Scientists say eating insects might be a way to help the planet

Opinions on eating the crunchy buggers are swaying.
Deena Theresa
Fried insects with a light coating of sauce and garnishstockphototrends/iStock

Marcel Dicke, a researcher at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, hasn't eaten an insect delicacy that he didn't like. "I've eaten ants in Colombia, dragonflies in China, locusts, termites...I've eaten a whole diversity," the entomologist, who is the co-author of The Insect Cookbooktells IE.

For more than 20 years, Dicke has been vouching for vouching for insects as a reliable food source. "The nutritional status of several insects is similar, if not higher, to those found in beef or pork," he says. That's not it. 

The global population is expected to rise to more than nine billion by 2050, which means that agricultural production will have to increase by around 70 percent to feed everyone. Meat consumption has risen over the years and soon, it is likely that there won't be enough to go around. Here's where insects could be the perfect alternative. Growing insects for food is extremely efficient, according to Dicke's talk at TEDGlobal 2010, in which he advocated for Entomophagy - the consumption of insects. It also means that we'll have less waste to deal with.

Recently, Dicke learned that insects also have a solid impact on plants. In an opinion paper published on March 2 in the journal Trends in Plant Science, Dicke and colleagues have delved into the benefits of using the waste from insect-as-food-and-feed production to promote sustainable crops. This approach could enhance plant growth, health, pollination, and resilience.

"Mini livestock" that are easier to farm

"The research revolves around finding solutions for the world's problems and seeing how insects can contribute to that. One of the ways is to see that insects can be a sustainable protein source to feed human beings, an alternative for current meat, beef, or pork. Substrates that are not suitable for human consumption can be fed to insects. For instance, the leftover grains in beer production can be consumed by insects. Which in turn can be food for humans," says Dicke. 

Insects are also efficient to farm, especially when compared to more traditional livestock. It takes roughly 25 kilograms of grass to produce one kilogram of beef. The same amount of grass can produce 10 times as much edible insect protein. This is due to the higher conversion rate of insects and because up to 90 percent of an insect’s body mass is edible, as opposed to only 40 percent of a cow.

As per the paper, the insects are fed waste streams from crop farming or food production. The insects then provide humans with food. Using the leftovers from insect production to bolster crop growth could close this circle.

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"Something that would normally be discarded is getting a new life. This adds to the circularity of food production," says Dicke.

Katherine Y. Barragán-Fonseca, one of the co-authors of the paper agrees with Dicke. "We're making a lot of interesting discoveries," she says.

The leftovers from insect production come in two main forms: exuviae, the exoskeletons left behind after molting, and frass, named for the German word for eating. According to Dicke, frass is "basically insect poop and unconsumed food". When these are added to soil, the exuviae and frass promote both plant growth and health. Insect feces are rich in nitrogen, a nutrient that is pivotal to plant growth but is scarce in most soils; therefore, it is often added to crops in synthetic fertilizer.

A report by a Ph.D. student was the genesis of the paper. "The student, who had added the molted skins of insects to the soil, found that it promoted the growth of microbes in the soil that are known to be beneficial for crops. This not only promotes resilience in terms of resistance to pests and diseases but can also influence the pollination of crops. Additional pollination comes with higher seed production," he says.

Microbes with biocontrol may reduce the usage of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, leading to sustainable crop production. But can they replace chemical fertilizers for good? "It's too early to say to what extent it will be replaced, but it's definitely going to make an important contribution," he says.

Un-bee-lievable, but true

So, how do you take your pick? Crickets are known to be a good source of iron, protein, and vitamin B12. Grasshoppers, which are highly popular in Mexico, Latin America, and parts of Africa and Asia, are also high in protein. Joining the group are termites, who are not only rich in protein but fatty acids, iron, and calcium. They're served fried, smoked, or sun-dried. Ants said to have a lemony flavor, are used in high-end dishes in parts of South America and India. The list is never-ending.

Do we know if these insects are safe to eat? That's easy, according to Dicke. There are strict regulations for farming insects in Europe. Also, one needs to have certain substrates that can be used to produce the insects, he says. Insect production is under the control of regulators, he says.

"This new application puts insects as the central organism in our food production systems. And so far, insects have long been seen as the bad guys that we need to combat. But they are our allies in our fight in the world. Even when we produce insects for food, there are residual streams that we can benefit from," he adds.


Beneficial soil microorganisms can contribute to the biocontrol of plant pests and diseases, induce systemic resistance (ISR) against attackers, and enhance crop yield. Using organic soil amendments has been suggested to stimulate the abundance and/or activity of beneficial indigenous microbes in the soil. Residual streams from insect farming (frass and exuviae) contain chitin and other compounds that may stimulate beneficial soil microbes that have ISR and biocontrol activity. Additionally, changes in plant phenotype that are induced by beneficial microorganisms may directly influence plant-pollinator interactions, thus affecting plant reproduction. We explore the potential of insect residual streams derived from the production of insects as food and feed to promote plant growth and health, as well as their potential benefits for sustainable agriculture.