The Search for Planet-Friendly Protein
We can take a cue from cultures that eat further down the food chain.
While the future of food may seem elusive, clues can be found in the culinary traditions of Mexico. Trek south of the U.S. border and you stand a good chance of coming across a chapulines or jumiles vendor. Chapulines add a nice kick to any tortilla or spicy food dish. They’re high in protein, low in fat, and the grasshoppers’ crispiness complements the softer texture of the tomatillo and avocado components. Jumiles, meanwhile, bring a cinnamon or minty taste to recipes and add an appealing crunch to salsa. These little stink bugs are also renowned for their curative abilities.
Think of these delicacies as a kind of shrimp that live on land, if you need perspective. But the fact of the matter is that including insects in our diets is good for us and good for the planet. Of all the nutrients humans cultivate, protein has the biggest impact on the environment due to the vast quantities of water, land, and resources needed to grow the grass and corn that sustain our dairy, beef, and poultry industries.
Our agriculture industry, and the land clearing that it requires, produced almost 23% of greenhouse gas emissions between 2007 and 2016. The fish-farming industry takes a toll on the aquatic environment because farms use chemicals, create waste, cultivate dangerous parasitic lice, and can spread disease to wild fish populations. The modern Western diet with its resource-heavy demands is quickly handing us an ecological catastrophe, according to research published in 2018 in Nature.
Add to that the fact that human population is on track to hit 10.9 billion by the year 2100, and we’re going to need enough protein to feed an extra 3 billion people. This calls for an all-hands-on-deck approach for individuals as well as production systems, opting for protein sources further down the food chain and capitalizing on innovations that allow us to produce meat without animals. Getting there will involve embracing protein that can be sourced from plants, grown in vivo, or fed with waste.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations is pushing hard for cheaper, healthier, and less resource-heavy alternatives to mammal and bird protein. This includes a practice that’s already common in 130 countries: entomophagy—eating insects. Indigenous cultures worldwide have enjoyed these sustainable protein sources for millennia. While Western cultures may cringe at the idea of arthropods as food (save for crustaceans, of course), more than 2 billion people include insects in their diets today, like the chapulines and jumiles in Mexico.
People around the world eat an impressively diverse array of some 2,000 different species of insects, most of them harvested in the wild. The most common are beetles, accounting for about a third of total global consumption. Caterpillars enjoy their greatest popularity in sub-Saharan Africa, whereas bees, wasps, and ants are favorites in Latin America.
What’s more, research shows that humans appear to be genetically predisposed to love the crunchy awesomeness of bugs even more than silky anteaters do. Despite arboreal ants comprising almost the entirety of the silky anteater’s diet, the animal’s excrement contains huge amounts of insect exoskeletons because they can’t digest chitin. But thanks to a common ancestor who crunched into bugs like a bag of Doritos every chance they got, primates, including people, are thought to have inherited a gene that produces a chitin-digesting enzyme. As a result, when it comes to eating ants, humans could have a digestive advantage over animals called “anteaters.”
In recent years, the U.S. has slowly started to get on the bug bandwagon. Kevin Bachhuber was eager to embrace humanity’s entomophagic history when he founded the first U.S. farm to receive FDA approval for food-grade insects in 2014.
“We use Acheta domesticus, the common house cricket,” Bachhuber says. “But the ones found in your home are black field crickets—that’s an entirely different kind of cricket.”
Bachhuber confirmed that the bugs are cheap to raise, with a feed-to-meat ratio around 2:1. That means it takes about twice a cricket’s weight in food to produce one edible cricket. That’s about the same as growing a chicken to a harvestable size, according to some studies, but it’s nothing compared to the 6:1 ratio required to produce a pound of beef. Plus, Bachhuber claims a cricket’s waste pales next to the dangerous bacterial risk of hog lagoon runoff or the eau de parfum of a 30,000-bird industrial-grade chicken shed.
An even more efficient creature conjures protein from waste: the larvae of the black soldier fly, Hermetia illucens. Unlike cows and chickens, these grubs don’t compete with humans for wheat and cornmeal. Instead, they eat potato peelings, bread remains, sugar beet pulp, seaweed, and animal and human manure. They can even handle the ethanol-saturated leftovers from a whiskey distillery.
Why would anybody eat such a voracious little savage? “They have a popcorn flavor to them—a little nutty,” says Jeff Tomberlin, an entomologist at Texas A&M University. Tomberlin co-founded Evo Conversion Systems LLC, to research black soldier fly larvae for animal feed. He’s also incorporating them into a kind of bug-based waste disposal system since a black soldier fly larva’s gut can apparently turn anything into protein, aside from bones, hair, and pineapple rinds. That includes dangerous pharmaceuticals and pesticides, Tomberline says. Trimethoprim, for example, is a caustic antibiotic that can linger in the environment for 25 days, but the corrosive digestive enzymes of black soldier fly larvae neutralize it in only 1.1 days, according to one study, and without any of it accumulating in the bug.
Tomberlin wants to drop the middle-pig, so to speak, and put the bug directly on American tables. He is a proponent of processing insects into ingredients for use in other foods; cricket flour, for example, is already available in stores and online.
A Greener Source
The further one moves down the food chain, the fewer resources are required to produce the protein. That’s why Texas-based nutrition company iWi (pronounced “ee-we”) cultivates Nannochloropsis algae in more than 100 picturesque saltwater pools dotting the deserts of New Mexico and Texas.
Using a minimum of nutrients, along with plenty of carbon dioxide and sunshine, the algae quickly proliferates in the pools and is filtered and processed into an omega-3 oil. The company is also completing regulatory work on an algae powder high in protein and carbohydrates.
If you’ve ever eaten sushi or drunk a smoothie with a bright green tint, then you’ve already come across algae in your food, says Rebecca White, the company’s vice president of operations. She says it’s a ubiquitous, low-resource, and sustainable protein enrichment.
White points to several milk brands that already use algae-derived omega-3s to fortify their products, including Horizon and Fairlife. Thrive Algae Oil recently received a qualified health claim from the Food and Drug Administration. Odwalla, too, is incorporating algae into products such as smoothies, juices, and snack bars.
“It’s cool that people are experimenting,” says Frannie Maas, a vegan who lives in Washington, D.C. She points out that eating a sustainable, animal-free diet isn’t always easy or affordable. “It’s important to know, as a vegan, that many people aren’t in a financial position to buy meat (or) dairy alternatives. Or they don’t live in an area where they can easily get those,” Maas says. But she predicts that emerging possibilities will soon put smart, legitimate selections on everybody’s table.
A Fish Out of Water
Those unprepared to embrace entomophagy or accept plant-based alternatives need not bemoan a future without protein, however. Real meat also appears to be moving into a new, more sustainable age.
Wild Type is a San Francisco company that’s managed to grow genuine salmon meat from salmon cells. The process involves multiplying individual fish cells in baths of a nutrient- and oxygen-rich solution until they become muscle fibers and connective tissue. Though reminiscent of an Asimov novel, the process is far enough along now to produce the kind of tissue that flakes naturally after cooking. Arye Elfenbein, the company’s co-founder and chief scientist, says it tastes great smoked and is visually appealing enough to be a component of sushi.
“We wanted a cleaner food source to avoid the mercury, antibiotics, or pesticides you get in wild or farmed fish, but we also wanted to give people an opportunity to live a little lighter on the planet,” says Ben Friedman, Wild Type’s head of product.
Wild Type co-founder and CEO Justin Kolbeck says the company is already working with partners in the food industry to coax the meat into an ideal shape, and he predicts Wild Type salmon will be a menu option at chain restaurants within five to 10 years.
“It [was] almost unthinkable that there would be a plant-based burger at Burger King and White Castle, yet today it’s practically ubiquitous,” Kolbeck says. “I think the same goes for seafood alternatives.”