As many have discovered, insects can be a delicious, not-at-all-creepy food source that could save us all from a looming global protein deficit. The good news is that the main objection to raising insects for food and livestock feed – that it poses insurmountable chemical and biological health risks – has been tentatively ruled out by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which says edible insects appear to pose no more of a chemical or biological hazard than any other form of livestock farming.
In preparing their report, EFSA researchers drew data from peer reviewed scientific studies from France, the Netherlands and Belgium to create a risk profile identifying the potential biological, chemical and environmental hazards associated with farmed insects. According to the report, the presence of these hazards would depend on production methods, the substrate (the food the insects are raised on), the lifecycle stage at which the insects are harvested, the insect species and methods of further processing.
The report also considered the potential hazards if the insects are fed on kitchen waste and animal manure. It found that as long as the substrate does not include protein derived from human waste or ruminants, the presence of abnormal proteins that can cause diseases such as BSE (aka mad cow disease) in cattle is expected to be reduced.
The report concluded that the potential risks of producing, processing and consuming insects as a food source are much the same as other forms of animal husbandry, and the environmental risks are expected to be comparable.
Of course, there are still a lot of uncertainties related to animal and human consumption of insects and the report makes it clear that there just isn't enough data at this stage to conclusively state that all the risks can be managed. The buildup of chemicals such as heavy metals or arsenic is one possible risk that will need to be studied.
The European Commission will now to review the data and decide whether to go ahead with an EC-funded project, PROteINSECT, which would further examine the safety and viability of farming fly larvae as livestock feed.
The "ick factor" may still be stopping insects gaining much traction as a direct food source in wealthier countries, but research shows that the public are generally comfortable with the idea of insects as livestock feed (after all, in our most idyllic visions of farm life, chickens are scratching around in the dirt for earthworms).
Since 2013, PROteINSECT has worked with experts from the EU, China and Africa to research introducing two species of fly larvae into the diets of chickens, pigs and fish. The research has included raising farmed flies on various forms of organic waste, carrying out feeding trials on livestock and aquaculture stock and analyzing the quality and safety of the new food source.
A spokesperson from PROteINSECT partner Minerva Communications UK told New Atlas that the project is now waiting on the EC review.
"Changes to the European legislation concerning the feeding of insects to fish are already being considered and it is expected that a further widening of the debate on legislation on substrate use and insect varieties to be fed to poultry and pigs will follow in the next 18 months or so," she says. "EFSA will need to conduct a further safety analysis once it has all the data required as stated in its first risk assessment report."
With global meat demand expected to rise to 72 percent above 2000 levels by 2030, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, a rapid increase in protein sources for animal feed is urgently needed.
The potential for increasing the global cultivated land area is limited, and despite our efforts, many of the major food crops are currently showing only modest gains in yield. So farming insects as a protein source for livestock and freeing up land to grow crops for direct consumption by the human populace could lead to a long-term increase in food security.
"The protein gap in Europe is a very real risk to social, economic and environmental progress," says PROteINSECT coordinator, Dr Elaine Fitches "As we seek sustainable European long term solutions we must consider the benefits that the introduction of insects – specifically fly larvae – could have on the content of animal feed. PROteINSECT believes these highly effective protein converters offer great potential for Europe to become global contributors to the provision of alternative and additional innovative protein sources."
The insect species reported to have the greatest potential for use as a food or feed in the EU includes houseflies, mealworms, crickets and silkworms.
The EFSA report is available in the EFSA Journal.