Everything you eat contains insects. In fact, the FDA permits a certain number of undetected insects, maggots and parasites (three maggots per can of tomatoes is A-OK) in every commercially sold grocery product. However, if humans are going to continue to exist on our increasingly impaired and overpopulated planet, we may need to intentionally eat more bugs.
Researchers from the University of Edinburgh have found that replacing half of the world’s meat with the likes of crickets and mealworms could reduce the need to clear-cut massive amounts of land for meat farming and considerably reduce the emission of greenhouse gases. Beef production is particularly damaging to the planet’s health, the study notes, and replacing it at least in part with other protein sources is critical.
“A mix of small changes in consumer behavior, such as replacing beef with chicken, reducing food waste and potentially introducing insects more commonly into diets, would help achieve land savings and a more sustainable food system,” said Dr. Peter Alexander, of the University of Edinburgh’s School of GeoSciences and Scotland’s Rural College.
The study, published in the journal Global Food Security, sought answers for the environmental problems presented by humanity’s increasing desire to eat meat. The study reviewed the impact of a variety of protein sources, including alternative sources of food, such as insects, meat alternatives like tofu, and lab-grown meat.
In the U.S., people consume seven billion animals annually, and meat agriculture is incredibly polluting and resource- and land-intensive. The production, processing and distribution of meat requires huge amounts of pesticides, fertilizer, fuel, feed — which takes its own environmental toll — and water, while releasing greenhouse gases, manure and a range of toxic chemicals into our air and water. In addition, clear-cutting land for agriculture removes trees that help cool the planet and clean the air. A 2009 study found that four-fifths of the deforestation across the Amazon rainforest could be linked to cattle ranching.
(Or, we could consider a vegetarian diet. Substituting beans for beef would result in an immediate 50 to 75 percent reduction in greenhouse gases in the U.S., according to a new study. Bean production is one-fortieth as greenhouse-gas-intensive as beef production.)
Obviously, the greatest barrier to convincing consumers to intentionally choose insect-based foods is the cultural barrier — or “ick factor.” But in some nations, eating insects is part of the national diet. The UN reports that two billion people deliberately include insects in their diet. Crickets are the most popular culinary insect around the world. In Laos, fried crickets are a popular street food. In France, grasshoppers join snails and frogs in the kitchen. A California company called BugMuscle is marketing an insect-based protein supplement.
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