One of the biggest challenges facing global policymakers is how to feed the world’s growing population (expected to reach 8 billion by 2024) and expanding middle class, which has resulted in an accompanying increase in protein demand as consumer diets shift towards meat. The answer could be…insects, which are already being eaten in many parts of the world by an estimated 2 billion people according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Food security is becoming more pressing as extreme weather cycles have played havoc with harvests and crops in recent years resulting in food price spikes, protectionist policies or crop hoarding.
Emerging markets are driving both global population growth and the expansion of the middle class, and demand for meat is growing:
- In the BRIC, for example, the aggregate number of households with an annual disposable income over US$10,000 increased by 298 million between 2000 and 2013 and consumer expenditure on meat saw corresponding growth of 123% in real terms;
- Euromonitor forecasts that consumer expenditure on meat will increase by 87.9% in emerging and developing countries in 2014-2030, more than three times higher than the equivalent 25.3% growth in developed economies.
In line with such trends, the FAO released a report in 2013 examining edible insects for the future of food, highlighting the fact that farming of such insects could provide a solution to tackling global hunger and food shortages.
Number of Households with an Annual Disposable Income over US$10,000 vs. Consumer Expenditure on Meat in BRIC: 2000-2013
Source: Euromonitor International from national statistics/UN/OECD
The advantages of insects
Insects are of nutritional value being high in protein, minerals and vitamins while also a healthier alternative to fattier meat. Farming of insects is better for the environment compared to traditional livestock farming as they require less land and water, while their greenhouse gas emissions are fewer. Another benefit is the fact that they are relatively low cost to farm compared to traditional agricultural methods and, therefore, could also provide an income for emerging market consumers, helping to lift them out of poverty and contribute to economic growth.
Overcoming negative perceptions is the biggest challenge
The most obvious challenge to insects becoming a viable food source for the future is that negative attitudes in Western cultures towards insects as food need to change. Perhaps using insects for animal feed is a more feasible reality; research is being carried out into this as the demand for meat and protein is also translating into a consequent increase in the need for animal feed. Euromonitor estimates that the global production of meat and poultry will hit another record high in 2014 of 311 million tonnes. Companies and governments are investing in research and experimenting with insects in different ways. The government in the Netherlands has invested in researching insect farms while a South African company is hoping to build the world’s largest fly farm. In May 2014, the first international conference about “Insects to Feed the World” was held in the Netherlands.
Another challenge in the EU is that current legislation would need to be amended as dead insects, as with livestock, can’t be used in feed which will end up for human consumption. The challenge of feeding a growing population will continue as the UN estimates the world’s population will reach 9 billion by 2050. Insects could solve not just food security issues but also help with global emission reduction targets and to offset food price volatility during global shocks, which always impact the poorest the hardest as they spend the majority of their income on food as an essential item. However, introducing insects to squeamish Western palates is likely to remain a challenge.