Faced with recurring food shortages, especially on the African continent, insects may be an alternative for the future, explains Christophe Lavelle, researcher in molecular biophysics.
In January, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) released its first assessment of food products derived from insects. Its experts assessed the relevance and safe consumption of dried mealworm larvae (Tenebrius molitor), better known as mealworms because of their taste for cereal flour.
The consumption of insects is also at the heart of The Cloud, French film by director Just Philippot. The story is that of a farmer, a single mother with two dependent children, who decides to engage in insect breeding, or entomoculture. But all is not happening in the best possible way, and the scenario quickly turns into the fantastic, against the backdrop of an attack of swarms of grasshoppers that have become carnivorous ... If its release is long overdue, due to a health crisis, this work has already caused the talk of her: selected for the Critics 'Week at the Cannes Film Festival 2020, she was awarded both the Critics' Prize and the Audience Prize at the 28ᵉ Gérardmer Fantastic Film Festival.
The opportunity to question: can entomoculture constitute a sustainable solution to ensure food security for humanity? ?
More than two billion people already consume insects
The conclusions of the EFSA assessment are clear: the consumption of the "new food" constituted by the larvae of Tenebrius molitor is sure. However, experts point out that people with shellfish or dust mite allergies could also be sensitive to mealworm preparations.
This is not news for some of our fellow human beings: in various places on the planet, insects are already a food resource. There are many who, in Asia, Latin America or Asia, traditionally feed on insects. Locusts, ants, beetles, adults or in the larval stage ... Some 2 species are thus the delight of 000 billion individuals.
This insect consumption, or entomophagy, however, is struggling to emerge in other regions of the world, where it is repulsive because it does not correspond to any cultural practice. In our sanitized and urbanized societies, insects are indeed considered above all as pests, dirty and not very tasty, carriers of disease rather than a source of gluttony.
If mentalities turn out to be impossible to change, will it be necessary to abandon the idea of raising insects for food? Not necessarily.
Raise insects to feed animals
Feeding insects to the animals we breed: this is already a more promising and acceptable avenue for Westerners than we are. In fact, it is estimated that within 10 years, the demand for animal protein will be at least 50% higher than it was 10 years ago. However, the production of meat and fish is greedy in resources, in particular in proteins, which must be found with great reinforcement of intensive soybean cultivation (to feed livestock) or intensive fishing of fish which are reduced to flour to feed ... farmed fish (25% of world fishing is intended for aquaculture, with the consequences that we are already observing on depletion of fishery resources).
The solution of finding these proteins in insects therefore seems opportune. Robust, little greedy in resources (they can feed on various animal or plant wastes), insects provide biomass (proteins, but also lipids and chitins, molecules of the carbohydrate family which constitute their shells) to low environmental cost.
But that's not all ... because insects, through their droppings, provide a material rich in nitrogen that can be used for make natural fertilizers that will feed the crops. Be careful, however: the plants thus produced, like all those which use fertilizers of animal origin (slurry, manure and other) are not strictly speaking not "vegan", because they rely on a supply of nitrogen from animal breeding.
A growing market
Today, insect farms are therefore developing, and the world leader is French: it is the company Ynsect, which recently raised over $ 400 million. Within a year, it will open the largest vertical farm in the world, producing more than 100 tonnes per year over 000m.2, from a single species, the mealworm.
Elsewhere, others rely more on locusts: in Thailand, 20 domestic cricket farms produce, on average, 000 tonnes of insects per year, intended for both personal consumption and sale. In the United States, a few companies are trying to improve the taste or nutritional properties of these insects hoping to convince consumers.
According to some projections, the global edible insect market could reach 8 billion dollars and a volume of 730 tonnes in 000.
From science to science fiction
Should these new farms be scary? Could we imagine multitudes of locusts escaping and attacking humans, as the film suggests? The Cloud, not without evoking Birds Hitchcock? No, and for a simple reason: locusts are strictly herbivores!
In addition, even if they adopt the carnivorous diet of their grasshopper cousins, the mandibles of these insects are too weak to cause us serious injury, or even to even cut our skin.
However, locusts do not need to mutate into flesh-eaters to cause many human victims: swarms of locusts, that ravage the cultures of East Africa, threaten thousands of people with starvation, and this in a very real way.