Farming insects for food: opportunities and challenges
Insects are promoted as a ‘green’ meat and a more sustainable alternative to traditional forms of animal agriculture. Although the wild harvesting of edible insects is practised around the world, farming insects for food is a new concept. My study aims to explore this rapidly evolving industry and understand the main drivers for its growth. Through my meetings with academics, entrepreneurs and industry organisations I have built up a picture of the current state of the sector and propose an idea of what the future might hold.
Despite forming an important part of our ancestral diets, there remains a cultural aversion to eating insects in the West. From a nutritional standpoint there is good reason to eat insects: they outperform other animal-based foods in many regards. What’s more, clinical trials are now showing that consuming insects may have other positive health impacts, including improved gut health and reduced inflammation. From an environmental perspective, insects are a promising way of lessening the impact of livestock farming. Their increased feed efficiencies reduce land and water use and their global warming potential is relatively low. So, whilst ingrained dietary prejudices are difficult to overcome, there is mounting evidence that a diet enriched with insects may be beneficial for health and the environment. A recent YouGov survey found that a third of Britons, and nearly half of those aged 18-24, expected insect consumption to be commonplace by 2029. This mirrors industry forecasts, which predict strong growth for the sector over the next decade.
The number of companies around the world that are rearing insects for human consumption is increasing rapidly, with several facilities now having an annual output of over 100 tonnes. Almost all insect-based food products sold in the UK contain insects which are imported from North America, South East Asia or other European countries. There appears to be a good opportunity for local producers to command an increased domestic market share. The sector should further benefit from new EU novel food legislation which has specific provisions for insects. Although disruptive in the short term, these regulations will serve to increase safety standards and public confidence going forward.
Despite this optimistic outlook there are still significant technical hurdles to overcome if insect production is to become cost competitive with other forms of livestock farming. A lack of automation means labour costs are high and efficiency is further reduced by the small scale of most farming operations. Larger European insect producers have lobbied successfully for favourable policy change in Brussels through a well-funded, member-led organisation. Outside of the European Union, the UK stands to fall further behind its European competitors without similar support. Insect agriculture has the potential to help the UK achieve the goals of a future national food strategy. Government support will be essential to create an environment in which the sector can thrive.
I believe that insects have passed a tipping point and the question now is not is there a market for edible insects? but how large will that market be?