An international team of scientists has concluded that reducing the environmental footprint of global agriculture can be done through eating more insects and soy-based imitation meats, finding that if half of the world’s current meat consumption was replaced by insects and fake meats, agricultural land use could be cut by a third worldwide.
The environmental impact of raising cattle, pigs and other livestock is huge. Livestock accounts for one quarter of all the protein consumed on the planet, a number which keeps trending upwards as populations in the developing world become more affluent and create a higher demand for meat.
Livestock animals already consume about a third of the planet’s harvested crops, and despite advances in agricultural practices over the past half-century, global agricultural land use is still increasing.
Concerning global warming, livestock produce methane and, from fertilizers used on pasture and croplands, nitrous oxide, both of which are greenhouse gases. Experts say that livestock production is currently responsible for a whopping 12 per cent of all global human-sourced greenhouse gas emissions.
Which brings around the topic of eating insects, a commonplace practice today in some parts of the world but one less embraced in the West. “Edible insects have the potential to become a major source of human nutrition, and can be produced more efficiently than conventional livestock, i.e. in terms of converting biomass into protein or calories,” say the authors of a new study published in the journal Global Food Security.
The researchers tested land use scenarios for various foodstuffs, comparing conventional livestock production to approaches focused on aquaculture, imitation meat and insects. Using data on mealworm larvae and adult crickets production, the results showed that agricultural land use could be cut by one-third if half of current livestock production were replaced by insect production and imitation meats.
“Insects are the most efficient animal production system considered, although less so than soybean curd,” say the study’s authors. “However, insects have the additional advantage that they are able to use a wide variety of feeds, including by-products and waste.” The researchers conclude that discarded food by consumers can serve to feed mealworms, for instance, finding that by using half of the planet’s food waste to produce insects would on its own replace 8.1 per cent of current animal production.
And while the idea may seem off-putting to Canadians, Americans and other Westerners unprepared for mealworm burgers on the grill, the researchers point out that cultural changes in taste happen all the time. Lobster, for one, was until last century considered a poor person’s food but has now risen to the status of a delicacy.
“We are not trying to mandate or even suggest some policy that you eat insects every day [but] our work indicates the potential benefits that are there,” says Peter Alexander of the School of Geosciences at the University of Edinburgh and study co-author, to the Guardian.
“If everybody eats meat like an American does currently, then it’s going to be very difficult to sustain,” says Alexander. “With current production practices, more than the entire area of the planet would be required”