Fried mealworms (Photo: Shutterstock.com)
ROME (TheBlaze/AP) -- The U.N. has new weapons to fight hunger, boost nutrition and reduce pollution, and they might be crawling or flying near you right now: edible insects, a practice known as entomophagy.
The Food and Agriculture Organization on Monday hailed the likes of grasshoppers, ants and other members of the insect world as an underutilized food for people, livestock and pets.
A 200-page report, released at a news conference at the U.N. agency's Rome headquarters, says 2 billion people worldwide already supplement their diets with insects, which are high in protein and minerals, and have environmental benefits.
Screenshot of the report cover. (Image: FAO.org)
Insects are "extremely efficient" in converting feed into edible meat, the agency said. On average, they can convert 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of feed into 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of insect mass. In comparison, cattle require 8 kilograms (17.6 pounds) of feed to produce a kilo of meat.
Most insects are likely to produce fewer environmentally harmful greenhouse gases, and also feed on human and food waste, compost and animal slurry, with the products being used for agricultural feed, the agency said.
Currently, most edible insects are gathered in forests and what insect farming does take place is often family-run and serves niche markets. But the U.N. says mechanization can ratchet up insect farming production. The fish bait industry, for example, has long farmed insects.
Insect farming is "one of the many ways to address food and feed security," the food agency said.
"Insects are everywhere and they reproduce quickly," the agency said, adding they leave a "low environmental footprint." Here's more from the report regarding the more favorable environmental impact of edible insects, compared to traditional livestock:
- Insects promoted as food emit considerably fewer greenhouse gases (GHGs) than most livestock (methane, for instance, is produced by only a few insect groups, such as termites and cockroaches).
- Insect rearing is not necessarily a land-based activity and does not require land clearing to expand production. Feed is the major requirement for land.
- The ammonia emissions associated with insect rearing are also far lower than those linked to conventional livestock, such as pigs.
- Because they are cold-blooded, insects are very efficient at converting feed into protein (crickets, for example, need 12 times less feed than cattle, four times less feed than sheep, and half as much feed as pigs and broiler chickens to produce the same amount of protein).
They provide high-quality protein and nutrients when compared with meat and fish and are "particularly important as a food supplement for undernourished children," it said.
Boiled silkworm larvae (Photo: Shutterstock.com)
But a condensed fact sheet about insect eating states that it is a "common misconception" that entomophagy should only be reserved for times of extreme hunger.
"...in most instances where they are a staple in local diets," the fact sheet states, "insects are consumed because of their taste, and not because there are no other food sources available."
Mopane caterpillars in southern Africa and weaver ant eggs in Southeast Asia, for example, are considered delicacies and sell for high prices.
Insects can also be rich in copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, selenium and zinc, and are a source of fiber.
The agency noted that its Edible Insect Program is also examining the potential of arachnids, such as spiders and scorpions, although they are not strictly speaking insects.
University biologists have analyzed the nutritional value of edible insects, and some of them, such as certain beetles, ants, crickets and grasshoppers, come close to lean red meat or broiled fish in terms of protein per gram (ounce).
And some people who might not entertain the thought of consuming insects might already be eating them. Many insects are ingested inadvertently. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has a handbook of acceptable "defect levels" allowed in foods, which for some foods includes whole or parts of insects.
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This story has been updated to correct a typo in the headline.