Insect-based foods, fuels, fertilizers, and antimicrobials will be a part of our future, like it or not.
For a few weeks last summer, the East Coast was awash in billions of seventeen-year-old insects. The legendary Brood X emerged from the ground, climbed the trees, fattened all the gorging cats and coyotes, and made compost heaps swell with cicada mulch. Curiosity and creativity followed, with renewed interest in cookbooks like Cicada-Licious, which suggests collecting young grubs in the evening, as they wriggle up from the ground.
Despite the obvious potential of insects as human food, animal feed, and fertilizer, scientists disagree about the future of an industry that seeks to convert crickets, mealworms, black soldier fly larvae, and other creepy critters into products that can be safely shelved in grocery stores, sold to feed lots, and developed into pharmaceutical products.
Not everyone is ready to bite. Insect “microherd managers” are still just a tiny fraction of U.S. livestock farmers. The North American Coalition for Insect Agriculture (NACIA) estimates there are currently 50 insect farms in the United States—compared to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, which boasts 882,692 cattle and calf operations. But if insect farming is still a fringe movement in the United States, change is coming as we catch up with the rest of the world.
“In the two billion people around the world who eat insects every day, it’s part of their diet—it’s not alternative,” says Michelle Colgrave, future protein lead (yes, that’s really her title) for an Australian governmental research agency. “When we’re talking about alternative proteins, it’s only alternative if it’s not the main thing you’re eating.”
Best of all, insects could be the ultimate omnivorous food because of their unique makeup. Insects fall into an interesting nutritional niche somewhere in between animals and plants because they contain both dietary fiber and vitamin B12. “All the vegetable proteins have no B12, and the animal proteins have no fiber,” says Jarrod Goldin of Entomo Farms, a large cricket wholesaler in Canada that sells protein powders, insect flours, and snacks like whole roasted crickets (in BBQ, cinnamon, and honey-mustard).
Crickets hardly represent the whole spectrum of bugs eaten globally, but they’re an (almost) accessible first step for some Americans. “Crickets are to insects what the California roll was to sushi,” Goldin says.
From small farm to Big Pharma
But the appeal of future insect farms goes far beyond foodie curiosity and smaller-carbon-footprint environmental appeal. Scientists hope that insects could extend human longevity by leading to the discovery of new antifungals, antivirals, or antibiotics—including desperately needed antibiotics that target multidrug-resistant bacteria.
“There are estimates that by 2050, more people will be dying from antimicrobial infections than from cancer.”
That doesn’t mean farmed insects would be shipped to pharmaceutical companies, but rather that they will be explored. For decades, drug companies have searched the soils of the world for so-called natural products—chemicals that confer some survival advantage to organisms living in the dirt and, once synthesized, humanized, and mass-produced, may become the next big blockbuster. While soil microbiomes have been searched over and over, insects are a relatively untapped source of drug-like compounds. And the discovery of those future drugs, especially new antibiotics, could not arrive too soon, some experts say.
“There are fairly reliable estimates that by 2050, more people will be dying from antimicrobial infections than from cancer,” says University of Wisconsin-Madison bacteriologist Cameron Currie. In a landmark 2019 study, Currie and his team combed through 2,500 insect species, identified 10,000 potentially useful microbes, and ultimately identified a new antifungal compound from a Brazilian ant.
“We’ve shown in our work that the more insects you look at, the more diversity of new antibiotics you discover,” Currie says.
Andreas Vilcinskas, an entomologist based at the LOEWE Center for Insect Biotechnology in Giessen, Germany, has one foot in academia and the other in Fraunhofer, a massive collection of research institutes where he and a team of 85 scientists are investigating pharmaceutical and agricultural uses for insects. He claims that black soldier flies are the most important farmed insect, and they are also an important source of future drugs.
Future food—and medicine
Vilcinskas and his team are researching insects to discover important genes and antimicrobial peptides—small proteins that could help control infections—and they have already linked 50 genes in the black soldier fly to the upregulation of various antimicrobial compounds in insects.
“What was funny was that the expression of individual genes depends on the diet,” he says. Researchers started by feeding black soldier fly larvae a standard diet, then altered it by adding flour, oil, yeast, or other components, finding that each shift was linked to the upregulation of certain peptides. Using these findings, Vilcinskas is now hoping to optimize insect diets so that when the bugs are harvested to create, say, protein meal, the substance would naturally contain compounds that could ward off dangerous intestinal bacterial infections like Listeria and Salmonella, for example.
He’s also isolated peptides that, when inhaled, can help counter lung infections in mice, and he hopes to isolate a compound excreted by maggots that’s known to speed wound healing, as in the case of diabetic ulcers. Like Currie, Vilcinskas says pricey human trials require a pharmaceutical partner; some of his trials are funded by Sanofi.
Based on his research and the idea of deriving beneficial compounds from insects, Vilcinskas believes harnessing insects for the future of human health demands carefully considering what we feed them. Insects have the potential to be bioconverters of organic waste as they can break down massive quantities of food byproducts under controlled conditions, leading to more sustainable waste management methods. Proponents of this idea even envision farmed insects helping future societies convert organic waste into food, lubricants, fuels, and fertilizers.
Controlling for the danger of consuming an organism that, itself, is eating poisonous things is a hard problem, Vilcinskas says. In fact, he doesn’t love the idea of feeding insects toxic waste at all. He’s concerned about aflatoxins produced by fungi and other poisons that may accumulate in insects, even if the bugs don’t become sick.
“What I’m always saying,” Vilcinskas says, is, “Don’t shit in the food chain.”
Other experts, like Colgrave, think this is a manageable problem. She says routine safety assessments can be established to protect against toxins and potential allergens, which are also an issue because people who are allergic to shellfish will often also have an allergic reaction to eating insects.
“We need to understand that whenever you’re making any food that’s intended for our diet, we have to think, ‘What are the toxins? What are the potential allergens? Are there things that are bioaccumulated? Are there concerns around microbiological hazards and so forth?’” she says. “That’s where we need more R&D, especially around new insect types.”
Tiny livestock, growing industry
Another challenge is raising the insects in the first place. Before we realize a future full of products derived from insects, we’ll need better ways of farming them, and a more mature insect industry, at least in the United States. Around the world, insect farming and consumption is much more popular. An estimated 2 billion people consume 1,900 species of insects in Mexico, Central and South America, Africa, Asia, Australia, and New Zealand. A 2013 United Nations report explored the promise of insects for “food and feed” a phrase that is still in popular circulation among insect farmers, scientists, and advocates.
“My mom sent me a video about eating bugs as a joke and I took it too seriously and fell down the rabbit hole” says Robert Nathan Allen, who founded the educational nonprofit Little Herd in Austin, Texas, to promote insects as food and feed.
Soon, he was serving as a cricket consultant of sorts as the first U.S. employee of Canadian company Aspire Food Group, whose founders studied palm weevil cultivation in Thailand and Ghana before setting up a pilot cricket farm in Austin. By late 2020, Aspire had dozens of employees.
Still, says Allen, “there’s a lot of people farming insects who’ve never farmed before,” describing a U.S. industry still largely fueled by entrepreneurial ambition, though companies are now increasingly able to hire livestock feed or food manufacturing to supplement their bootstrapped efforts as the industry matures. He now points to companies like Enviroflight, Aspire, and BetaHatch, all NACIA members, as industry leaders—a moniker which, given the newness of the industry, Allen added, “is a hoot.”
A shifting web of regulations
While the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) regulates any product sold as human food, pet food, or livestock feed, the regulatory picture is not always simple. Insect farming “isn’t codified the way chicken farming is,” Allen says. As this industry has evolved, insects have been increasingly regulated, subjecting farmers to an overlapping web of local, state, and federal regulations.
“The USDA does not currently have any regulatory requirements or or anything specific to insect farms,” says Wendy Lu McGill, NACIA’s interim executive director. “Similarly, the EPA also does not have anything on the books in any way around insect farming.” And while it behooves farmers to keep insects in disease-free environments, McGill points out that it hardly makes sense to lump in crickets with cattle. Her own farm was once zoned in the same category as a cattle farm: “It was very, very disruptive.”
The American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) is working with the FDA to help. As a voluntary organization of regulators who oversee livestock feed production, the AAFCO is a resource that helps define ingredients intended for animal feed, and tries to standardize regulatory language. Its leaders guide FDA policy, and it has FDA officials as board members, too.
Through NACIA and his own connections, Goldin is also working with regulators in the U.S. and Canada to suggest species-specific insect regulations to create new standards to ensure insect products that reach consumers remain safe. “But for now, as long as we are harvesting insects specifically for human consumption, and we’re not wild harvesting them, the FDA and the Canadian government allows it,” Goldin says.
Still, only some farms raise insects for edible products aimed at humans. Others sell frass, a fancy term for insect excrement, and exuviae, molted exoskeleton husks, both of which can be used as fertilizer. Pet food is another popular option for farmed insects for everyday consumers—and it tends to be a more palatable option to consumers, at least psychologically. For shoppers who want to choose sustainable options, but aren’t ready to crunch on a cricket, feeding it to Fido may be the first step. Farmed insects have exploded as a source of nutritious and economical pet food, livestock, and aquaculture feed.
“Dog foods and dog treats are one of the significant users of insects for animal feed,” Allen says.
Life on the farm
Internationally, Canada, France, and Thailand are among leading producers of insects, with black soldier fly larvae, mealworms, and crickets the most common “crops.” (Insect farmers seem somewhat torn on whether to refer to their tiny charges as farmed crops, herds, or something else entirely.)
Although some startups have focused on backyard farming options, with products like mealworm trays that could be cultivated on a patio, commercial insect farms in the U.S. are largely indoors, and have the clinical feel of a carefully controlled environment designed both to avoid freaking out the neighbors and to ensure that the living conditions yield a healthy harvest. Their lab-like, modular set-ups are designed to contain bugs in clean vessels made of cardboard, wood, metal, or plastic in a climate-controlled environment where they are fed species-specific diets—as well as minimizing insects’ exposure to illness. (Climate control is more of a problem in the United States and Canada than in places like Thailand, which has a larger insect industry and a more insect-friendly climate.)
Insects convert organic matter that humans cannot digest into edible protein.
Many insect farms are closed systems with separate areas where they cultivate new lines of, say, particularly successful black soldier flies. Insects are then reared in other lab-like environments, and there are separate spaces where insects and their byproducts are processed into food, livestock feed, fertilizer, and other products. You won’t find any dirt involved in these “farms,” and they’re largely indoors.
Colgrave sees room for startups that would provide starter insects “but at the same time, for them to be able to establish a business in that space, there needs to be enough companies downstream that are then buying from them.”
Longevity through agriculture
As the population of humans on Earth approaches 10 billion this century, insects are a more efficient means of creating protein from plants in ways that other livestock simply are not. Cows produce protein-rich meat, but also consume crops like corn and soybeans, while insects could consume the byproducts of those crops’ harvests. And while grass-fed beef is on the rise, it still comprises just 4 percent of the beef sold to U.S. consumers through grocers and restaurants.
“If we are actually putting human-edible protein into a system, then the question is, should we have just eaten that protein?” Colgrave says. In the case of insects, we don’t have to. By eating agricultural byproducts or food scraps, insects convert organic matter that humans cannot digest into edible protein.
Marcel Dicke, an entomologist and ecologist in the Netherlands, says that insects can become part of a new, connected food-feed-fertilizer cycle in which humans and livestock consume insects, whose frass and exoskeletal remains enrich soil microbiomes that promote pollination, healthy crop growth, and resistance against harmful insects. In turn, new insects could be reared using the byproducts from those healthy crops after harvest, using fewer fertilizers. “I don’t think that it’s going to replace fertilizers altogether. But it might reduce fertilizer reliance,” Dicke says.
Dicke, the author of an insect cookbook and a recent opinion piece on this insect-friendly food cycle, is currently comparing black soldier fly larvae, mealworms, and crickets as soil microbiome boosters.
“What we see is that they have similar effects, but the intensity of the effects differ and that also is affected by the traits in the plant that you look at,” Dicke says. As he narrows down the options, Dicke has a broader goal: to cut down on the neurotoxic pesticides which can bioaccumulate in spinal fluid, including in children.
Like Currie and Dicke, Allen says we’ve barely begun to explore the potential of insects. “The broader movement of insect farming has really only explored five or six species intensively and maybe another half a dozen experimentally, but there’s millions of other species out there,” Allen says. Maybe one of them will be the source of a resilient food additive, or just the right antimicrobial compound, to change the course of history, and help humans survive the future, whatever it holds.