Nu­tri­tion

Can creepy-crawlies solve the world’s food short­age?

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Deep within the sprawl­ing hi-tech govern­ment Food and En­vi­ron­ment Re­search Agency near York, in the north of the UK, there is a room that looks like some­thing out of a hor­ror movie. The cramped, hu­mid lab is lined with white tents con­tain­ing thou­sands of buzzing flies. The stench is stom­ach churn­ing.

In another part of the room a mass of creepy-crawlies squirms on a large tray. Hun­dreds of oth­ers are dry­ing on sheets in an open oven and a vat in the cor­ner con­tains mil­lions of shriv­elled grub car­casses.

Wel­come to the PROteINSECT mag­got lab; the nerve cen­tre of a £3 mil­lion (Dh18.7 mil­lion) Euro­pean Union-funded project that might just save the world. Sci­en­tists here are work­ing to solve one of our most ur­gent food prob­lems and may well pro­vide us with new medicines and a new fuel for ve­hi­cles in the process. All they need to do first is work out how to mass-pro­duce mag­gots, turn them into a safe source of pro­tein and then even­tu­ally con­vince us and other an­i­mals to eat the re­sult.

Gov­ern­ments and food agen­cies are in­creas­ingly se­ri­ous about us­ing in­sects as nu­tri­tion for both hu­mans and farm an­i­mals. And it’s not just re­mote tribes in the jun­gle who eat bugs. More than 80 per cent of the world’s pop­u­la­tion al­ready con­sume them as part of their reg­u­lar diet.

The pro­jec­tions are wor­ry­ing. Global food pro­duc­tion needs to in­crease by 70 per cent by 2050 to stop cat­a­strophic famine but the ma­jor­ity of the world’s agri­cul­tural land is al­ready be­ing used. New de­vel­op­ments such as GM crops may go some way to fill the gap but there is still a long way to go to sat­isfy the world’s grow­ing ap­petite. Con­sump­tion of meat has in­creased 20 fold in 40 years and will keep in­creas­ing. Rais­ing live­stock is ex­pen­sive. Soya, the main pro­tein source in an­i­mal feed, costs up to $1,700 (Dh6,244) per tonne. It takes 25kg of soya pro­tein to get 1kg of beef and politi­cians and sci­en­tists across the world agree that hu­man­ity is fac­ing a huge and im­mi­nent pro­tein deficit.

In the UK lab, sci­en­tists hope the gap could be filled by in­sects.

And the good news is that un­like cows and goats, crick­ets, a tasty snack in sev­eral coun­tries, need to eat just 2kg of pro­tein to pro­duce 1kg of ed­i­ble food. Dried mag­gots con­tain 50 per cent pro­tein; more than most pro­tein shakes. In­sect pro­tein is sim­i­lar to that of fish or beef, but less fatty. In­sects also con­tain polyun­sat­u­rated fatty acids and high lev­els of vi­ta­mins and min­er­als.

An au­to­mated mag­got farm could pro­duce 200 times more pro­tein per hectare than a soya farm and in­sects are plen­ti­ful. There are six mil­lion species, they grow quickly and eas­ily and are en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly as they feed on waste.

The case for bug curry is so con­vinc­ing that re­cently high-rank­ing officials and sci­en­tists from around the world at­tended a con­fer­ence in the Nether­lands to look at ways of in­tro­duc­ing in­sect-de­rived foods into Western di­ets, both as an­i­mal feed and for di­rect hu­man con­sump­tion.

Sci­en­tists at PROteINSECT are at the fore­front of this pi­o­neer­ing food revo­lu­tion. They are cur­rently test­ing ways to grow and process mag­gots with the aim of turn­ing them into a sus­tain­able, safe an­i­mal feed and even­tu­ally will in­ves­ti­gate ways of in­tro­duc­ing them into hu­man di­ets.

Project co­or­di­na­tor Elaine Fitches ex­plains, “Our goal is to make meat pro­duc­tion more sus­tain­able, re­duc­ing re­liance on pro­tein im­ports from across the world and mak­ing meat cheaper. One of the long-term aims is to look at the fea­si­bil­ity of in­tro­duc­ing in­sect pro­tein for di­rect hu­man con­sump­tion.’’

In­sect-eat­ing ad­vo­cates face sev­eral hur­dles in de­vel­oped coun­tries in­clud­ing the strin­gent rules gov­ern­ing food pro­duc­tion. Bizarrely, due to food scares such as Bovine spongi­form en­cephalopa­thy (BSE), com­monly known as mad cow dis­ease, reg­u­la­tions con­trol­ling what farm­ers feed live­stock are tighter than reg­u­la­tions con­trol­ling hu­man food.

“Cur­rently in many na­tions in­sects are classed as live­stock and the rules state you can’t feed live­stock to live­stock,” says Elaine. “How­ever, if you buy a free range chicken in a su­per­mar­ket you pay a pre­mium and that chicken has been eat­ing flies and worms. In the wild, fish rely on in­sects. Some­times rules don’t make sense.’’

In an ef­fort to make sure there are no nasty con­tam­i­nants in mag­gots, sci­en­tists in­volved in the PROteINSECT project use a $1 .7 mil­lion nu­clear scan­ner to an­a­lyse house­fly mag­gots for prob­lem com­pounds.

“It is com­plex; we look at the best con­di­tions to grow them in, how to process them, how to ex­tract the pro­tein from them,” says Elaine. “We screen them for a whole range of com­pounds and do nu­tri­tional pro­files. We also look at the car­bon foot­print of farm­ing them.

“They have been for­got­ten as a food source. House­flies are con­sid­ered a dirty pest be­cause of what they grow on. But to sur­vive they have a strong im­mune sys­tem, which means there is also the po­ten­tial to ex­tract bi­otics from them to be used in medicines.’’

And mag­gots can also power cars. One of the vials in the lab con­tains mag­got oil, which is chem­i­cally sim­i­lar to palm oil and can be used in en­gines.

“It’s fliesel!’’ laughs Elaine. “You could power a tractor with it but you’d need an aw­ful lot of mag­gots.’’

The sci­en­tists have also found high lev­els of a pro­tein called chitin in their mag­gots, which could be added to bread to keep it fresh.

Elaine admits that it would take a big change of at­ti­tude to get the non-in­sect eat­ing world to start eat­ing mag­gots. “It’s a cul­tural thing but there could be some form of pro­cessed pro­tein prod­uct like Quorn made from in­sects, flavoured and added to food and snacks. Peo­ple might ac­cept it as an added

‘There could be a form of pro­cessed pro­tein made from in­sects, flavoured and added to snacks’

in­gre­di­ent if it tasted good. Given that lots of peo­ple eat in­sects in the world, I can’t imag­ine there would be too many safety is­sues. The trick is mak­ing some­thing out of in­sects that doesn’t look like in­sects.’’

In Europe, com­pa­nies are start­ing to recog­nise the ad­van­tages of pro­duc­ing in­sects for food. Sev­eral have de­vel­oped sys­tems for grow­ing and pro­cess­ing in­sects for an­i­mal feed and for hu­man con­sump­tion.

Last year Bel­gium be­came the first Euro­pean coun­try to of­fi­cially al­low the sale of in­sects for hu­man con­sump­tion. Officials ap­proved a list of 10 bugs that in­cluded meal­worms, grasshop­pers and lo­custs.

In­sect breeder Peter De Bap­tist is li­censed to dis­trib­ute and sell them as food. “Breed­ing in­sects has 10 times less im­pact on the en­vi­ron­ment than the breed­ing of cows,” he says. “Plus, they are very healthy.”

Ac­cord­ing to Peter, raw meal­worm lar­vae taste like hazel­nuts and African grasshop­pers can taste like wal­nut or chicken, de­pend­ing on how they are cooked.

While some are pre­oc­cu­pied with find­ing new ways to de­velop ex­ist­ing food sources to help feed the world’s grow­ing pop­u­la­tion, oth­ers are tak­ing a more rad­i­cal ap­proach. A new way of mak­ing food from base chem­i­cal com­pounds is grow­ing in pop­u­lar­ity and could soon be­come com­mon prac­tice in restau­rants and kitchens across the world.

Note-by-note cui­sine, for in­stance, is a tech­nique that uses chem­i­cal com­pounds and chem­i­cal re­ac­tions to cre­ate new foods. It uses no meat, grain, vegeta­bles, fruit or mag­gots for that mat­ter. In­stead it uses the ba­sic com­po­nents that make up many food­stuffs. In­gre­di­ents such as monosodium glu­ta­mate, mal­todex­trin, cit­ric acid, and sodium al­gi­nate are com­bined to make cre­ations such as trans­par­ent wafers that taste of roast chicken and jelly spheres that taste of baked potato.

French phys­i­cal chemist and pro­po­nent of note-by-note cook­ing Hervé This has toured the world lec­tur­ing chefs and food sci­en­tists about the po­ten­tial for this new form of food pro­duc­tion.

“When you cre­ate dishes from com­pounds you can de­sign the shape, colour, taste, odour and nu­tri­tional as­pect from scratch,” he says. “I have no doubt note-by-note cui­sine will play an im­por­tant part in food pro­duc­tion in the fu­ture. In 2050 make note-by-note dishes and they were so ex­cited they de­cided to meet reg­u­larly to progress the ideas.

“Af­ter another lec­ture at a school in Copenhagen I re­ceived an email from the direc­tor of the school who told me the school is im­ple­ment­ing note-by-note cui­sine daily.”

Sim­i­lar de­vel­op­ments are tak­ing place in the US, where sus­tain­able food source Soy­lent has been cre­ated. The shake is de­signed to pro­vide all the nu­tri­ents a hu­man needs in a sin­gle prod­uct – in a beige pow­der.

Cre­ator Rob Rhine­hart says, “Soy­lent is the most sim­plis­tic thing we can live on and it is quite healthy and sat­is­fy­ing.’’

He be­lieves it is the an­swer to im­prove­ments in global food pro­duc­tion. He ex­plains, “If we are go­ing to im­prove, we are go­ing to have to be open to a change in our sys­tems of pro­duc­tion.

“We need a food pro­duc­tion sys­tem that scales very well, that has very min­i­mal im­pact on the en­vi­ron­ment and cre­ates food that takes longer to spoil and is eas­ier to trans­port. That’s what Soy­lent is.’’

Other pro­duc­ers are look­ing at tech­nol­ogy to ar­ti­fi­cially syn­the­sise meat in a bid to find a so­lu­tion to the pro­jected pro­tein short­age.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foun­da­tion funds a project called Be­yond Meat. Based in Cal­i­for­nia, it is ex­per­i­ment­ing with tech­nolo­gies to de­velop com­pounds from plants, which can then be used to cre­ate prod­ucts that taste the same as meat.

While most ex­perts will ad­mit that hu­mans will al­ways want to eat nat­u­ral food, there is no deny­ing that in the fu­ture science will play an in­creas­ing role in the kitchen.

‘Given that lots of peo­ple in the world eat in­sects, I can’t imag­ine there’d be too many safety is­sues’

there will be 9.6 bil­lion peo­ple on Earth. We will have to find a so­lu­tion to feed them.”

He be­lieves wa­ter short­ages will force farm­ers to ex­tract wa­ter from their crops as they are har­vested, leav­ing com­pounds that will then be used in note-by-note dishes.

The first of­fi­cial note-by-note dish was cre­ated by famed chef Pierre Gag­naire in 2008. Ear­lier this year the sec­ond an­nual In­ter­na­tional Con­test of Note by Note Cook­ing was held in France with 73 en­trants. Dishes in­cluded potato meringue made from me­thional oil, su­crose and al­bu­min pow­der and roast chicken tu­iles made from mal­todex­trin and gel­lan gum.

Hervé ex­plains that in­ter­est in the cui­sine is grow­ing fast. “In April this year I lec­tured in Den­mark at the French Em­bassy. The au­di­ence in­cluded chefs and PhD stu­dents. Af­ter the lec­ture, the at­ten­dees had to

Our in­trepid reporter Nick tucks into a (tasty?) bowl of mag­gots As the world’s food and pro­tein short­ages in­crease sci­en­tists and econ­o­mists say that in­clud­ing in­sects in our diet is the an­swer. Nick Hard­ing tries them

In this lab near York, flies bred from mag­gots will soon be­come a source of pro­tein for hu­man con­sump­tion

Elaine Fitches shows Nick the de­lights of the mag­got lab

Elaine admits it’s a tough call to get us all used to the idea of eat­ing mag­gots

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