Insects could play a vital role in food security in the coming decades – but disgust remains a barrier for consumers in many Western countries, according to a new report from the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
The FAO estimates that 2 billion people worldwide regularly consume insects, from the crispy fried locusts and beetles popular in Thailand, to the ants and beetle larvae eaten by tribes in Africa and Australia as part of subsistence diets.
The report outlines potential benefits to health, the environment and to livelihoods around the world – highlighting that many insects are nutritional powerhouses that could be produced with minimal environmental impact in both developed and developing countries.
On nutrition, the report said: “Although significant variation was found in the data, many edible insects provide satisfactory amounts of energy and protein, meet amino acid requirements for humans, are high in monounsaturated and/or polyunsaturated fatty acids, and are rich in micronutrients such as copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorous, selenium and zinc, as well as riboflavin, pantothenic acid, biotin and, in some cases, folic acid.”
But what about marketing insects as food?
The FAO recommends that in countries where insects are already a part of traditional diets, communication should “promote edible insects as valuable sources of nutrition to counter the growing westernization of diets.”
In other countries, it says tailored communication and education strategies will be needed to address the ‘disgust factor’. This may seem like a major task, but the FAO points out that many people had similar feelings about eating lobster until quite recently.
“Arthropods like lobsters and shrimps, once considered poor-man’s food in the West, are now expensive delicacies there,” the report said. “It is hoped that arguments such as the high nutritional value of insects and their low environmental impact, low-risk nature (from a disease standpoint) and palatability may also contribute to a shift in perception.”
The FAO also said that Western disgust about eating insects may have affected other countries’ attitudes; in Malawi, city-dwellers and devout Christians were most likely to reject the idea of insects as food. Meanwhile, with growing food insecurity and projected increases in the global population, the UN agency is strongly in favour of promoting insect consumption worldwide.
“Because of their nutritional composition, accessibility, simple rearing techniques and quick growth rates, insects can offer a cheap and efficient opportunity to counter nutritional insecurity by providing emergency food and by improving livelihoods and the quality of traditional diets among vulnerable people,” it said.
“…Influencing the public at large as well as policymakers and investors in the food and feed sectors by providing validated information on the potential of insects as food and feed sources can help to push insects higher on political, investment and research agendas worldwide.”