Is insect protein a climate solution?

Climavores podcast hosts Michael Grunwald and Tamar Haspel serve up some hot takes.
By Mike Munsell

  • Link copied to clipboard
A chilled shelf in a grocery store with packs of food labeled insect burger
Mealworm-based burgers for sale in a Swiss grocery store (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)

Supported by

Canary Media’s Climate Meets Culture column explores the intersection of energy, climate and culture at large. Canary thanks Silverline Communications for its support of the column.

In 2015, a friend and I stumbled across a pop-up event in downtown Boston called Pestaurant,” put on by the Pennsylvania-based pest control company Ehrlich.

According to the company’s website, the goal of the event was to provide insect-infused dishes to the public for free to raise awareness about pests and celebrate Ehrlich’s rich history in pest control.” The menu included items like Boston clorm (a portmanteau of clam and worm) chowda, mealworm fried rice and grasshopper turkey burgers.

The main draw was a cricket-eating contest, and my friend wanted in. We didn’t inquire about how the crickets were killed and whether he’d be consuming any residual insecticide.

He sat at a long table with 12 or 15 other contestants, each consuming condiment cup after condiment cup filled with dried crickets. If I remember correctly, he placed second. The champion was a young boy who had to have eaten at least 10 small cups of crickets in the allotted minute or two. When I texted my friend to fact-check this story, he contended the boy cheated by spitting out clumps of bug matter: It was a clump-and-dump scheme!”

Subscribe to receive Canary's latest news

In 2016, a year after the Pestaurant event, market research company CB Insights noted there were a lot of insect protein startups emerging from their burrows, including Six Foods and its cricket-flour-based tortilla chips, which were featured on Shark Tank in the same year.

Perhaps these entrepreneurs had caught wind of a 150-page report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations proclaiming that society should be eating insects — a practice called entomophagy — and detailing the health, environmental and economic benefits.

The challenge, of course, is that in the West, most of us think bugs are pretty gross. The report explains, The earliest citing of entomophagy can be found in biblical literature; nevertheless, eating insects was, and still is, taboo in many westernized societies.”

I’m guilty of being susceptible to that taboo. I wish I could be more like my friend and munch down condiment cups full of crickets, but the thought of their legs getting stuck in between my teeth just doesn’t do it for me.

It’s been more than five years since I heard much about the impending bug boom, but I haven’t seen many insect-protein products hitting the grocery store shelves yet. I still think about it often — more recently in the context of climate. As I learn more about the impacts of meat consumption, I’ve started wondering whether insect protein could be a viable climate solution.

Calling the experts

Fortunately, I knew the perfect people to ask: journalists Michael Grunwald and Tamar Haspel, hosts of the new podcast Climavores. As the name implies, the show covers the intersection between food and climate.

There is no shortage of climate and energy-related podcasts (see my crowdsourced list from last year), but Climavores has quickly wormed its way onto my never-miss-an-episode shortlist.

Since its launch this past June, every episode (and its Twitter bio) includes a note asking listeners to call in and leave a voicemail with their pressing climate and food questions. Seizing the opportunity, I called in to get Grunwald’s and Haspel’s hot takes on insect protein.

The following is a lightly edited excerpt of my question and their response, which was part of Climavores’ recent mailbag episode:

Munsell: Hi, Tamar and Mike. I want to know your take on bugs. There was a lot of activity in the bug protein space a few years ago. But outside of science-museum gift shops, I haven’t seen edible bugs for sale. Is bug protein a thing? And what’s your take on it — is it a climate solution? Bugs are pretty gross, but I can see the value of eating them.

Grunwald: That’s a great question. There is some cricket powder in gyms, and you can get some on Amazon. When I was in Mexico, I did eat some grasshoppers that I bought from a street vendor. And yeah, they were kind of gross.

Eating insects would be a terrific way to get a lot of protein in a pretty efficient manner. Insects do grow fast, and they don’t require a lot of feeding to increase their body weight. But a lot of people do think they’re gross. I think they’re more likely to end up as animal feed, and particularly fish feed for aquaculture.

In fact, Archer Daniels Midland is building the largest insect protein factory in the world in Decatur, Illinois, near its corn processing plant, and they’re going to feed the bugs leftovers from the corn-processing process.

Right now, [insects are] a very tiny part of global protein intake. I think they’re saying it could be a $300 million industry in the United States by 2030, which is really pretty tiny [compared to] a trillion-dollar global meat market, but as feed, particularly for fish, I think it has some promise.

Haspel: I think that’s absolutely right, especially the fish part, because one of the difficulties of aquaculture is trying to get fish to grow without feeding them small fish. And that kind of defeats the purpose of taking your fish production out of the ocean. So I see a real upside there.

There are people who have done life-cycle analyses of insects, but there aren’t that many of them. And the last one I saw showed mealworms coming in just around where chicken was [as a protein source], except that per kilogram of animal, and because you can eat (or the animal can eat) the whole mealworm, it is significantly better. And it’s going to depend on whether those mealworms are fed waste streams or feed that could be diverted to other kinds of animals. So I think it’s a good bet that insect protein is going to be a decent way to produce protein.

Now, for humans, I’m going to say in the United States, it is a non-starter. Americans will not eat insects. And this is completely cultural. Our hesitation is a learned disgust response that people in other parts of the world don’t have. But the thing about it is that just because it’s a learned disgust response doesn’t mean you can just get over it. It’s deeply ingrained. I know that the reason I don’t want to eat insects has nothing to do with the insects. It has everything to do with this enculturated idea. But that doesn’t make the idea any less powerful. I still don’t want to eat insects.

But I do have great hope for it as feed. I think there could be other places in the world where people are a little more enlightened, and they don’t have this disgust response to insects. And if we really want Americans to eat insects, the way to do it is to make sure our kids don’t learn that disgust response.

So all you climate-watchers out there who are paying attention to your diet, feed mealworms to your kids early on so they don’t have that disgust response.

More Climavores

I asked my kids if they would consider eating food made from crickets, and I got wide-eyed stares and furrowed brows. I may have missed the window for averting their disgust response.

To get Grunwald’s and Haspel’s takes on other topics like regenerative agriculture, factory-farmed fish and whether vegans can eat oysters, listen to the full mailbag episode on Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

Want to see a live taping of the show? Climavores will be at Canary Live in New York City on October 20. In addition, Canary’s Julian Spector and Maria Gallucci, Politico’s Marie French, and The City’s Samantha Moldando will break down what decarbonization means for the state of New York.

Silverline Communications, the supporter of this column, is a climatetech and sustainability communications firm with deep experience in all facets of the clean economy. Learn more about how Silverline connects clients with stakeholders on social channels and beyond.

Mike Munsell is director of growth at Canary Media.