Saturday, 26 December 2015

Beetlemania: can eating insects help save the environment?

Christmas - along with Thanksgiving for Americans - has probably got to be the most obvious time of the year when Westerners over-indulge in animal protein. However, this meatfest comes at a severe cost to the planet, as anyone who is environmentally aware is likely to know. Although many people have started making changes to mitigate climate change and pollution, compared to say recycling and reducing your carbon footprint, cutting down on meat seems to be far more challenging.

Actor and former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has suggested Americans should have one or two meat-free days each week, but that's easier said than done in a continent raised on heaped platefuls of red meat. It isn't as if switching from cattle, sheep and goat to more unusual species would help either, as recent research confirms the likes of kangaroo and reindeer as sources of high methane emissions too. As a side note, it isn't just meat consumption that needs to be reduced; there's also dairy farming to consider. Does anyone really like soya milk? Mind you, I haven't tried almond milk yet...

United Nations reports suggest that greenhouse gas emissions from farming, primarily due to livestock and artificial fertilisers, have almost doubled in the past half century. As you might expect,these are likely to continue increasing at a similar rate over the next fifty years. In addition, vast tracts of Amazonian rainforest - amongst other unspoilt natural habitats - are being destroyed to make way for cattle grazing. At around three million acres lost each year, there's obviously not much in the way of sustainability about this particular development!

So is there any good news in all this culinary doom and gloom? Both Europe and especially North America have recently seen a profusion of companies marketing manufactured foods intended as meat replacements that are derived from of all things…insects. These products range from burgers to crackers and usually offer little appearance or taste to indicate their source material. Is it possible that the future for developed nations could include the delights of grasshopper goulash and wormicelli pasta?

It isn't as strange as it sounds. Over a quarter of mankind routinely eats insects from several thousand species as part of their traditional diet, usually with the source animal obvious in the presentation. This makes sense for developing nations, since wild insects can be caught en masse, farmed bugs fed on cheap waste material that can't be converted into conventional animal feed - and of course they require comparatively little water. Although the material isn't being converted to highly processed foodstuffs, Thailand - with over 20,000 insect farms - is an example of a nation currently increasing its insect consumption.

The species used in the new ‘hidden' insect foods varies widely, with crickets prominent on the menu. It isn't as straightforward as just killing the wee beasties and grinding them into powder, but many of the new American and European companies are conducting extensive research, developing mechanised processes that bode well for industrial-scale production.

The nutritional analysis shows promise to say the least, with some Hymenoptera species containing up to three times the protein yield of domestic cattle. The vitamin and mineral statistics are pretty good too, sometimes exceeding both farmed mammals and birds as well as plant staples such as soya beans. Not bad, considering that bug farming should prove to be at least four times as efficient as cattle husbandry.

Whether a trendy novelty can become mainstream remains to be seen, since the fledgling industry faces more than just the ‘yuck' factor. As with much cutting-edge technology, legislation has yet to catch up: there could be issues around safety concerns, with short shelf life, uncaught impurities or pollutants and allergic reactions all potential factors that could inhibit widescale production.

Bug protein isn't the only dish on the table (see what I did there?) as there are even more sophisticated approaches to reducing the environmental degradation caused by meat production. One well-publicised technique has been the cultivation of animal flesh in-vitro. However, it's only been a couple of years since the (nurturing? propagation?) of the first petri dish burger and so the process is still prohibitively expensive. By comparison, insects (bees and butterflies excepted) are not currently in short supply.

As a someone who hasn't eaten any land-based flesh for over a quarter of a century - and yes, I try to be careful with which aquatic species I consume - I suppose I have a fairly objective opinion about this matter. It does seem to make environmental sense to pursue processed insect protein as a replacement for domesticated mammal and bird species, but how often has logic taken a backseat to prejudice and the irrational? I look forward to near future developments, not least the massive brand campaigns that will no doubt be required to convert the Western public to the likes of Cricket crackers and Wormer schnitzel. Look out turkeys, your Christmases could be numbered...