the environmental benefits.
A separate study in 2020, social norms indicated that people were open to eating locusts.
“Because humans are a uniquely social species, taking advantage of social nature can be particularly helpful,” the authors wrote.
Insect food as an alternative to grain for livestock
A more likely role for insect proteins might be to feed them to livestock. This would circumvent cultural norms that prevent some people from wanting to eat insects. If the insects were reared on organic waste – as some mealworm and fly larvae are well adapted – the process could effectively recycle some of the large amounts of food wasted each year.
But raising insects to feed them to animals adds an extra step to the food production process, which means more energy is wasted due to inefficiencies. Only some of the calories consumed by the insect will make it to the chicken raised on insect food – and only some of those calories will make it to the person eating the chicken wing.
If insects were fed with crops like soybeans or corn, and those insects are then used as animal feed, the planet could be worse off than if the animals ate the grain directly.
“The problem is that you have to go through two conversions,” Searchinger said. “There is potential [for feeding insects manure] but it is ultimately not as efficient as producing the food directly.”
Edited by: Jennifer Collins