A Warming Planet and the Quest for Sustainable Protein

The global demand for protein is soaring to unprecedented levels, a trend fueled by a rapidly growing global population and increasing affluence. It’s a shift that’s been gaining momentum over the past few decades and shows little sign of decelerating in the near future. The United Nations anticipates that the global population will reach close to 10 billion by 2050, necessitating a dramatic increase in food production, particularly protein, to meet these needs.

Moreover, with affluence on the rise in developing nations, dietary habits are changing significantly. There is a marked shift away from plant-based diets towards diets that are more rich in animal-based proteins. This phenomenon, often referred to as the ‘nutrition transition’, has been observed in countries that have undergone rapid economic and income growth, leading to an increased demand for meat and other protein-rich food products.

However, the escalating demand for protein, especially animal-based protein, comes with significant environmental repercussions. Conventional livestock production is a major contributor to climate change, accounting for an estimated 14.5% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The majority of these emissions come from enteric fermentation in ruminants like cows and sheep, but a significant portion also arises from the production of feed for these animals, and from the process of land conversion for pastures and cultivation of feed crops.

greenhouse gas emissions of various animals
The cost in terms of CO2 emissions associated with producing one kilo of insects and other types of livestock. Beef and lamb are the least environmentally friendly options, while fish and insects are the best. Danish chicken farms also have a relatively low carbon footprint. (Illustration: Afton Halloran, University of Copenhagen)

Additionally, livestock farming contributes significantly to other forms of environmental degradation. These include deforestation, biodiversity loss, and water pollution from animal waste runoff. The conversion of forests to pastures or cropland for feed not only releases carbon stored in trees and soils, exacerbating greenhouse gas emissions, but also destroys habitats for countless species, threatening biodiversity.

Taken together, these trends underscore the urgent need for us to rethink our reliance on traditional sources of animal protein. The question then arises: how can we meet the burgeoning demand for protein while minimizing our environmental impact? This is where innovative solutions, such as the consumption of edible insects, come into play. As we will discuss further, insects as a source of protein present numerous environmental and sustainability advantages over conventional livestock farming.

One innovative solution that is gradually gaining attention pertains to the consumption of edible insects. This may initially sound disconcerting to some, especially in cultures where entomophagy is not the norm. However, by the end of this article, we hope to shed light on how edible insects could potentially be the answer to satisfying our future protein requirements. Moreover, we will also examine how this shift could play a pivotal role in mitigating the environmental damage caused by conventional livestock farming.

The Environmental Impact of Traditional Protein Sources

The huge water footprint of livestock production is another concerning issue. It takes an immense volume of water to grow the grains that are used as animal feed, not to mention the water required for the animals’ drinking and servicing needs. For example, it’s estimated that producing one kilogram of beef requires about 15,000 liters of water, vastly more than what is needed to produce an equivalent amount of plant-based proteins.

Traditional methods of livestock farming pose a substantial threat to our environment. This is due to the fact that the production of meat, particularly beef, generates an alarming amount of greenhouse gases. To illustrate, consider that producing just one kilogram of beef results in the emission of 60 times more greenhouse gases compared to producing the same quantity of mealworms, an edible insect. Such statistics serve to underline the immense environmental toll taken by conventional meat production.

conversion rates for animal food
Amount of land, feed and water needed to produce 1 kg of live animal weight and percent of the animal which is edible. (Source: https://doi.org/10.1111/nbu.12291)

Farming livestock like cattle, pigs, and poultry has long been recognized as a leading source of greenhouse gas emissions. This is largely because these animals release methane, a potent greenhouse gas, through their digestive processes. In addition, the deforestation required to create pastures for livestock grazing, or land to grow their feed crops, contributes to carbon dioxide emissions, another key greenhouse gas. These emissions are instrumental in the acceleration of global warming.

Against this background, the case for exploring alternative, more sustainable protein sources becomes particularly potent. If we can find ways to substantially reduce the carbon footprint of our diets, we will make significant strides towards mitigating climate change. This is where the potential of edible insects begins to emerge. They require less land, water, and food to farm, and they produce a fraction of the greenhouse gases compared to traditional livestock. With the growing recognition of these benefits, the exploration of insects as a viable alternative protein source has moved from the realm of science fiction to a promising, reality-based solution.

Edible Insects: An Eco-Friendly Protein Powerhouse

Edible insects, often seen as a novelty or a survivalist’s fare in some cultures, could potentially be a primary solution to the escalating global demand for protein. Rich in protein, vitamins, and minerals, they stand on par with traditional meats when it comes to nutritional content. However, they come with an added advantage – a significantly lower environmental footprint. This could make them a cornerstone in the global quest for sustainable protein sources.

The Nutritional Power of Insects

selection of four edible insect species

When we talk about the nutritional content of insects, it’s compelling to note that certain insects can contain up to 80% protein by dry weight. This protein content can rival that of traditional meats like beef or chicken. For instance, crickets, one of the most commonly farmed edible insects, are not only high in protein but also rich in essential amino acids and omega-3 fatty acids, which are crucial for human health. Insects are also rich in vitamins and minerals such as iron, zinc, and vitamin B12, which are typically found in large quantities in animal-based proteins. Thus, from a nutritional standpoint, insects could provide a robust alternative to traditional protein sources.

The Environmental Advantage of Insect Farming

Perhaps even more compelling than their nutritional content is the environmental advantage of farming insects for protein. Insect farming requires substantially fewer resources than traditional livestock farming. This holds true across several dimensions:

  1. Land Efficiency: Insects are incredibly space-efficient. They can be stacked vertically in crates or tubes, thus requiring far less land than cattle or poultry.
  2. Water Usage: The water footprint of insect farming is minimal compared to conventional livestock. For example, it takes around 2,000 liters of water to produce one kilogram of crickets, compared to a staggering 15,000 liters for a kilogram of beef.
  3. Feed Efficiency: Insects also convert feed into protein more efficiently than traditional livestock. They require far less feed, and unlike cattle or pigs, they can be fed on organic waste streams, which not only reduces waste but also lessens the demand for feed crops that contribute to deforestation and biodiversity loss.

Insect farming also presents considerable advantages in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. The production of insects generates a fraction of the emissions produced by conventional livestock farming. This is largely because insects, unlike ruminants such as cows and sheep, do not emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Finally, insect farming can play a role in waste management. Many edible insects, such as black soldier fly larvae, can consume organic waste, including food scraps and agricultural by-products. This not only helps in reducing waste volumes but also turns waste into a valuable resource, further enhancing the sustainability of insect farming.

In light of these advantages, it’s clear that edible insects could play a critical role in creating a more sustainable food system. They offer a protein-rich, eco-friendly alternative to traditional livestock farming, with the potential to significantly reduce our environmental footprint while meeting the global demand for protein.

Overcoming the “Yuck” Factor: Acceptance of Insects as Food

woman hesitating to eat bug

Although the environmental and nutritional benefits of edible insects are quite clear, the thought of consuming insects might trigger a ‘yuck’ factor for many, particularly in Western cultures where entomophagy is not traditionally practiced. This psychological barrier, largely rooted in unfamiliarity and cultural norms, can be a significant hurdle to widespread adoption of insects as a food source. However, with innovative culinary techniques, gradual exposure, and education about the benefits of edible insects, this obstacle can be overcome.

Incorporating Insects into the Western Diet: A Matter of Presentation

Interestingly, insects are already a part of the diet in many cultures worldwide, particularly in regions of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Over 2,000 species of insects are currently consumed by around 2 billion people globally. The challenge, therefore, is not whether insects can be eaten, but rather how they can be made palatable and appealing to populations unfamiliar with the practice.

Creative culinary methods can play a big role here. Instead of presenting insects in their whole form, they can be processed and incorporated into familiar foods. For instance, cricket flour, made by grinding dried crickets, can be used in baking or as a protein supplement in shakes and smoothies. Mealworms, rich in protein and fiber, can be ground and used in pasta, providing an alternative to traditional wheat-based pasta. High-protein bars, cookies, and chips made from insect protein are also gaining traction in Western markets. By incorporating insects into familiar and palatable foods, the ‘yuck’ factor can be significantly minimized.

Overcoming Psychological Barriers: The Role of Education and Exposure

Education and exposure are key strategies in shifting perceptions about edible insects. By highlighting the nutritional and environmental benefits of insects, individuals may be more willing to overcome their initial aversion. For instance, knowing that crickets are a complete protein source, rich in essential amino acids and omega-3 fatty acids, might make a cricket protein bar more appealing. Awareness of the lower carbon and water footprint of insect farming compared to traditional livestock farming might also motivate environmentally conscious consumers to give insect-based foods a try.

Gradual exposure to insects as food can also help. This could start with trying foods where the insect ingredients are ‘hidden’, such as the cricket flour or mealworm pasta mentioned earlier. Over time, as individuals become more comfortable with the idea, they might be more willing to try dishes where insects are more prominently featured.

Ultimately, overcoming the ‘yuck’ factor is likely to be a gradual process. It will involve a combination of creative culinary approaches, education about the benefits of insects, and gradual exposure to insects as food. While it might seem daunting now, remember that many foods we enjoy today – like sushi, lobster, or even yogurt – were once considered strange or unappetizing in certain cultures. With time and an open mind, edible insects could very well become a mainstream part of our diets.


In conclusion, the escalating global demand for protein, paired with the environmental repercussions of conventional livestock farming, necessitates innovative, sustainable solutions. Edible insects offer a compelling alternative: they’re nutritionally rich, resource-efficient, and have a lower environmental footprint. Overcoming the ‘yuck’ factor, while challenging, is achievable through creative culinary techniques, education, and exposure. As our planet continues to warm and resources become scarcer, turning towards such alternative protein sources may not just be an option, but a necessity.