The world’s population is likely to increase continuously and reach around nine billion by 2050. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), food demand will double by 2050 but our planet will reach its limit environmentally and in terms of resources before that. This is why the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has chosen edible insects as a potential solution to the global food shortage in the future.
Insects, Source of Protein Instead of Meat
Would we have insects on our dining tables one day? In theory, it seems inevitable, without a doubt. Edible insects are referred to as mini-livestock, containing more than three times as much protein per 100g as meat. Not only that, edible insects have been proven to have high nutritional value, providing high amounts of calcium, iron, zinc, vitamins, minerals and polyunsaturated fatty acids. According to FAO’s research, global meat consumption is projected to reach 450 million tonnes. Will our planet be able to meet this demand? In the future where food demand is too high, it might be impossible to consume meat as much as we do today and edible insects could become our salvation that solves food shortages, replacing basic protein sources like beef, pork and chicken.
In terms of nutritional value, farming method and environmental impact, edible insects far advantageous than traditional sources of meat. Compared to livestock production, it takes far less water and feed to grow edible insects. While it takes 10kg of feed to produce 1kg of protein in traditional livestock production, it only takes 1kg of feed to grow edible insects. Livestock produces 2,850 times more greenhouse gases than insects and considering that livestock production is responsible for 17％ of all greenhouse gases emitted across the globe today, edible insects will become more valuable because environmental friendliness will become a more important factor when we consume food in the future. This is why insects are an extremely sustainable source of protein for humans and for our planet.
Future Food Research
“We carry out research in sustainable food sources that could solve various health issues, environmental problems and food shortages we are facing now and will face in the future. And we have chosen edible insects as our primary focus.” Sidoo Ryu who is the CEO of Future Food Lab which produces energy bars, powder products, muesli, cookies and shake products with edible insects, is a pioneer in this alternative food industry. Ryu was originally running a blog about edible insects but he started a business in 2014. He believes there already is a strong foundation for his business. “The domestic market is already ahead of the global market. The Korean government is actively promoting the insect production industry and I really want to invest in it as a sustainable farming industry.” Commercialization of insects really took off when the ‘Act on the Nurturing and Promotion of the Insect Industry’ was enacted in 2010. According to a survey by the Korean Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, the domestic insect market went from KRW 168 billion to KRW 264.8 billion from 2011 to 2018. The market is also projected to grow by KRW 100 billion only in 2020. In 2011, there wasn’t even a market for edible insects but in 2020, the edible insect market is projected to reach KRW 50 billion.
The Korean Ministry of Food and Drug Safety has designated 8 types of insects including silkworm, silkworm pupae, grasshopper, mealworm, two-spotted cricket, white-spotted flower chafer beetle larvae, rhinoceros beetle larvae and giant mealworm beetle larvae as general food ingredients and businesses can produce complete processed products using these insects. Compared to what’s happening in Korea, the foreign edible insect markets are considered quite conservative. “There are not many countries that recognize or approve insects as food. Many of them don’t even have any regulation or policy for edible insects. When you look at this, Korea is actually far ahead of many countries in this field,” says Ryu. Ryu, mentioning a French edible insect start-up called Ynsect which runs a massive insect farm, explains that they only use processed insects to make feed for farmed aquatic animals and that edible insects are not yet accepted by the society as a food source that can be consumed directly. It’s also interesting to see that the entire insect farming process of Ynsect are 100％ automated with the use of robots, sensor technologies and AI whereas the Korean insect industry is comprised of small farms producing insects independently.
How Insects Are Consumed Today
The attention edible insects receive are not just positive ones. Due to the negative perceptions and cultural biases, edible insects are also very much undervalued. You can get edible canned silkworm pupae in any 24-hour convenience store in Korea but that doesn’t mean insects are widely consumed by the public in Korea. Do we see people eating insects often? Not really. People have been getting interested in edible insects lately and the industry is growing but in reality, edible insects are not a common food source yet. This shows when we look at the purchase patterns of Future Food Lab’s consumers. People are not purchasing them for their flavors or as part of their regular food choices. People are buying them out of curiosity and schools are purchasing them for educational purposes to teach students about the future and environment. Future Food Lab’s ‘Gosoae Powder’ is predominantly known as food for patients. This powder product is made of powdered mealworm beetle larvae and it contains 7.4g of protein per 10g. It is perfect for patients because it’s easy to consume and it provides a satisfactory amount of quality protein. Future Food Lab has been seeing sales with this product after positive results have been reported in a patient food research carried out with cancer patients at Gangnam Severance Hospital in 2016. Future Food Lab refers insect protein as the future protein and processes mealworm and grasshoppers to make energy bars, muesli, cookies and shakes. As you can see, eating edible insects does not mean we have to eat insects that people have an aversion to but it is about using the protein edible insects could provide us.
“Pesticides are made solely for the purpose of killing insects. Even for us, it’s difficult to find food that has not been exposed to pesticides. But insects have to consume completely pesticide-free vegetables. Insects are also safe from antibiotics and growth hormones which have always been a problem in the traditional livestock industry. Insect protein is probably the safest, cleanest and heathiest protein we could get” says Ryu explaining that insect protein is a premium protein source for our future. Considering the health, psychological and environmental impacts, edible insects could be an optimal choice of food source for humans. More people will choose to consume edible insects out of necessity and also perception towards edible insects will gradually change as well.
Dining Tables in the Future
Let’s ask ourselves some questions. Would insects really come to our dining tables one day? Would edible insects become part of our main diet as we see in some Sci-Fi films? When we look at the meat alternative market today, companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are already supplying products to well-established food restaurant chains like Burger King, McDonalds, Dunkin’ Donuts and Tim Hortons. According to American market research firm, Allied Market Research, the global alternative/substitute meat market is projected to grow to about KRW 9 trillion by 2025. American global management consulting firm A.T Kearney also projects that 40％ of meat consumed today will be replaced by alternative meat products by 2040. Dutch food technology company Mosa Meat is planning to launch cultured meat products made with animal stem cells in 2021. Of course, unlike vegetable meat, cultured meat is currently in a developmental stage and there is a lot of controversy around it but it is definitely an alternative to our traditional livestock products. Vegetable-based meat alternatives or cultured meat products will not wholly replace our traditional meat products very soon but they will definitely become a huge part of diet in near future.
“In Gyusam Kim’s webtoon, ‘Hive’, we see a future where abnormally large insects are taking over the world. And in this webtoon, we see people eating off a huge ant. People devour it saying that it tastes just like a lobster. I think this is very likely to happen in the future. Actually, mealworm beetles taste like shrimp. So, we could increase the size of mealworm beetles through research, one day we could be having huge mealworm beetles instead of lobsters,” says Ryu. Scientists are already making meat alternatives today so what Ryu’s saying is not beyond possibility.
As mentioned earlier, FAO is projecting the global food demand to double and meat consumption to reach 450 million tonnes by 2050. The experts are also saying our traditional livestock industry today will not be able to meet the growing meat demand. It is unlikely that completely novel, meal alternatives or insect protein would dramatically and wholly replace our meat products. But these products and traditional protein sources like beef, pork and chicken could compliment each other. It seems like edible insects could take up a space in our dining tables one day. Out of choice and out of necessity.