Professor Stefano Pascucci looks at the pressures on the global food system and the role of insects as an alternative source of protein.
What is the fundamental problem with the present global food system?
We have an imbalance, and it is all related to access. On the one hand, we have access in abundance to cheap, non nutritious food. This is particularly true in Western societies such as Europe and North America. On the other hand, access to food is denied to large parts of the world. While there is enough food around the world, as many as 811 million people still go hungry globally[i].
Second, is the sometimes destructive nature of global food production. For many of us, food is a commodity – based on a complex system of ingredients, production, and distribution. While the end product may be consumed in one country, the ecological and environmental pressures appear in other parts of the world. For example, buying a chocolate bar in a UK supermarket can have land and water use implications in Indonesia.
Underlying all of this is the growth of the world’s population and the competition for food security. This is being driven by multinational food companies and national agencies such as governments. Both are trying to secure long-term sources of food. All of this has implications environmentally and for the balance of food availability globally.
The current system is not sustainable. We need to innovate, and one way is to look at alternative sources of food.
You have looked at the possibilities of insects as a food source – what are the main benefits of this?
Access to high-value proteins is a key consideration for both food companies and national agencies. In many societies, much of protein intake comes from beef and pork. Livestock production is acknowledged as being one of the most damaging agricultural processes environmentally, accounting for around 14.5% of global emissions.[ii] The production requires protein for the animals themselves and is a very energy intensive process.
In contrast, insects are much more energy efficient. This is primarily due to them being cold blooded. They do not waste energy in keeping up their body temperature. More significantly is the diet of insects. As larvae, they eat practically anything, opening the possibility of circular approaches and the disposing of food waste.
There is huge potential for insects to produce proteins at a large scale, and to do this cost efficiently, and sustainably.
What are the main barriers to insects becoming a mainstream food source?
I think there are two main barriers.
The first is cultural and psychological. Many of us, particularly in places such as Europe do not associate insects with food. However, it is estimated that about 80% of the world’s population are in countries where insects are a long-standing part of the food system. It is in Western countries where there is an acceptance issue.
Second, there are legal and regulatory barriers. For example, neither UK nor EU legislation recognises insects as source of food. This presents barriers to innovation and experimenting with different sources of protein.
What do we need to do to convince consumers who may be squeamish about eating insects?
Broadly, There are two approaches to insect-based food. The first is simply to present them in the whole form, as you would with various types of shellfish. I think this will remain a specialised approach. Naturally, some may find this squeamish. However, the second approach that can be used at scale is the extraction of insect protein and utilised in different forms of food. This could be in the supply of both agricultural proteins, and for consumers.
So, this is not a debate about having a cricket or some bugs on your plate. Instead, it is looking at what innovation can take place to extract and deliver different sources of protein into the global food system.
There needs to be engagement with the wider public about the planet’s food system. What steps can be taken to find solutions to global problems? To succeed, we all need to be open to looking at different approaches.
What are the steps that regulators, the food industry, and retailers need to take?
UK and EU food legislation is in place to protect consumers[iii]. However, it is postponing an opportunity to transform national and global food systems. It makes it difficult for companies to innovate and then operationalise insect-based proteins. It is also stopping consumers from being able to experiment and try different protein sources.[iv]
The evidence base that insects are safe to eat is vast. From a European perspective, we know that insects were part of the diet of the Greeks and the Romans. Regulators need to take a more global and flexible approach if we are to find different solutions and make them a reality.
Finally, as everyday consumers what should we be doing to make more responsible food choices?
All of us make a difference, however small. It is about reconnecting and recognising where our food comes from. There is a complex global system behind many of the convenience foods we take for granted. Greater awareness of this and the environmental impacts should inform the food choices we make.
[iii] de-Magistris, T., Pascucci, S., & Mitsopoulos, D. (2015). Paying to see a bug on my food: How regulations and information can hamper radical innovations in the European Union. British Food Journal.
[iv] Pascucci, S., & Magistris, T. D. (2013). Information bias condemning radical food innovators? The case of insect-based products in the Netherlands. International Food and Agribusiness Management Review, 16(1030-2016-82947), 1-16.