Using insects no longer seems to be an oddity in the food and feed sectors. In fact, studies are focusing on how to utilize them and exploit some features they possess that make them the best candidates to close the circle of a food chain that is currently broken.
During my internship at Entomics, a startup based in Cambridge – UK, I have dealt with insects through hands-on experience. “Entomics” is a neologism: ento- in Greek means insect and -omics refers to an approach to biology from a molecular perspective. The startup is studying the Black Soldier Fly (BSF), scientifically called Hermetia Illucens, a tropical fly species with great potential in the industrial food sector. The idea is to exploit this species’ incredible hunger in order to process organic biomass (e.g. agriculture, markets, supermarkets, and restaurants leftovers) and convert it into high valuable proteins, fatty acids and chitin, which in turn can be reused in the animal feed and pharma sectors. Especially these products can replace soy as a source of protein in animal feed, reducing the harm that traditional forages have on lands. The same concept can be applied in the fishing industry since the conventional feed is expensive in both economical and environmental terms. The focus of the internship has been set on rearing techniques, which I will briefly describe ahead in order to acquire a more ample understanding of insects generally and BSF more specifically.
This very interesting and quiet – it is not as noisy and annoying as the domestic fly we know – insect is characterized by a first (early) larval stage in which it eats an incredible amount of food and stores it as proteins and fats. Subsequently, follows an adult-fly stage, when the BSF does not require food anymore and has only one mission: mating.
Actually, most insect species have some sort of complex social and sexual life. Let’s think for example to bees and ants, whose gender is decided according to the social role they must take. Or to the female mantis, which decapitates her partner immediately after mating. Or even to the less known cestodes, a class of parasitic worms living in mammals gut, whose daily life is rather enviable. In fact, they do not have a mouth to eat or a stomach to digest because they feed directly on the host’s digested food (absorbing it on its bowel wall), but have innervated genitalia, which means they feel pleasure and are hermaphroditic, so if they do not find a partner they can always reproduce asexually. Well if you thought that cats had a lazy life, now you know some worms that are even better at taking it easy.
These weird animals are too neglected because people find them scary or gross. Indeed, some of them can be disgusting, although in reality they are very useful. In fact, there are multiple reasons to appreciate even more insects, with regard to their application in the farms. Humans, especially Europeans, have always relied on livestock to survive. This was feasible until husbandry has been conducted in a sustainable way, but since the first industrial revolution, our society has strongly engaged with an industrial productive linear system. This led to “modern” lifestyles and to ever-ending scientific progress, which pursues a “disease-free” life, but because of human activity, society is subject to constant change and new challenges. The inevitable consequence is that many species have already become extinct and others are constantly threatened with extinction.
To relieve this burden, we should shift our employment of animals to some other species which are better suited to the need to feed a population of 2 more billions people by 2050, according to statistics. Always according to statistics, 1/3 of the food we produce globally is wasted, because of a broken food chain which terminates in the bins. Biogases production and composting are two solutions currently applied to to enhance this waste, but with very low efficiency, considering the quality of the food that ends there. A more flexible food chain is needed, as well as an element to close the system for a circular-economy model: insects.
An efficient food production system must be able to offer high nutritional values, low biomass input/output ratio, quality controls, and animal welfare. Some insects seem to just do the job.
On average, insects:
- contain 40-60% of proteins on dry mass;
- have incredible growth rates (e.g. BSF larvae go from 1 mm length to more than 20 mm in approximately 3 weeks, which is more or less as a human would grow 5 cm every day);
- are small and therefore do not require land usage and can be reared vertically in closed facilities, even inside cities;
- are relatively easy to rear and do not require antibiotics. On the contrary, some of them are rather able to stimulate and strengthen other animal’s immune system when implemented in their diets;
- are driven mainly by basic impulses and don’t feel emotions, which makes them more eligible from the ethical perspective.
Those properties make them able to get value out of waste with high efficiency: they are exactly what is needed now in the food chain. They are a natural product, they have very short reproductive cycles, which gives the farmer flexibility in terms of availability. Farm animals would be happier to eat high-quality proteins coming from insects, rather than from cattle and fish leftovers! Of course, the introduction of insects in the food chain presents criticalities as well, like the uncertain microbiological activity that takes place in and on them and the risk of massive escapees from rearing facilities and consequent habitat alteration, but there are already several studies which address these issues.
Shortly, there are too many reasons to start introducing insects in the food chain. Parallelly to this, human entomophagy will follow as the public opinion gets involved more on this topic.
I am confident that very soon Europe will experience a curious “dip” (and not forced by necessity, hopefully) into the world of edible insects, which according to a FAO report of 2013, are already being consumed normally by at least 2 billion people in the world. In Europe, some countries have already started producing and consuming insect-based food, especially in Northern Europe countries, where they have been proposed as “novel food”. In Italy, we still can’t find insects on supermarkets shelves, but Italians are also following the trend, even if facing two major problems. One is the current national and international legislation, not yet ready to commercialize insects as food. The other, is the more challenging renewing of culinary traditions. My country, in fact, is world-famous for food quality, flavors, ingredients, recipes. Therefore, it will probably be a long way to make insects part of our culinary habits.
In 2015, Milan hosted the Food Expo and Italy did not offer spiders, crickets, worms, scorpions in its dishes. Nevertheless, Italy has too much to lose if there are not accepted by the public and too little to gain since these animals are a “poor dish” that it is hard to make money on. However, it’s a fair choice and some chefs are already experimenting various ways to introduce insects in meals: from the more acceptable pasta made with a percentage of cricket flour, to the appetizers with whole insects – only for the bravest.
Insects are a highly nutritious and healthy food source with high content of fat, protein, vitamin, fibres and mineral content. Human edible insects seem to be near to enter our daily lives for several good reasons.
Concluding, I hope that in the near future we will see Entomics and other solutions that rely on insects to fight against climate change, and also to give us the opportunity to know from a closer distance these wonderful little animals, still so unknown to people.
“Entomics.” Entomics. Accessed January 3, 2020. https://www.entomics.com/.
“Sustainable Food Production & Agriculture Online Course.” FutureLearn. Accessed January 3, 2020. https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/sustainable-agriculture-in-a-changing-environment.
“Edible Insects – Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security”. Rome, FAO 2013. http://www.fao.org/3/i3253e/i3253e.pdf.