Food in Europe might soon start to get a little more, well, buggy.
Regulators have recently decided that the humble yellow mealworm is safe for human consumption — potentially opening the door for more insect-based food producers to open factories on the continent.
Ermolaos Ververis, a scientific officer at the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA), which regulates food standards in the European Union (EU), told the Guardian last week: “This first EFSA risk assessment of an insect as novel food can pave the way for the first EU-wide approval.”
Many people might feel squeamish at the thought of the yellow mealworm, or any insects, adorning supermarket shelves — especially in places like Europe and the US where eating insects is very rare. However, when it comes to the kind of low-carbon food options that are needed to feed the world population in future, insects are high on the list.
“There are clear environmental and economic benefits if you substitute traditional sources of animal proteins with those that require less feed, produce less waste, and result in fewer greenhouse gas emissions,” Mario Mazzocchi, an economic statistician and professor at the University of Bologna, said of the food agency’s decision on yellow mealworm.
Today we published our first full safety evaluation of #InsectFood, within the framework of our work on #NovelFood applications. What are the main challenges of assessing #insects as food and will Europeans take to insect food? Stay tuned! https://t.co/dUYMwsxDEy— EFSA (@EFSA_EU) January 13, 2021
If you’re trying to find ways to live more sustainably then examining the food you eat is a good place to start. In 2019, a landmark report by the UN said that big changes to agricultural methods, and a shift to a largely vegetarian diet, are both essential to combating climate change.
With that in mind, here are some of the key foods and strategies that could play a role in a more food secure future for people and the planet:
1. Getting onboard with insects
Insects are high in protein and use up considerably less land and water than livestock. They also require a lot less input to produce, which isn’t surprising given they are tiny. A single kilogram of feed — as in food given to animals — yields 12 times more edible protein from crickets than beef protein, for example, according to a BBC report.
The comparative efficiency of using insects means that sustainability campaigners and insects-for-food producers are clamouring to find more ways to build public trust and improve the appeal of eating insects in the Western world. It should be noted that 2 billion people globally already eat insects regularly as part of their diet.
But will insects ever be embraced in nations that don’t already consume them? "The 'ick factor' remains one of the biggest barriers to edible insects becoming the norm,” according to Dr. Alan-Javier Hernandez-Alvarez, a researcher from the University of Leeds who has studied the potential of insects as food.
“Eating behaviour is shaped largely during early childhood and in Western countries, eating insects, especially in whole and recognisable forms, remains something seen mostly on TV shows,” he added.
However, Dr. Guiomar Melgar-Lalanne, another food scientist, from the University of Veracruz in Mexico, said that young people in these countries show more willingness to try it.
"Promoting insects as an environmentally sustainable protein source appeals to the current attitudes in the younger generation,” she said.
2. Cooking with cactus
The prickly pear cactus might not immediately spring to mind when committing to eat your greens, but it has been described as a “miracle plant” by scientists. In 2017, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) called for cactus to be more widely embraced as a staple crop, after it proved vital in sustaining communities during a drought in Madagascar.
Cactus is a reliable part of many dishes in one of its native countries, Mexico, and other parts of Latin America, but it is not yet widely used in other regions of the world where it could be of benefit.
“The cactus pear's ability to thrive in arid and dry climates makes it a key player in food security,” the UN has said. As a result, the plant is now being cultivated in a handful of countries including Brazil, Ethiopia, South Africa, Jordan, Morocco, and India.
3. Embracing seaweed
Seaweed isn’t a new addition to cooking. It’s been a mainstay ingredient for many island nations and coastal communities for centuries, and is famously used in Japan for wrapping sushi. However, it is not yet used as widely as it could be.
The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) compiled a list in 2019 of 50 plant foods that are good for the planet and could be more widely embraced, highlighting two different types of seaweed as ones to look out for. The salty umami flavour of seaweeds can make it a “potential replacement for meat,” the report pointed out.
Seaweed has a lot of useful properties, from producing oxygen to being rich in vitamin C and fatty acids. It also grows quickly and is relatively unobtrusive in terms of its impact when farmed. “Because it lives wildly in the water, laver seaweed can be grown and harvested throughout the year and does not require pesticides or fertilisers,” the WWF report says.
It’s for this reason that Australian coastlines are already being used more for seaweed production, according to the Sustainable Food Trust.
4. Less meat, more beans
It’s no surprise by now that cutting down on meat is key to a more sustainable diet, but how much of an impact even a small reduction can have is still quite remarkable. And in countries like the UK and the US, people are becoming vegan, or simply “flexitarian”, in greater numbers.
“Most surveys definitely show that anywhere between 30% and 50% of people [in the US] are interested in cutting down on meat,” Becky Ramsing, a scientist from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future told HuffPost in 2019.
Even though there is so much more to do, consumer curiosity could drive a positive impact on carbon emissions and eating habits. One report, called “Less Beef, Less Carbon”, produced by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in 2017, found that by reducing beef consumption by 19% between 2005 to 2014, Americans reduced carbon emissions equivalent to 39 million fewer cars.
Embracing beans and pulses as protein and carbohydrate sources would mean a far lower environmental impact. Another report, from Oxford University, calculated that beef consumption in Western countries needs to fall by 90% and be replaced with five times as many beans and pulses to put the world on course to feed a population of 10 billion.
5. Think about food miles
“Food miles” refers to the distance an item of food has travelled across the world before it hits your plate. It’s something worth thinking about if you are aiming for as low a carbon footprint as possible.
In the UK, moving food around in lorries represents 25% of the miles covered by heavy goods traffic, for example.
However, it’s not as simple as it seems. The usefulness of worrying about food miles has been debated because the carbon emissions from food transportation are much lower than the impact of food production itself. It’s worth bearing in mind that it’s still more about what you eat, rather than where it comes from, that has the biggest impact.
Although not all food miles are created equal. Flying food around the world by plane, for example, generates 10 times the carbon footprint as road transport, and 50 times more carbon than shipping.
In response to the concern about the emissions impact, some brands, like plant-based meat producer Quorn, have decided to embrace carbon labelling, so that consumers can be more informed about the carbon footprint of what they buy.
If more food producers sign up, it could be about to get easier to consider how low-carbon, or high-carbon, your meal is before you choose to eat it.