In recent years, there’s been a lot more talk in western cultures about eating insects. As unappealing as this may sound to many such westerners, insects have often been described as being a nutrient dense food which can be procured with fewer resources and expenses that other, more traditional livestock, effectively make them a perfect candidate for “alternative protein”.
And, although insects are frequently enjoyed in their more natural forms in many places around the world (think Korean Beongdegi, Ghanan Nsenene or Mexican escamole), many chefs and startups have been working on integrating them into dishes which more closely resemble existing western foods. For instance, the Queen Ant Egg Tostada or Black Ant Guacamole (for more upscale type dishes) as well as cricket ice cream and cricket protein powder by Entomilk and Chirps, respectively.
These kinds of development have, popularized “insect farming” — the practise of, well, farming insects as a kind of livestock — as a way of producing edible insects.
But another technology, called cellular agriculture also holds a similar promise. Cellular agriculture is the science of growing animal products without the animal. Entomoculture is a branch of cellular agriculture which has to do with specifically culturing insect meat.
Both insect farming and entomoculture have the advantage of being less resource intensive, pollutive, and more nutritionally efficient than typical livestock farming. But, how do they compare to one another?
How does insect farming work?
Insect farming refers to the practise of raising insects for various commodities, not just for food but for other things, like dies and silk.
Some commonly farmed species include
- Honey bees: for honey
- Cochineal beetle: for red dye
- Cockroaches: very popular as a “greasy chicken” tasting food product in China
- Silkworms: silk
- Mealworms and Waxworms: food, pet food, fish bait, animal testing, plastic breakdown
- Lac insects: laqueur used in nail polish and wood varnishes
An insect farm works like most other conventional factory farms: get a lot of insects, feed and water them, provide them with ample growth conditions, encourage them to breed and harvest periodically.
When it comes to food, the one main difference in how they are farmed is a result of the fact that they are often eaten whole (as opposed to cows, chickens or pigs where only the meat is eaten). Because of this, they have to be slaughtered in a way that keeps them fully intact, empties their system of waste and cures them of pathogens. So, the standard procedure usually looks something like
- Store the insects alive for one day with out food and water or force them to swim around in water to empty out their digestive and urinary waste.
- Freeze to kill them and inactivate any microbes that would start to decompose and discolour them.
- Heat treat them to kill pathogens.
- Dry them to extend shelf life.
How does entomoculture work?
When we produce insect meat using cellular agriculture, we are said to be “culturing it in vitro”. This is done in four main steps.
- Mesodermal cells with high expression of Twist and Sloppy Paired are extracted from the animals. Mesodermal stem cells are cells which have the potential to become any kind of specialized cell. Twist and Sloppy Paired are proteins which are responsible for turning them into muscle tissue. In the case of a primary culture, the cells are taken directly from the animal. In the case of secondary cultures, cells might be cryopreserved (frozen) from previous experiments.
- Stem cells are immersed in a culture medium and proliferate. A culture medium is a substance containing everything cells need to grow like carbohydrates, fats, animo acids, salts and vitamins. As these molecules diffuse into the cells, they grow and eventually split into two smaller cells. In this way, our population of stem cells, now a mix of myoblasts and progenitors, increases exponentially, or “proliferates”.
- Stem cells are seeded onto a scaffold. Structured meat products are characterized not only by the kinds of cells present, but their overall arrangement as well (ex. Steak vs. ground beef). A scaffold is a mold which the cells grow in and around to achieve this specific arrangement.
- Scaffold is put into a bioreactor for differentiation. Bioreactors are machines which expose the cells to a variety of different environmental cues — for instance, electrical stimulation and mechanical contractions. This encourages the cells to differentiate into the types of specialized cells we get in meat. These myoblasts then fuse to form multi nucleated myofibers — i.e. muscle tissue.
Farming vs. Entomoculture: How do they compare?
As we saw before, in the case of food, insect farming typically leaves us with the entire insect — exoskeleton, meat and all.
On the other hand, entomoculture just focuses on producing the muscle tissue (the meat) and so because of this, it can grown and structured in such a way to look like a large cut of meat — like steak, a burger, a pork loin, chicken leg or any of the cuts of meat we are currently familiar with.
While entomoculture could theoretically produce the other parts of the insect which are typically isolated for other products (e.g. flour), it’s mostly been talked about in relation to meat.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, insects only need 2 g of food for gram of biomass gained whereas cows need 8 g. Factoring in the idea that a higher proportion of a single insect is edible than a single cow/pig/chicken (40% of a cow, 58% of a chicken and 55% of a pig vs. 100% of an insect), this leads insects to be 2x as efficient at producing food as a chicken, 4x as a pig and 12x as a cow.
As a result, a typical United States production system requires 2.5 kg, 5 kg and 10 kg to produce 1 kg of chicken, pork or beef, respectively. On the other hand, producing 1 kg of crickets takes only 1.7 kg of feed.
Insects also have an advantage over warm blooded mammals in that they do not need to be raised in heated conditions in order to grow.
Both factors translate into insect farming and entomoculture — less heat and less food is needed, leading to fewer costs.
A life cycle analysis done for beef produced using cellular agriculture suggests that producing a product will require “7–45% lower energy use… 99% lower land use, and 82–96% lower water use” than production of the same product conventionally. An analysis has yet to be done for insect cells specifically, however, they numbers are expected to be similar.
The reason behind this is that as efficient as insects are in converting calories to edible biomass, they also expend a portion of these calories powering a life’s worth of biological processes. With cellular agriculture, many of those processes are cut out of the picture and you only have to focus on culturing the meat.
Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Livestock farming is responsible for a staggering 18% of our total global greenhouse gas emissions. First, there is the carbon dioxide produced through raising the animals, processing them and producing all their feed. Then on top of that, cows in particularly, are notorious producers of methane — a gas which has a higher Global Warming Potential (GWP) than carbon dioxide.
The fact that insects do not rely on such a controlled environment or as much feed significantly cuts down on emissions to begin with. Additionally, no insect (with the exception of cockroaches and termites) produces methane, and none produce ammonia.
As such, insects like crickets, locusts and mealworms are responsible for 100x fewer GHG emissions than macro livestock. Cellular agriculture is in a similar spot with 78–96% lower GHG emissions. It, in large part, depends on how secondary sources of energy are produced (i.e. the energy required to power the bioreactor…).
Circular Food Production
One thing that has often been talked about as a potential secondary benefit for insect farming is the kind of feed that can be used. Specifically, insects have been shown to be able to eat a wider variety of feeds including agricultural waste and food waste — byproducts which we seem to have no shortage of. For instance, the Diptera Fly is known to be able to convert agricultural manure into body mass and reduce the waste dry matter by 58%. For food waste the conversion is as high as 95%.
This is particularly interesting because it plays into the idea of a “circular food production system” — one in which waste products can be reinvested into the system so that more food is produced and we are left with as little waste as possible.
“Practically every substance of organic origin, including cellulose, is fed upon by one or more species of insects, so it is only a matter of time before successful recycling systems will be developed.”
Replicating this for cellular agriculture is not something that has been given much attention, as of yet. With entomoculture, since individual cells are feeding on the culture media, it is derived from a variety of chemicals which are synthesized individually in a format that a cell can handle. A cell alone can’t process a moldy plant, for instance.
A big issue with current farming (particularly factory farming) is the development of pathogens. After all, when animals are squished so tightly together, it makes for perfect conditions for some kind of bacteria or virus to take hold and spread. This is basically what happened with the H1N1, salmonella and mad cow disease.
In order to mitigate this, animals are pumped full of antibiotics which not only encourages the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria, but is also yet another expense and undermines human health.
Due to the biological differences between insects and humans, the kind of pathogens they transmit are less likely to be transferred to humans. So, farming them in close quarters is not such a big deal. Entomoculture has the added benefit in being done in close to sterile conditions (or at least highly controlled ones) which would prevent the development of pathogens in the first place.
One big question we still have to ask for insects is “are we mistreating them by farming them?”. The way we farm livestock today is often incredibly inhumane given that these animals are established sentient beings capable of feeling pain. We are still trying to figure out if the same can be said about insects, to what extent and for which species.
Because if insects are capable of experiencing distress and discomfort to the extent of a cow, for instance, killing them by starving them for 24 hours and making them swim around in water might not be the most humane. Not to mention, raising them in such crowded conditions.
Entomoculture, by virtue of the fact that it completely sidesteps animal involvement, neatly gets around this issue in the first place.
Insects are much more nutritionally dense than macro livestock. They have crude protein levels of 40–75% which is, on average, 50% higher than soybeans, 87% higher than maize, 63% higher than beef and 70% higher than fish.
The omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acid levels in mealworms are comparable to that of fish. Other insects with ideal fatty acid ratios are house crickets, short-tailed crickets, Bombay locusts and scarab beetles.
Mealworms have a higher content of calcium, vitamin C, vitamin A and riboflavin per kg than beef. And a serving of silkworms and palm weevil larva have 224.7% and 201.3% of the daily suggested thiamine intake compared to chicken which has just 5.4%.
In addition to this, entomoculture can be paired with genetic engineering which would enable us to transfect genes into the cells which code for additional proteins and vitamins.
Overall, both insect farming and entomoculture hold massive benefits over conventional livestock farming. While insect farming might be more desirable over entomoculture in terms of product variety, greenhouse gas emissions and creating a circular food system, entomoculture has added strengths in resource consumption, food security, nutrition, and potentially animal welfare.
Both these innovations will enable us to eat a wider variety of foods and recreate more familiar ones, just at less expense to our planet!