Our food production systems are fuelling the destruction of the natural world. Using insects as livestock feed could make a huge difference – Mike Barrett
Food is one of life’s greatest pleasures.
Over the past year many of us have found solace in the kitchen trying out new recipes and as things open up, we’re sharing a new appreciation for eating out or firing up the barbecue with friends.
When we’re told that our diets here in the UK are driving the destruction of nature around the world, it’s tempting to tune out.
We don’t want to be made to feel guilty about what’s on our plates – yet many would be shocked to know what it’s costing our planet. On top of that, millions of tonnes of food are thrown away in the UK every year.
Securing a greener future for our planet will mean overcoming the challenge of how to produce food more sustainably, while cutting waste and restoring nature – and using insects to feed the animals raised for our meat could be one way to help.
Farmed animals play a crucial role in the global food system, supporting livelihoods worldwide, but producing enough feed for the 80 billion animals reared for human consumption each year is putting our planet under immense pressure. Seventy-seven per cent of global agricultural land is used for livestock and the land required to feed them.
Three-quarters of the soy produced in the world goes towards animal feed, mainly for pigs and chickens – including those we buy in the UK. Soy produces more protein per hectare than any other major crop, but its cultivation is fuelling climate change and biodiversity loss, as huge swathes of land are being cleared for monoculture farms.
One of the places most affected is the Brazilian Cerrado, where more than 100,000 hectares of precious habitat are lost each year to make way for soy production. While the Cerrado is not as well-known as its neighbour, the Amazon, it’s one of the most biodiverse places in the world and spans the size of the UK, France, Germany, Italy and Spain combined.
Its grasslands, woodlands, forests and wetlands are home to more than 10,000 species of plants – almost half of which aren’t found anywhere else in the world – as well as unique wildlife such as the jaguar, giant anteater and giant armadillo.
It’s not just wildlife seeing its home destroyed. People who have lived in the Cerrado for generations are being displaced to make way for soy farms. Indigenous communities without titles to their land are particularly vulnerable.
Soy will always have a role to play in the feed system, but we must move towards sustainable soy production while at the same time looking for viable alternatives that can help to reduce pressure on land. That’s where insects come in. They’re a rich source of protein and feature naturally in the diet of fish, poultry and pigs.
New research commissioned by WWF, in partnership with Tesco, has found that adopting insects as animal feed could replace over half a million tonnes of soy from the UK’s footprint by 2050. That’s equivalent to one fifth of the UK’s projected soy imports in 2050.
It’s not just as a feedstuff that insects prove their worth – they can also help to address the problem of food waste. Many insects are biological processors, helping to recycle and decompose waste. They can munch through mountains of material, such as unwanted fruit and vegetables, that may otherwise go to landfill.
Currently, insect meal is commercially available as bird and pet food, but there are barriers to using it as animal feed, as insect protein cannot be fed to any farmed livestock destined for human consumption. The EU is expected to approve the use of insect meal for pig and poultry feed soon, and the UK could follow suit.
The use of insect meal is already permitted for aquaculture and, while it is used by leading Norwegian fish farms, it’s not in mainstream use in the UK. The volumes are currently too low and prices too high, preventing significant uptake.
The UK is falling behind both mainland Europe and North America in developing its insect industry. The fact that some new facilities are in construction is to be welcomed but there needs to be both legislative change and investment to allow UK insect farmers to take advantage of the potential demand.
One constraint is the regulation on what can be fed to the insects themselves. That’s why we’re calling on the UK government to mandate the Food Standards Agency, with input from Food Standards Scotland, to research the risks and benefits of using different feedstuffs for insects.
The UK will host the Cop26 climate conference in Glasgow in just four months’ time and attention will rightly be focused on headline pledges to cut emissions. But we must not forget that climate change and nature loss are two sides of the same coin. The destruction of critical landscapes like the Cerrado is not only a tragedy for people and nature, but also directly impacts the planet’s ability to store carbon.
The way we produce and consume food is a significant contributor to climate change and is the major driver of global biodiversity loss. On-the-ground conservation work can help places like the Cerrado, but on its own will not be enough. We need global action to transform our food and farming systems and protect our planet, our one shared home.
Insects already bring significant benefits to the planet – aerating and improving the soil, pollinating crops, and decomposing dead materials. Now they could help us to feel good about the food on our plates too.
Mike Barrett is executive director of science and conservation at international conservation organisation WWF
A message from the Editor:
Thank you for reading this article. We're more reliant on your support than ever as the shift in consumer habits brought about by coronavirus impacts our advertisers.
If you haven't already, please consider supporting our trusted, fact-checked journalism by taking out a digital subscription.
Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.