Skip to main content

When it comes to achieving a culinary future that is ecologically sustainable, the prospects of edible insects hold more promise than any other proposal in play. Insects can be cultivated with less water, land, and feed than conventionally farmed animals. Health-wise, insects are loaded with protein, high in healthy fat, and packed with micronutrients that even the wealthiest consumers tend to lack. They are ideal for small producers—starting a tiny farm in a shipping container is neither capital intensive nor subject to the vicissitudes of climate. There are over 2,000 known edible insects. It's a naturally diverse food group.

Commercial efforts have been underway for over a decade to bring insects to the American palate. Success, given the "ick factor," has been impressively modest. Especially popular have been roasted crickets—which are often served on tacos and other Mexican-American dishes—and protein bars made with cricket "flour."

Environmentalists and edible insect companies have consistently benefited from positive press promoting the human consumption of insects. High-profile chefs at big name restaurants have pushed the culinary virtues of insects. The Seattle Mariners stadium (Safeco Field) recently served roasted grasshoppers—chapulines—at a few games and they quickly sold out. There is, despite the aversion among Western consumers to eating bugs, every indication that they could be the future of food.

But maybe not in the way we expect. Recent developments suggest that insects are more likely to eaten by farm animals than humans. Last week, the Enterra Feed Corporation, based in British Columbia, was approved by the Association of American Feed Control Officials to sell insect-based feed in the United States. Corresponding agencies in Europe and Canada made similar agreements. The driver behind this approval is fish—especially carnivorous fish such as salmon, Arctic char, and trout. Enterra's chief technology officer was thrilled to announce, "This is the first time an insect meal product has been approved in North America for the aquaculture industry, and we're excited to be the first to market."

They should be. The ecological impact of this transition could be substantially more significant than that caused by the human consumption of insects. As for farmed salmon, producers have traditionally had to scour the ocean for supplies of menhaden, anchovies, and sardines to produce fish meal. Robert Nathan Allen, founder of Little Herds and president of the North American Coalition of Insect Agriculture, says that, "if insect meal becomes a substitute for even a portion of feed demand then we have something powerful—something that leads to less fish taken from the ocean." Cheryl Preyer, the policy administrator for NACIA, agrees, saying that, because "there is not enough forage fish" to feed salmon, the transition to insects—especially with the global population about to expand from 7.5 to 9 or 10 billion—"just makes so much sense."

If farmed fish have been approved to consume insect meal, other industrially farmed animals haven't. But, as Allen explained, "we see [approval] as an inevitability." Global producers banking on the mass consumption of insects in industrial animal agriculture have researched the role of mealworms, fruit flies, and crickets in meeting future demand for feed among land animals. But the one insect that holds the most promise is a metallic-looking, bug-eyed, and cosmopolitan critter known as the black soldier fly.

Not only fish, but also chickens, pigs, and cattle all stand to benefit from the consumption of black soldier fly larvae. Preyer notes that black soldier flies "upcycle nutrition that would otherwise go to a landfill." She's talking about the entomologically unprecedented capacity of these insects to break down organic matter. Imagine if that organic matter happens to be pre-production food waste and you can quickly envision a food system where black soldier flies transfer waste (the U.S. makes almost as much food waste as food) into feed that provides land-based farmed animals a more natural and healthy source of nutrition than the ecologically destructive corn and soy currently used to bring these creatures to slaughter weight. Further consider that black soldier flies are neither vectors for disease nor agricultural pests and it does indeed seem inevitable that corn and soy farmers will soon be quaking in their combines.

Externalities considered, black soldier flies are cheaper to produce than corn and soy. They are also more ecologically efficient and nutritious. And their benefit is more democratic: They can help industrial producers as well as the small-scale animal farmers serving niche markets. Those good-guy farmers already exploiting food waste streams to feed their herds will benefit immensely from the black soldier fly.

Allen offered an excellent example how. He tells me about small dairy farmers who feed their cows brewery waste. This is an excellent way to recycle post-production waste. But the problem is that, if the spent grain is not fed to cattle quickly, it soon sours and becomes inedible. Bring in the soldier flies, however, and you can buy larger batches of brewers' waste, feed it to the flies, be assured that the insects will not spread disease, and transform that waste into a fattier and more protein-rich feed. It's also a great excuse to drink more beer.

Insect feed will also likely lead to better-tasting food. Chickens and pigs naturally eat insects—and cows naturally consume them when they eat grass—so a more natural-based diet will lead to a less "manufactured" product. Preyer, who suggested that elements of soy are not ideal in a chicken's diet, says that chickens that consume amino acids from insect produce tastier eggs. Allen concurred, mentioning how he's consulting with a small chicken farmer who is trying to corner the taste market by feeding his free-range hens black soldier fly larva.

What about those wily adventure eaters who have been eagerly awaiting a culinary future where insects are more readily available to adorn their breakfast tacos? Will farm animals hog all the grub? Wendy Lu McGill, the Denver-based founder of Rocky Mountain Micro Ranch, and supplier of crickets and cricket flour to chefs and food product makers, doesn't think so. She writes in an email:

Insect farming is fundamentally the same for food and feed. I think that insects as food can grow alongside feed uses to reduce agricultural land and water usage, while providing equally nutritious alternatives to food and feed that will meet predicted food systems needs considering the drastically less natural resources available due to climate change.

Given that market research predicts farmed insect production will rise 102 percent between now and 2022, it seems safe to conclude, with McGill, that we'll soon have our insects and eat them too.