Saving the planet one plateful at a time does not mean cutting back on meat, says new research – the trick may be to switch our diet to insects.

The raising of livestock such as cows, pigs and sheep occupies two-thirds of the world’s farmland and generates 20 per cent of the greenhouse gases causing global warming.

As a result, the United Nations and senior figures want to reduce the amount of meat we eat and the search is on for alternatives.  A policy paper on the eating of insects is being formally considered by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.  The FAO held a meeting on the theme in Thailand in 2008 and there are plans for a world congress in 2013.

Professor Arnold van Huis, an entomologist at Wageningen University in Belgium and the author of the UN paper, says eating insects has advantages.

“There is a meat crisis. The world population will grow from 6 billion now to 9 billion by 2050 and we know people are consuming more meat. Twenty years ago, the average was 20kg, it is now 50kg and will be 80kg in 20 years.

If we continue like this we will need another Earth.”   Van Huis is an enthusiast for eating insects but, given his role as a consultant to the FAO, he can’t be dismissed as a crank.

“Most of the world already eats insects,” he says. “It is only in the Western world that we don’t. Psychologically, we have a problem with it. I don’t know why, as we eat shrimps, which are comparable.”

The advantages of this diet include insects’ high levels of protein, vitamin and mineral content. Van Huis’s latest research, conducted with colleague Dennis Oonincx, shows that farming insects produces far less greenhouse gas than livestock.  Breeding commonly eaten insects such as locusts, crickets and meal worms emits 10 times less methane than livestock.

The insects also produce 300 times less nitrous oxide, also a warming gas, and much less ammonia, a pollutant produced by pig and poultry farming.  Being cold-blooded, insects convert plant matter into protein extremely efficiently, Van Huis says. In addition, the health risks are lower.  He says that in the West, eating insects is a hard sell. “It is important how you prepare them, you have to do it nicely, to overcome the yuck factor.”

More than 1000 insects are known to be eaten by choice around the world, in 80 per cent of nations. They are most popular in the tropics, where they grow to large sizes and are easy to harvest.  The FAO’s field officer, Patrick Durst, based in Bangkok, Thailand, ran the 2008 conference.

Durst says the FAO’s priority will be to boost the eating of insects where it is already accepted but has been in decline due to Western cultural influence.   He also thinks such a boost can provide livelihoods and protect forests where many wild insects are collected.

“I can see a step-by-step process to wider implementation.”   First, insects could be used to feed farmed animals such as chicken and fish, which eat them naturally.

Then, they could be used as ingredients.  Van Huis says: “We’re looking at ways of grinding the meat into some sort of patty, which would be more recognisable to western palates.”

LOCAL TREATS

Thailand: Dishes include fried giant red ants, crickets and June beetles.

Colombia: “Fat-bottomed” ants are a popular snack, fried and salted.

Papua New Guinea: Sago grubs in banana leaves are a local delicacy.

Japan: Dishes include aquatic fly larvae in sugar and candied grasshoppers.

Mexico: The agave worm is eaten on tortillas and grasshoppers are toasted.

Cambodia: Deep-fried tarantulas are popular with locals and tourists.

Australia: Witchetty grubs were a staple in outback Aboriginal diets.

New Zealand: Huhu grubs were a delicacy in traditional Maori diets and feature at wild food festivals.

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