Insects: The protein source of tomorrow?
Insects have long been considered the superfood of the future. They are rich in protein, require less land and water, and have a better carbon footprint than conventional meat. If humanity wants to feed ten billion people healthily by 2050 and protect the planet at the same time, it will need alternative sources of protein. Mealworms or beetles could soon be on our menu. But insect food is struggling to get off the ground in this country.
Sunday, January 9, 2022
- To sustainably feed ten billion people over the course of this century, we need alternative sources of protein.
- One possibility is to breed insects such as grasshoppers, worms or beetles.
- They contain a lot of protein and at the same time require less land and water. Their carbon footprint is also better than that of the usual animal meat. However, demand for insects is still low in this country.
"To feed 9 billion people, the edible world must be rethought," writes the Economist. The problem of this century is to produce enough healthy food for a growing world population. But due to climate change and the already heavy strain on ecosystems, more yield must be achieved on the same amount of land. Fertile soil is increasingly becoming a scarce commodity. There is lively discussion about space-saving cultivation alternatives. Besides the production of microalgae or seaweed, this also includes insect breeding.
Insects already on the menu in many regions
It may sound unusual, especially for Europeans. But insects are already part of the diet of an estimated two billion people - for example in Mexican, Thai or South African cuisine. And there are good reasons to eat more worms, grasshoppers or beetles in more northern hemispheres, too. Insects convert resources supplied to them, such as nutrients and water, into protein much more efficiently than other animals consumed by humans. Certain insects contain more protein than eggs or meat. Insect farming requires much less land and water - which significantly improves the carbon footprint compared to cattle, pigs or chickens. Food waste can be used as food, which reduces food waste.
Also suitable for animal breeding
Somewhat less ambitious, but still helpful for climate protection, could be the feeding of insect-based food in animal husbandry. The use of land-intensive feeds such as soy has a far greater impact on the climate. Moreover, feeds like soy compete with human food. This makes little sense in view of population growth and dwindling land resources. The same applies to fish farming. Today, almost 20 percent of wild-caught fish are processed into fish meal and used as feed in fish farming. Here, too, insect-based feed could be a far more sustainable option.
Still little demand among consumers
However, it will still be a rocky road before insects become established as snacks or meat substitutes among consumers in this country. As the "Sonntagszeitung" reports, Migros has withdrawn its dried mealworms, crickets and grasshoppers from the range in November 2021 after about three years. The edible insects sold under the "Mi-Bugs" brand were a flop. "The potential of insects is rather low. Insects don't really belong on the Swiss plate yet," a spokesperson for the orange giant told the "Sonntagszeitung". After the approval of insects in 2017, sales peaked in 2019. At 420,000 francs per year, however, it was at a modest level. In 2020, revenues then plummeted by a third. Many may have tried the insect snacks out of curiosity. But disgust with insects still leads to a negative attitude. They are still considered vermin.
The suppliers of alternative meat products also have to contend with higher costs. The two companies Oatly and Beyond Meat have to pay significantly higher prices for oat milk or rapeseed oil. This puts pressure on profit margins and the emerging competition puts pressure on high consumer prices: In June 2021, oat milk was still more than twice as expensive as cow's milk; in November 2021, Coop lowered oat milk prices. Competition in the vegan segment continues to grow. Big players such as Nestlé and Unilever have also entered the plant-based meat alternative business - Nestlé, for example, offers a pea-based plant milk or a vegan tuna alternative.
Price will be decisive in determining whether products can establish themselves in the market. For consumers, it is still one of the most important factors in the purchase decision. Although purely plant-based products are better received by consumers, representatives of insect nutrition see their products as having an advantage over plant-based protein sources. They could be better absorbed by the human body. From the beginning, however, the target group for insect snacks was people who, for ecological reasons, also increasingly prefer plant-based food. However, people who live exclusively vegan are still uninteresting for retailers. They do not even make up one percent of the population.
The demand for regional products could hardly be greater. This is shown by a new study by the Zurich School of Business. Consumers even consider regional products to be significantly more sustainable than organic or premium products. To keep up with this trend, it is therefore all the more important to promote modern breeding techniques and plant protection products.
The reduced use of plant protection products is causing much smaller wheat and rapeseed harvests. A study carried out by Swiss Agricultural Research reveals that such crop failures can only be offset by state subsidies. This is neither sustainable nor resource-efficient.
The economic interdependence of the world has increased greatly over the past years and decades. Due to the brisk trade activity between the continents, invasive plant and animal species are also spreading faster and faster. This can lead to serious problems for native vegetation and agriculture. According to the FOEN, the canton of Ticino is particularly affected.