I grew up in Nottinghamshire on a family run arable farm and went on to study Environmental Science at Nottingham University. Leaving university, I took up a position as an agricultural loss adjuster, dealing with a wide range of commercial insurance claims across the UK. I have always had a keen interest in travel and so when the opportunity arose to work as an international adjuster based out of Mexico City arose my girlfriend and I leapt at the chance. With neither of us speaking much Spanish, the learning curve was a steep one but we quickly became accustomed to the differences in language and culture and soon felt quite at home. Having spent some time in Mexico we moved to set up a new office in Lima and spent most of our free time exploring Peru and its neighbouring South American countries.
After some years abroad we were keen to ‘settle down’ and decided to move back to the UK. Although before doing so we decided to dust off our tent and go for an adventure on our tandem bicycle. After passing through 16 countries, covering 5,000 miles and truly testing the strength of our relationship we arrived home and are now settled in the village of Scopwick, Lincolnshire. I came back looking for a new challenge, away from loss adjusting, and was keen to return to farming. My family had moved from Nottinghamshire to Lincolnshire, resulting in the restructuring of the original farming business. This change in circumstances meant that starting a new enterprise away from arable farming seemed my best option.
I have always had an interest in insects and opted to take entomology modules as part of my course at Nottingham. That said it wasn’t until I got to Mexico; where I enjoyed toasted chapulines, tacos full of escamoles, and gusanos in my tequila, that I saw the significant role insects could play in people’s diets. Looking back, the idea of farming insects for food probably grew from there. I am now running Instar Farming, a new enterprise rearing crickets for human consumption. Insect farming is a relatively new industry and there is very little information available to help prospective new entrants to the sector. This motivated my Nuffield Scholarship study, Insects as Food: opportunities and challenges to farming insects for human consumption in the UK, which, I hope, will provide a useful resource to those interested in this emerging industry. I am very grateful to the The Food Chain Scholarship Fund for making my scholarship possible.
Farming insects for food: opportunities and challenges
The Food Chain Scholarship
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?