My European colleagues recently shared with me an article by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) on edible insects, which made me pause and think. I did not know that around 1,000 species of insects are eaten worldwide. And it turns out they’re an excellent source of protein, fats, and micronutrients.

In addition, a recent study by Wageningen University in the Netherlands, examined the greenhouse gas (GHG) and NH3 emissions of five insect species—mealworms, house crickets, locusts, sun beetles, and the Argentinean cockroach—to assess whether they could serve as a more environmentally friendly alternative for the production of animal protein. From the perspective of GHG and NH3 emissions, they could. Given increasing constraints on land, fertilizers, and energy, alternative protein sources sure make sense from both economic and environmental perspectives.

Consider this:

  • In Mexico, chapulines (young grasshoppers) are collected from maize and alfalfa fields. This not only provides communities with a cheap source of protein and supplemental incomes, but it also serves as a form of pest control, helping to prevent crop damage.
  • Researchers are studying the potential of insect protein in livestock feed as an alternative to grain, which is increasingly under pressure. 
  • Insects provide essential ecosystem services such as pollination, dung removal, and pest control. Sustainable harvesting of wild insect populations could help build the case for forest preservation, thus playing a valuable role in conserving biodiversity and the associated ecosystem services.
  • The FAO is taking a closer look at experimental insect breeding to see whether it can be both ecologically and economically sustainable. Perhaps edible insects will be the next wave of farmed species.

Next step for me—if I can get over my Western-biased squeamishness—may just have to be a trip to the Mexican restaurant Oyamel in Washington, D.C., where I’ve read the chapulines are quite tasty.