[Infographic] Could We Halt Climate Change by Switching to a Bug-Based Diet?

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The world is struggling. If we don’t find creative ways to make a real difference and halt climate change, Earth is going to suffer. Can we make a significant impact simply by changing what we put on our plates?

Rarely a day goes by without climate change hitting the headlines. It’s a growing area of concern for many of us, and for good reason. The UN secretary has claimed we’re “losing the race” and that climate change needs to be taken more seriously. Other sources suggest we’re rapidly reaching the point of no return. The reality is daunting and appears, in large part, to be out of our hands. We have to rely on politicians to make the right decisions and save the day. But what if there was one way we could make a big difference?

What We Eat Matters to the Environment

What we eat can be an emotive subject for many. But the reality is, our food makes a huge difference to the environment and global warming. 

As things stand, 70% of the world’s agricultural land is dedicated (either directly or indirectly) to meat production. We expect the demand for meat to increase by 76% by 2050 to cater for the increased global population, which will stand at 9 million. Further to this, 90% of the soybeans and 50% of the grain grown worldwide are used to feed livestock. 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions are the result of worldwide livestock. These emissions are greater than the amount emitted by all transportation combined. Animal agriculture isn’t sustainable. So what are the alternatives?

Could Switching to a Bug-Based Diet Halt Climate Change?

Of course, there are other solutions, such as the increasingly popular plant-based diet, shown to be hugely beneficial in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But another option is Entomophagy — or, in lay terms, eating bugs.

Research shows cricket production is 20 times more efficient as a source of protein than cattle. Cricket production also produces 80 times less methane. When compared to beef, insect protein (gram for gram):

  • It requires 8-14 times less land
  • It requires 5 times less water
  • It emits 6-13 times fewer greenhouse gasses 

When it comes to halting climate change and making a significant difference, insects could be the answer. But how nutritious are they? And will people actually adopt this diet?

How Nutritious Are Insects?

Edible insects have long been a part of the human diet because they are easily obtainable — and nutritious. Generally, insects have been found to contain high amounts of animal protein from 13% to up to 81% depending on the species, as well as fats, lipids, vitamins and minerals.

The protein content of edible insects ranges from 20-76% of dry matter. The amount of fat, however, varies widely, from 10–60% of dry matter, while the amount of polyunsaturated fatty acids can be as high as 70% of the total fatty acids. An insect’s exoskeleton is made up of chitin, and its carbohydrate content ranges from 2.7-49.8 mg per kg of fresh matter. On average, an insect’s mineral content consists of:

  • Potassium
  • Sodium
  • Calcium
  • Copper
  • Iron: The larvae of Gonimbrasia belina, known as mopani or mopane, is high in iron, ranging from 31–77 mg per 100 g of dry matter. The grasshopper L. migratoria has an iron range between 8 and 20 mg per 100 g of dry matter)
  • Zinc: Mopane is known for its high zinc content, which offers a minimum of 14 mg per 100 g of dry matter. The palm weevil larvae Rhynchophorus phoenicis offers 26.5 mg of zinc per 100 g of dry matter.
  • Magnesium
  • Manganese
  • Selenium
  • Phosphorus

Edible bugs also contain almost all of the vitamins, including A, B complex, C, D, E, and K. Certain species are found to be especially high in Vitamins B complex and C.

Among the insects deemed edible, the following are currently farmed for their nutritive value in Europe:

  • The house cricket (Acheta domestica)
  • The Jamaican field cricket (Gryllus assimilis)
  • The African migratory locust (Locusta migratoria)
  • The desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria)
  • The yellow mealworm beetle (Tenebrio molitor)
  • The superworm (Zophobas morio)
  • The lesser mealworm (Alphitobius diaperinus)
  • The western honey bee (Apis mellifera); and 
  • The wax moth (Galleria mellonella)

Something worth noting is that the nutritive value of edible insects depends on:

  • The insect’s diet
  • The insect’s stage of metamorphosis
  • How the insect is cooked and prepared.

So much for the macromolecule content. However, insect digestibility, which measures at 76-96%, should also be taken into account. Furthermore, the amounts of fat in edible insects range from 10-60% and are especially higher in larvae. These fats range from triacylglycerol (which accounts for an average of 80% of the fats in edible insects) to phospholipids and cholesterols. Insects also contain oleic, linoleic and linolenic acids — the same healthy unsaturated fatty acids as olive oil. 

Lastly, the greatest source of fibre in an insect covers its body — chitin. Chitin is the main component of the exoskeleton of insects and composes about 2.7 to 49.8 mg per kg of fresh weight (from 11.6 to 137.2 mg per kg of dry matter). Unfortunately, the average human body cannot fully digest chitin and so it is regarded as insoluble fibre. Studies of Chitin have also been carried out regarding its advantages to the human immune system. 

Table 1. Energy value of edible insects.

English name Latin name Stage Locality En. value 

(kcal/100 g)

Australian plague locust Chortoicetes terminifera Adult Australia 499
Weaver ant Oecophylla smaragdina Adult Australia 1272
Yellow mealworm beetle Tenebrio molitor Larva USA 206
Yellow mealworm beetle Tenebrio molitor Adult USA 138
Mexican leafcutting ant Atta mexicana Adult Mexico 404
Two-spotted cricket Gryllus bimaculatus Adult Thailand 120
Japanese grasshopper Oxya japonica Adult Thailand 149
Brown-spotted locust Cyrtacanthacris tatarica Adult Thailand 89
Silkworm Bombyx mori Pupa Thailand 94
African migratory locust Locusta migratoria Adult Netherlands 179

 

Table 2. Protein content in 100 insect species.

Order or suborder Latin name Stage Protein content (% in dry matter)
Beetles Coleoptera Adults and larvae 23–66
Butterflies Lepidoptera Pupae and larvae 14–68
Hemipterans Hemiptera Adults and larvae 42–74
Homopterans Homoptera Adults, larvae and eggs 45–57
Hymenopterans Hymenoptera Adult, pupae, larvae and eggs 13–77
Dragonflies Odonata Adults and naiads 46–65
Orthopterans Orthoptera Adults and nymphs 23–65

 

Table 3. Fat content in dry matter of edible insects. [8]

English name Latin name Stage Fat content (% in dry matter)
Silkworm Bombyx mori Pupa 29
Western honey bee Apis melifera Brood 31
African migratory locust Locusta migratoria Nymph 13
Wax moth Galleria mellonella Caterpillar 57
Jamaican field cricket Gryllus assimilis Nymph 34
Yellow mealworm Tenebrio molitor Larva 36
Giant mealworm Zophobas atratus Larva 40

 

Table 4. Neutral-detergent fibre content (cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin) in the dry matter of edible insects. [8]

English name Latin name Stage Fibre content (% in dry matter)
Silkworm Bombyx mori Pupa 14
Western honey bee Apis mellifera Brood 11
African migratory locust Locusta migratoria Nymph 27
Wax moth Galleria mellonella Caterpillar 21
Jamaican field cricket Gryllus assimilis Nymph 8
Yellow mealworm Tenebrio molitor Larva 18
Giant mealworm Zophobas atratus Larva 17

 

But Will People Actually Eat Insects?

Those of you unfamiliar with Entomophagy might be surprised to hear 80% of the world’s countries already eat bugs. In parts of Africa and Asia, they are a staple part of the diet. Incredibly, in Thailand, 20,000 domestic cricket farms produce an average of 7,500 metric tonnes of insects annually. 

When it comes to countries that don’t typically eat insects, when given the option, people are surprisingly accommodating. 72% of the USA is willing to incorporate bugs into their diet, and the same is true of 74% of India. 

The biggest obstacle to people adopting an insect-based diet is perception. When people think about eating bugs, they likely imagine eating them whole. But insect-eating is gradually becoming more mainstream, and exciting things are happening in this area. With over 2,000 edible insect species, there are a lot of options when it comes to food preparation, textures and flavours. It’s a culinary chef’s dream, and in fact, it seems the public is becoming more interested by the day. We can see this in how Sainsbury’s has recently launched a £1.50 edible insect range, including “Smoky BBQ crunchy roasted crickets“, for sale at 250 stores around the UK. This is a great sign — and a huge wakeup call. When it comes to taking control over climate change and “voting with our dollar”, it’s clear the best way to start is with what we choose to put on our plate three times a day.

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The Experts behind This Research

Ron Culvera is a student of Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) and a graduate of B.S. Biology. To sustain his studies, he works as a biomedical writer for clinical research into cancer, reverse vaccinology and cardiology studies and biology research into sustainable communities, nutrition biochemistry and single-nucleotide polymorphisms. He also works as an infographics designer for scientific presentations to be exhibited in clinical case conferences and scientific symposiums.

Brent Nawrocki is an ecological researcher with interests pertaining to aquatic food webs, food chain length, predator dietary analysis and applied ecological research. He has a Master’s of Science Degree from the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research in Ontario, Canada.

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Ramya Sriram manages digital content and communications at Kolabtree (kolabtree.com), the world's largest freelancing platform for scientists. She has over a decade of experience in publishing, advertising and digital content creation.

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