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More efficient protein production seems creepy and crawly

By Anna Campbell

My daughter was doing some baking when I heard her cry, ''Mum, there's those weble things in the jelly''. By weble things, she meant weevils, which had found their way into our jelly crystals.

In response, I closed my eyes and told her to ''throw the whole packet out'', while simultaneously feeling the glares of the food waste patrollers - there is clearly no accounting for the state of my pantry.

My shuddering is out of proportion to the threat of weevils to my health. I have no doubt that I have unintentionally consumed weevils many times before, with no apparent effects.

In all reality, insects as alternate protein products to save the planet, the livestock or whatever society is demanding of us, are likely to be part of our future diet.

Maggot farming has been attracting the attention of significant international investment and certainly seems to be a viable protein-farming option. In just a few hours, maggots, or larvae from black soldier flies, can eat more than their weight in food waste, and food waste is a problem, a big one.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), one third of the food produced each year (about 1.3billion tonnes) spoils or is thrown out. In China, where they have developed regulatory systems for such enterprises, maggot farms are popping up around big cities to convert restaurant food waste into livestock feed.

A South African insect farming business, AgriProtein, has recently raised $US105million ($NZ155million) for its UK holding company. AgriProtein feeds fly larvae on waste coming from nearby municipalities, a local shopping mall, educational institutions, hospitals and food processors.

It creates three products: a soil enhancer for crop producers, and two livestock feed products. Other maggot protein companies are focusing on developing feed products for aquaculture businesses (i.e. fishmeal).

And what about insect farming for direct human consumption, is this a realistic option for the future? The FAO has backed insects for their sustainability benefits, ''insects have a high food conversion rate, crickets need six times less feed than cattle, four times less than sheep, and twice less than pigs and broiler chickens to produce the same amount of protein''.

On top of that, we already eat insects. It has been estimated entomophagy (insect eating) has been practised in at least 113 countries with more than 2000 documented edible insect species.

Of course, Dunedin has its own entrepreneurial award-winning insect farmer, Malcolm Diack (ODT, 19 November, 2017) who supplies locusts, ''sky prawns'', to New Zealand restaurants. It's easy to envisage these being bought as a novelty or in ''hobby-style'' form, but what will it really take to convert insects to mainstream protein replacement products?

For large-scale industrial farming to be competitive with poultry and pork there are still many questions (Dobermann et al., Nutrition Bulletin, 2017) - how can insect nutritional profiles be improved in a systematic and consistent manner?, how can the environmental footprint of insects remain small when scaled up commercially?, what do the regulations around insect farming, processing and storage need to cover?, are there harmful effects to human or animal populations from consuming large quantities of insects?, and, what do insect supply chains look like depending on specific end uses?

Finally, even when these questions are answered, how do we get over the disgust factor? Will newer generations be less fearful of eating insects? Not if my daughter's weble horror is anything to go by.

In saying that, I have had people describe to me their horror of thinking about cows and lambs being killed for human consumption. I wonder if we might be closer than we might think.