Science Articles

The future of food

Mon, 10th Oct 2016

Would you eat insects to save the planet and improve your health?

Felicity Bedford

Agricultural production has increased dramatically in the last 20 years and crop yields have never been as high as those we achieve today. However, demand for food across the globe continues to rise, driven by growing populations and ever increasing wealth.


Providing food for the planet is not a new dilemma and, given the scientific advances of the last century, you might be surprised that we don’t yet have an answer. This is at least in part because the problem has become more complicated.

The aim is to make sure that everyone has access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food. This means not only providing enough calories but also making sure that the food we eat is healthy.

“Food security is not just about starving people in Africa. It is about health, nutrition and wellbeing and all of the things that flow from those,” Tim Benton, Champion of the UK Global Food Security Program, explains.

In developing countries this means access not only to enough food but also to foods with essential vitamins and nutrients. By contrast, in the developed world where access to a huge variety of food is not a problem, the challenge is to tackle increasing obesity and health burdens like diabetes and heart disease, which have been linked to diet and lifestyle.

There are a number of ways of tackling the food security challenge. Changes need to be made throughout the food supply chain, from where your dinner originates in the field to the point it arrives on your fork. But, as Tim points out, “the question is not just can we do it but can we do it in a way that is sustainable?”

Currently the main way we are increasing global food production is by expanding the amount of land used for agriculture. Frequently this means destroying natural habitats which provide other services such as carbon and water cycling, whilst acting as refuges for biodiversity. 11% of global land area is already in agricultural production and some parts of the world have already exploited the majority of suitable areas for crop production.

An alternative option is to increase the yields of existing farmland, which can be achieved through crop development and intensification of farm management. Many breeding trials are now concentrating on making crops that produce larger yields and creating varieties that are more resistant to pests, diseases and unusual weather conditions.


“We have to also consider the environmental implications of being able to grow the maximum amount of wheat on a specific amount of land and the inputs required to do that, the insect and pest control,” explains Alison Bentley from the National Institute for Agricultural Botany where researchers are working to improve the efficiency of wheat. New varieties of wheat are being developed that may require fewer pesticides and fertilisers and be more resistant to drought.

However, while more resilient crops which produce reliable harvests will help to provide a stable food system, simply producing more food will not solve food security. Particularly in the developed world, it is often the choices of consumers which drive the agricultural industry.

Reducing meat consumption would dramatically increase the efficiency of food production by massively reducing food waste and freeing up land to grow crops. If that doesn’t convince you, perhaps you should consider the impact that high meat consumption can have on your health.

Meat is very high in energy and fat and the quantity consumed within western diets is contributing to large increases in chronic diseases and obesity.

Alternative sources of protein and essential nutrients might not initially sound very appetising but are a normal part of diets around the world. Vegetable based proteins, algae, jellyfish and insects are just some of the options for substituting your steak. 80% of cultures around the world eat insects as part of their normal diets.


Eating insects

These tasty alternatives have less saturated fat but are still packed with protein and nutrients and are increasingly available both online and in supermarkets. They require less land and resource to produce, so you would not only be improving your health but also saving the planet.

However, if the idea of replacing beef, pork and chicken with mealworms and crickets is just too much, there are ways of making meat production more sustainable.

Tristram Stuart is a food waste campaigner with some innovative ideas about what we should be doing with the huge amounts of food that are wasted. His answer to the food security challenge is not to produce more food, but to make better use of it.

“The surpluses produced are so far in advance of what we need to provide food security,” Tristram explains. He suggests that we need to dramatically change the way that we deal with food waste and this time it’s good news for those of you who love bacon!

“Traditionally livestock would be fed with our leftovers,” explains Tristram. Feeding food waste to pigs can be done safely on an industrial scale. However, in some countries, including the UK, it is instead sent to landfill. What a waste! Instead pigs are commonly fed with soy which is grown on valuable land that could otherwise produce food for human consumption or be left in its natural state as a rainforest.

Tackling the food waste scandal will be central to increasing food availability around the world and highlights the inefficiencies of food production and consumption. “If we want to make food available to people who really need it we can really help to do that by doing something quite simple, which is to enjoy the food that we have and not throw it away…”

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I've tried making burgers with powdered crickets, but the aftertaste is disgusting. People describe insects as "nutty" and whilst this is OK for one or two fried crickets or locusts as an appetiser, the overpowering stench is of sour walnuts and the aftertaste lingers for hours - not what you want in a staple food, and so far, very difficult to mask with onion or garlic.

If anyone can offer an analysis of the sour nut odor, and even better, some idea of the chemistry that might neutralise it, I'd be very grateful. I have it in mind to harvest tonnes (yes, tonnes - serious business venture) of wild locusts which, on paper, are the best food resource we have, but there's no point if I can't turn it into something people want to eat every day.

Woodlice are edible but apparently stink like stale urine. Happy to consider all sorts of institution-scale chemistry to make any insect palatable! alancalverd, Mon, 10th Oct 2016

When we are throwing food away/using it as fuel just to increase the price of it so already rich farmers can get more rich why would we want to do any of this silly none sense? Tim the Plumber, Mon, 10th Oct 2016

Why do we breed beyond sustainability?

I'm interested in turning an intractable problem (locusts eat green crops) into a solution (locusts are better at converting green crops into meat than birds or animals).

Fortunately the UK is leaving the EU so we won't have to support artificial market prices for food much longer, but it still makes sense to eat locusts in those countries where they are plentiful. alancalverd, Mon, 10th Oct 2016

We will if the Brexiters keep their promise to the farmers...... vhfpmr, Wed, 12th Oct 2016

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