stag beetle

A stag beetle displays its horns in Hungary. (Photo: Gábor Kovács/Flickr)

Nearly 1 billion of Earth's 7 billion humans are already chronically hungry, and there will likely be an additional 2 billion mouths to feed by 2050. But rather than doubling down on traditional efforts to fight hunger, a new United Nations report suggests a more avant-garde approach to feed the world: less beef, more beetles.

Produced by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the report advocates insect farming as a win-win way to mitigate the planet's mounting food problems. Not only are insects "nutritious, with high protein, fat and mineral contents," it points out, but they're also extremely low-maintenance compared with most livestock.

"Insects are everywhere and they reproduce quickly," the report says, "and they have high growth and feed conversion rates and a low environmental footprint."

Since they're cold-blooded, bugs don't have to use energy from their feed to maintain body heat. They can make about 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of insect meat for every 2 kg of feed, while cows need 8 kg (17.6 lbs.) of feed just to make 1 kg of beef. Warm-blooded livestock also need more water and land, and they pollute their environment with bacteria-laden feces and noxious flatulence — including methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Insects, on the other hand, actually break down waste and can help return nutrients to the soil.

This is old news in some places, as the FAO acknowledges, since humans already eat more than 1,900 different insect species worldwide. The most commonly eaten insects are beetles (31 percent); caterpillars (18 percent); bees, wasps and ants (14 percent); and grasshoppers, locusts and crickets (13 percent). These may seem like paltry provisions next to a hamburger, but the FAO points out insects are often a better source of protein and nutrients. Beef has an iron content of 6 milligrams per 100 grams of dry weight, for example, while locusts offer between 8 and 20 mg per 100 g of dry weight.

Still, the U.N. knows insects are a hard sell in Western nations, so it's taking a measured tone. "We are not saying that people should be eating bugs," says Eva Muller, director of FAO's Forest Economic Policy and Products Division, in a statement on how forests can fight hunger. "We are saying that insects are just one resource provided by forests, and insects are pretty much untapped for their potential for food, and especially for feed."

The FAO kind of is saying people should eat bugs, though, just not everyone all at once. "The polarity of views surrounding the practice of entomophagy necessarily requires tailormade communication approaches," it explains. "In the tropics, where entomophagy is well established, media communication strategies should promote edible insects as valuable sources of nutrition. ... Western societies require tailored media communication strategies and educational programs that address the disgust factor." Locusts in Australia, for instance, sound a little more appetizing when they're called "sky prawns."

The disgust factor isn't the only hurdle for Western insect cuisine. As the FAO notes, most industrialized nations outlaw feeding waste, slurry or swill to livestock, "even though this would be the material that insects normally feed on." They also tend to have regulations against using insects in human food — typically with accidental ingredients in mind — but the report adds that "with a growing number of novel food stores and restaurants cropping up in developed countries, it seems to be largely tolerated."

"The private sector is ready to invest in insect farming. We have huge opportunities before us," says Paul Vantomme, a co-author of the FAO report. "But until there is clarity in the legal sphere, no major business is going to take the risk to invest funds when the laws remains unclear or actually hinders development of this new sector."

For more about entomophagy, check out this video released Monday by the FAO: 

Related insect stories on MNN:

Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.

Insects are our food of the future, U.N. says
If Western culture can overcome the 'disgust factor,' insect cuisine could help fight global hunger and global warming, a United Nations agency reports.