Cricket farm in Thailand

Farming crickets as food far better for the environment than chickens, researchers find

Image credit: Credit: Afton Halloran

A study has compared cricket production in Thailand with broiler chicken farming on an equivalent scale and found the former compared favourably with the latter in terms of its environmental footprint.

Enthusiasts for the idea of industrial scale entomological agriculture as a solution to feeding growing populations worldwide whilst avoiding the environmental pitfalls of production of meat like beef can point to a new study as part of a growing body of evidence for the benefits of rearing insects for food.

Researchers at the University of Copenhagen compared cricket production in Thailand to broiler chicken farming on an equivalent scale and found the former was far better for the planet.

Fifteen different environmental impacts were investigated, including global warming potential, resource depletion and eutrophication. In most cases, cricket production had a lower negative impact on the environment than the farming of chickens.

Farmed crickets were found to be extremely efficient at converting the feed they were given – which happens to be the same mulch as is given to broiler chickens – into protein. The chicken feed that is also fed to farmed crickets is a mixture formed of corn or maize, soy, fishmeal and ricemeal.

Chickens are already a relatively environmentally friendly source of meat. Ruminants – cows and sheep, for example – have far greater greenhouse gas emissions.

The farming of insects, which are typically high in protein and low in fat, avoids some of the other ethical quandaries that are occasioned by industrial-scale farming of intelligent animals like pigs. In many cases insects can be comparable to meat and fish in terms of nutritional value.

PhD student Afton Halloran, the lead author of the study, said changing how farmed crickets are fed could yield an even smaller environmental footprint.

She told E&T there are currently around 20,000 cricket farms in Thailand but said farmers were simply feeding them the same food as is given to chickens as they “didn’t know what to feed crickets”, which in the wild consume plant matter.

“To me and a lot of other people, it seems a bit silly to be feeding fishmeal and cornmeal to crickets when we know they are so efficient and they are so different to other livestock,” she said, adding that while there were “hundreds and thousands of years of history of livestock science”, techniques for farming insects were relatively new.

Cricket farming in Thailand has only been going for around two decades. Produce from the farms is sold at rural markets locally, where the crickets are bought by villagers as a relatively low-cost foodstuff.

Halloran said: “The way they are consumed, it’s not a replacement to meat, it’s sold more as a snack. People are not eating huge quantities of them. They buy maybe 100 grams of them at the market. It’s not something that is directly competing at this time with chicken or pork.

She added: “If we’re looking from a purely environmental perspective, insect production – cricket production in particular – is probably one of the best forms of animal-source food production that we have seen. Of course, fish can also have a low environmental impact. Chickens are also relatively environmentally friendly.”

Insects, which are widely eaten in Africa and Asia, are already available in some bars and restaurants in Europe, but they are typically seen as, at best, a novelty foodstuff.

Halloran said that could change in as little as a generation, however.

Speaking from outside a restaurant in Denmark where she had just been for a meal (though not, E&T understands, to eat crickets), she said: “This is something that takes time. I believe it will be the next generation. Food preferences are formed in so many different ways. A large part of that is based on the things we like and the things we think taste good. This is where a lot of research is going into how to expose children in Europe to insects. You can change opinions by working with children.”

She added: I think that the most exciting thing in all this is that we are really on the forefront of a new animal production system. The last time we saw the domestication of insects was thousands of years ago when humans started domesticating bees for honey and silkworms for silk. So, we have a really unique opportunity to learn from the mistakes as well as the advances that have been made in other production systems. We have the chance to shape these systems.

Around the world, there are over 2,000 insect species that are regularly eaten. Most of these species are harvested from the wild, but around nine insect species are currently farmed for food and feed.

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