Science - January 11, 2011

Eat sustainably: eat an insect

The production of insect meat generates far smaller quantities of greenhouse gas emissions than that of beef or pork, according to calculations by Wageningen PhD researcher Dennis Oonincx.

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Oonincx is a specialist in entomophagy: eating insects. Amongst other things, he is researching the environmental implications of insect meat. Together with his colleagues at Entomology, he worked out how much methane and laughing gas insects produce, looking at five different insects: mealworms, crickets, locusts, beetles and cockroaches. The latter two are not actually fit for human consumption, but protein can be extracted from them.

More sustainable
The results very much favour insects, which produce much smaller quantities of greenhouse gases per kilo of body weight than standard livestock. A pig, for example, produces ten times as much CO2 as a mealworm. Another plus is that insects produce hardly any ammonia. A pig produces about ten times as much ammonia as a cricket per kilo of growth, and up to fifty times as much as a locust.
This makes insect meat more sustainable than conventional meat. What is more, insects grow much faster than cows and pigs, and they convert their food into flesh more efficiently. Oonincx puts this down to the fact that insects are cold-blooded and do not need to invest much energy in maintaining their body temperature.

Even better
Oonincx published his research at the end of December in the online journal PLoS ONE. The study attracted attention worldwide. Meanwhile, it has already gone a step further. Oonincx is working on making a full carbon footprint for insects, with what is known as a life cycle analysis, which includes such aspects as the production and transportation of feed. Up to now, calculations have only taken into account emissions per kilo of body weight. Insects will score even higher on sustainability, according to co-author Arnold van Huis, if the calculations are related to net meat production. 'All you throw away from crickets is the back legs and the wings. Everything else, about 80 percent of the body weight, can be eaten. With cows, by contrast, you can only make use of about 55 percent of the body weight.'

Tests
All this attention to the sustainability of insect meat is very well timed. Entomology is running a lecture series on Insects and Society in the first quarter of this year. It kicks off tomorrow evening (Wednesday 12 January) with Insects: the meat of the future, at 20.00 in the Forum. Anyone who fancies it can taste some insects. But the timing is pure coincidence, Oonincx insists.

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