Agriculture in the 21st century is not as simple as it once was. With a population seven billion strong, a climate in crisis, and sustainability in farming practices on everyone’s radar, figuring out how to feed the masses without destroying the Earth is a pressing concern.
Writing in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, researchers at Tufts University say insects that are fed plants and genetically modified for maximum growth, nutrition, and flavor could be the best, greenest alternative to our current livestock farming practices. This lab-grown protein source could produce high volume, nutritious food without the massive resources required for traditional animal agriculture.
“Due to the environmental, public health, and animal welfare concerns associated with our current livestock system, it is vital to develop more sustainable food production methods,” says lead author Natalie Rubio. Could insect meat be the key?
New sustainable food production includes what’s called “cellular agriculture,” an emerging industry and field of study in which meat and dairy are produced via cells in a lab instead of whole animals. So far, scientists have primarily focused on bovine, porcine, and avian cells to create this “cultured meat.”
But the Tufts scientists argue that insect cells may be better suited to lab-created meat protein than traditional farm animal cells.
“Compared to cultured mammalian, avian, and other vertebrate cells, insect cell cultures require fewer resources and less energy-intensive environmental control, as they have lower glucose requirements and can thrive in a wider range of temperature, pH, oxygen, and osmolarity conditions,” reports Rubio.
“Alterations necessary for large-scale production are also simpler to achieve with insect cells, which are currently used for biomanufacturing of insecticides, drugs, and vaccines,” she adds.
They still have some details to hash out, however, including how to make cultured insect meat more like the steak and chicken we’re all familiar with.
“Despite this immense potential, cultured insect meat isn’t ready for consumption,” says Rubio. “Research is ongoing to master two key processes: controlling development of insect cells into muscle and fat, and combining these in 3D cultures with a meat-like texture.” They are currently experimenting with mushroom-derived fiber to tackle the latter.
As the report points out, one thing that makes cellular agriculture an attractive alternative to high-density animal farming is that it doesn’t require consumers to change their behaviors. People would still be able to eat meat—it would just come from a different source.
But the big question remains: How will lab-grown insect meat taste? Will the buggers really taste as good as burgers?
And, of course, there’s the “ew” factor. Meat alternatives have proven to work for some people—Tofurky is still in business, after all—but it may be a hard sell to get the masses to jump on board with eating bugs. Consuming creepy crawlies sounds simply unpalatable to many, and the term “lab-grown, cellular insect meat” doesn’t help much. Perhaps an entirely new nomenclature is in order.
Another question is whether or not folks will trust such scientifically-created food. People already use the term “frankenfood” to refer to genetic modification — even though the vast majority of the corn and soybeans planted in the U.S. today are genetically engineered, and other major crops with GM varieties include potatoes, apples, squash, and papayas. Still, combining GM technology with eating insects may be a hard sell.
However, we’re all going to have to get used to trying new things if we want to leave a habitable home for our children. If a lab-grown bug burger can save the planet, maybe it’s worth a shot.