At least in this specific context, the European Union is a million miles behind Indian states like Nagaland, Manipur and Meghalaya— where the custom of eating insects is long and ancient.
The EU approved insects for human consumption last week, a decision that is being seen as landmark. The approval confers dignity to the protein-rich microbeasts that we foolishly dismiss as pests, and delivers a clear signal that the insect proteins industry is poised for significant growth. More importantly, it could smoothen the way for an alternative protein source that should play a critical role in feeding a hotter, more populated planet.
Of course, the EU decision won’t translate to bugs in your burgers. Insects will play a far more integral role in human food systems going forward, but they won’t likely be a direct form of protein. Instead, they’re becoming an increasingly valuable indirect food source — a feedstock for poultry, farmed fish, pork and beef, which are currently fattened on environmentally costly soy and corn feeds.
Eighty per cent of the world’s population throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America continues to eat bugs today. American consumers have been slow on the uptake, even as the US Food and Drug Administration approved insects for human consumption years ago. A niche market has emerged with snack foods such as Chirp Chips and Exo protein bars. When the FDA approved insects for pet foods earlier this year, brands including Purina began sourcing bugs for their products.
However, the game-changer decision was approving insects as ingredient in livestock feed. President Joe Biden’s FDA should make the necessary regulatory changes to clear the way for increased insect supply to animal feed markets.
In 2020, global investments in insect protein nearly doubled to about $475 million. The market might exceed $4.1 billion in the next five years. A recent Rabobank report predicts that the 10,000 metric tons of insects currently farmed per year will soar to 500,000 metric tons annually by 2030.
The animal feed industry, meanwhile, is vastly bigger — expected to reach $460 billion by 2026, up from $345 billion in 2020. This sector relies heavily on water and carbon-intensive farming of grains at a time when the cost of agrochemical inputs are steadily climbing and freshwater resources are becoming increasingly unreliable. Globally, animal farms consume more than a third of the world’s total grain production. Insect-based animal feeds could be this industry’s best shot at building climate resilience, while also helping to manage a food waste crisis.
The environmental benefits of insect proteins both for human and animal consumption are astounding. Black soldier fly larvae, in particular, hold promise: Known in the industry by the acronym BSFL, these infant bugs serve as high-quality chicken and fish feed and require 1,000 times less land per unit of protein produced compared to soy production, between 50 and 100 times less water, and zero agrochemical inputs.
Even so, insect proteins remain a tiny fraction of the total animal-feed market, in large part because of cost: While a unit of poultry feed costs several hundred dollars and fish feed costs about $1,000, insect feeds can cost more than $2,000. As the industry scales up, these costs will rapidly decline, but the FDA must make key regulatory changes within the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) to help the industry expand.
There’s no question that insect proteins can help shift our food-system paradigm toward sustainability. The EU has delivered a powerful vote of confidence — now investors and regulators need to help usher in this climate-smart future.