Already a mainstay of many global human diets, insects may serve as an environmentally friendly option for animal feed, FAO Assistant Director-General Eduardo Rojas-Briales told an international gathering of researchers in The Netherlands last week.
Rojas spoke during the opening session of the conference, "Insects to Feed the World," jointly organized by Wageningen University and the United Nations. More than 400 participants from 45 countries have gathered for the event to examine the current status and future potential of insects as food and feed.
"The time is ripe to think about alternative sources of food in view of a growing world population, climate change threats and persisting hunger in many parts of the world," said Rojas, who oversees FAO's work in forestry and related food systems and livelihoods.
Wild foods contribute to the food security of millions of people living in and around forests and most of the insects consumed by one-third of the world's people are collected from the wild, FAO said.
Rojas asserts that raising insects for feed is an environmentally friendly and efficient way of producing animal feed – they can be fed on bio-waste, compost and animal slurry, and can transform these inputs into high-quality protein for animal feed.
"Recognizing the global potential of insects for food in this conference is not to advocate a change in the food patterns of the other two-thirds of the global population that is not used to eating insects, but to ensure that those who consume insects can continue to do so in the future in a sustainable way, and to highlight the different potential contributions insects can make to food security in the future," Rojas said.
Sonny Ramaswamy, director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture and a keynote speaker for the event, agreed that there are many advantages to insects as food.
"Insects contain more protein and are lower in fat than traditional meats, and contain a number of micronutrients critical for human well-being," he wrote in a USDA column, adding that "insects save a substantial amount of energy and natural resources by their ability to get their heat from the surrounding environment."
Though Ramaswamy said the environmental impact of insects is also significantly minimal, and their reproduction rate is much higher, there are a few questions about nutrition and feasibility of production.
"There are many unanswered questions about regulation and policy decisions. And of course … would eating insects be culturally acceptable to Americans?," he asked in his blog.
But Rojas explained that insects may be one in a group of many changes that will help feed a growing population.
"Certainly insects alone will not solve the world's food security challenges but it would be absurd not to mobilize their full potential in the fight against hunger and malnutrition," he said.
In addition to raising awareness of the potential of insects in sustainable diets and food production, conference participants discussed a variety of related issues, including data-gathering, nutritional analysis, and regulatory and research considerations, among others.
Rojas said the international scientific community could make "important contributions by generating the right momentum to overcome the still-existing bottlenecks and to unlock the full potential of insects for food and feed.