Large-scale commercial farming with insects, from the common house fly to the more exotic Mopani worm, could soon become a reality across the globe as humanity battles to feed itself. Breeding billions of house flies, for example, could produce highly efficient cattle feed, Mopani worms, already feeding many Southern Africans, could become a delicacy on the menus of the top restaurants around the world. And in the process, global warming would take a hit.
Entomophagy, or the practice of eating insects, has a long history, and is currently practised by two billion people world-wide.
A report released last week by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), called for restaurants, chefs and food writers to promote the eating of insects in a bid to fight world hunger and global warming.
"Insects are everywhere and they reproduce quickly." They also leave a low environmental footprint." the FAO said.
They provide high-quality protein and nutrients when compared with meat and fish and are "particularly important as a food supplement for undernourished children".
The common house fly, bred on human faeces or abattoir blood, could, potentially, also be used for highly efficient cattle feed.
Insects contain a high quantity of protein, and some are also rich in copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, selenium and zinc.
They are extremely efficient, in turning feed into edible meat, converting feed mass into meat four times more effectively than cows and this would allow food to be produced more cheaply, with fewer emissions, the report suggests.
According to the FAO report there are almost 2000 edible insect species worldwide. These include small grasshoppers served "toasted in a little oil with garlic, lemon and salt" on the streets of Oaxaca, as well as fly eggs, gathered from stagnant water, that Montezuma enjoyed for breakfast. This feast is also known as "Mexican caviar."
Termites, mealybugs, dung beetles, stink bugs, leaf cutter ants, paper wasps, even some species of mosquitoes are used as food for humans in various parts of the world. Eighty grasshopper species are regularly eaten. In Ghana, during the spring rains, winged termites are collected and fried or made into bread. In South Africa they are eaten with a maize porridge by some.
Chocolate-coated bees are popular in Nigeria, Mopani worms are favoured in Zimbabwe, and rice cooked with crunchy wasps was a favourite meal of the late Emperor Hirohito in Japan.
The most-consumed insects are beetles (468 species), followed by ants, bees and wasps (351), crickets, locusts and cockroaches (267), followed by butterflies, moths and silkworms (253).
The case for houseflies - or other insects like crickets, beetles, bees, wasps, caterpillars (including Southern Africa’s Mopani worms), grasshoppers, termites and ants to become a major industrial food source is being taken seriously by governments, according to the report. It is an attractive option to create greater food security because insects grow exceptionally fast and thrive on the waste of many industrial processes.
The report envisages fully automated insect works being set up close to breweries or food factories that produce high volumes of farm waste. Each could breed hundreds of tonnes of insects a year that would then be fed to other animals.
"The prospect of farms processing insects for feed might soon become a global reality due to a growing demand for sustainable feed sources," the report argues.
The deciding factor for governments and food producers would be lower costs. Cattle and poultry are poor at converting food to body weight, but crickets, says the report, need just two kilograms of feed for every one kilogram of weight gained.
"In addition, insects can be reared on organic side streams including human and animal waste, and can help reduce contamination. Insects are reported to emit fewer greenhouse gases and less ammonia than cattle or pigs, and they require significantly less land and water than cattle rearing," says the report.
It is also argued that insects are widely misunderstood. Insects "deliver a host of ecological services that are fundamental to the survival of humankind. They play an important role as pollinators in plant reproduction, in improving soil fertility through waste bioconversion, and in natural biocontrol of harmful pest species, and they provide a variety of valuable products for humans such as honey and silk and medical applications such as maggot therapy."
According to a recent article in the London newspaper,The Telegraph, most westerners might already be eating insects without knowing it. “Some degree of insect contamination is considered inevitable in large-scale agriculture. The United States Food and Drug Administration considers wheat flour with an average of 75 or fewer insect fragments per 50 grams, and tomato juice with no more than one maggot per 100 grams, appropriate for human consumption,” the paper writes.